Saturday, January 17, 2015

Curbside Recycle "No-no" List: HVAC Filters

Curbside Recycle "No-no" List: 
In trying to reduce waste, I buy and use less if I can.  I try find durable or reusable options.  But when I can't do either of those, I try to make sure what I buy can be recycled.  I noticed in reviewing my curbside recycling program that they didn't accept many things that I thought for sure were advertised as recyclable somewhere.  So, I am going through their 'no-no' list and writing up ways to keep those items from the landfill with just a bit of effort on the consumer's part.  The motto?  Do without, reduce, reuse, or recycle.

Today's "no-no" list item:  Air-conditioning and furnace filters 
It would seem nobody accepts these to recycle in my area, which is sad, as each household uses between 2 and 12 of them every year.  So, I started to rack my brain on what could be done to prevent this landfill filler.

Do without:
Not an option.  Though while saving on anything the easiest way is to go without, the air filter is required for the proper function of the HVAC unit - the filter prevents larger and medium particles from reaching the inner workings of the machine, where they could clog and damage moving parts, and clogged filters can overheat or freeze HVAC equipment.  So, no going without one and no leaving in the original.

Many manufacturers recommend changing the filter every 30 days.  This number was reached, in my opinion, by the manufacturers finding the worst case scenario and preventing it from affecting their machine.  Worst case scenario for an HVAC filter is a home with lots of furry pets, smokers, cooking, interior construction or dust-creating hobbies, constant carpets/vacuuming, and dirty ducts or higher-than-normal operation of the HVAC machines themselves.  These factors all effect how fast particles in the air accumulate on the filter.  Too many particles holding onto the filter and the filter starts to restrict the air flow the machines need to continue working well.

So, to avoid the recommended changing of every 30 days, and perhaps stretch the 90 day requirement, you should avoid the worst case scenarios.  These tips will also improve your indoor air quality, as well as save you in other ways:
  • Don't allow smoking inside (and quit if you really want to save something).  
  • Consider less-furry breeds of pets , and consider shaving (when temperature appropriate) the furry pets you have.  
  • Brush your animals outside regularly.  
  • Turn on the hood fan when cooking over the stove.  
  • Vacuum often to capture particles and remove them (and consider getting a HEPA filter vacuum if you have allergies, as vacuuming does put more dust up in the air for short periods of time).  
  • Perform dust-creating activities in an open air environment
  • Use dust-catching sheets and tarps during construction
  • Have ducts cleaned regularly 
  • Ensure you install the filter correctly, and it fits properly
  • Have an efficiency expert look at your furnace and A/C units, and have regular maintenance done on machinery to prevent over-working.
  • Keep your house colder in cold weather and warmer in warm to run machinery less.   

There is always the debate on whether 'blowing' out an air filter allows it to function longer.  I would say that if you have animals or a high amount of dust, taking a filter outside and blowing air through it from a good distance away and from the opposite direction as airflow would only help it function better, even if it doesn't make it last longer.  Slight dust build up actually helps some filters, as the dust makes the holes smaller for the air to go through.  Too much dust/hair, though, and the holes plug, starving the machinery for air.  Too hard of compressed air being blown on a filter can widen and damage the size of the holes, preventing their ability to trap dust.  So, even if the filter still needs replacing every 90 days, a light and gentle 'blow out' can help its performance along.

Mind you, the really, really expensive filters that say they can trap .3 micron particles also clog up faster than the regular filters, so need replacing more often.  It has been argued, and I think well, that thinking of your furnace as an air-purifying system is a silly notion.  First, the HVAC doesn't run all the time, so you are still breathing in particles the other 75% to 90% of the time inside.  Second, the air intake vents with filters are rarely located where the worst polluted air is (kitchen, baths and animal areas).  Third, the filter is designed to prevent the worst of the thick dust/particles from reaching the machine, but the machine has other openings and small gaps that are sucking up particles and sending them down the ductwork (unless you found that efficiency expert to fix that problem).  So, cleaning the ducts regularly would do more for helping air quality than just a filter could hope for.  Unless you really feel the need for them or need all the air quality help you can get (they do trap what they catch, which can be a lot), expensive filters aren't the most effective way to improve air quality in your home.

No matter what, check the filter every 30 days to ensure it is not accumulating an odd amount of gunk, as is the case during sandstorms or visiting dogs.  Be ready to change normal filters at the least every 90 days of normal operation unless you know the system well and are sure it is functioning at its best even with longer filter use.  See HowStuffWorks or this Global News article for great details on HVAC operation and further filter considerations.

The alternate to using less is to find reusable options for things.  In the world of air conditioning filters, there are permanent 'washable' filters.  One style I found is made of plastic polymer mesh that can be cleaned, dried and reseated into a hard plastic 'cage' that fits the filter opening.  Another style has metal webbing sheets set in a metal frame that are washed regularly in a similar fashion.  These filters should be cleaned once ever 1-3 months, fully dried before replacement (meaning part of a day without the HVAC on unless you buy two) and last purportedly 3-5 years.  If you have a permanent filter, vacuum off the dusty side before rinsing, and run the water from the back to push the dirt off the mesh.  For the metal ones, some companies recommend treating with 'ZAP', an oil/dust cleaner that rinses off with water.  Permanent filters are often electrostatic, though you have to confer with our machine's manual to see if electrostatic filters are advised or not.  One should make sure the filter mesh, especially if you size it yourself, has a tight fit inside the cage, and that the cage has a tight fit in the filter opening area to prevent air from whooshing past it.  Permanent electrostatic washable filters, which I saw online from $25-50 dollars depending on size and material, state to have a higher impact on trapping particles than the really cheap/flimsy disposable filters you can get for a few dollars.  I wonder why there isn't more information on these, as re-usable filters don't seem to take much more effort than changing filters, anyway.

People say that companies have take back programs, but I couldn't locate any online information from the big manufactures of filter about any recycling program or efforts.  I buzzed the internet, and found that only one company seems to make it easy for the consumer to have the old filter recycled.  This would be the Fresh Air Club, who sell filters by mail to you on a schedule, accept the return your old filter and recycle it, and supposedly plant a tree for every returned/recycled filter they receive.  Their pricing doesn't seem too expensive for the service, when you figure they are selling the higher-efficiency filters, which are more when bought in the store, anyway.  With an 'every-90-day' scheduled purchase of a single filter costing you $19.95 (additional filters $15.95 each), it is shipped free, where you then have a pre-paid shipping label and the box to send back your old filter for recycling.  So, $80 a year in filters, but you know none of them are going in the landfill, and you help plant 4 trees.  Not a super affordable option compared to the reusable filters, but if you can't do reusable (like me, where my lease specifies my filter changing) this is a nice, convenient and earth-friendly route.

So, now that you read all that, what are you going to do when it is time to change your filter?

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