Air filters play a crucial role in your home’s HVAC system. They help improve indoor air quality by removing dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and other contaminants. However, not all air filters are created equal. Air filter types can have different levels of efficiency, depending on the size and quantity of particles they can capture. How can you tell which type of air filter is the right choice for your house and health? One way to compare air filters is by looking at their MERV ratings.

What Is MERV Rating?

MERV is an acronym for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. It is a standard measurement system that rates the ability of an air filter to trap particles of a specific size range. The MERV rating scale ranges from one to 20, with one being the lowest and 20 being the highest. A higher MERV rating indicates how effectively the air filter removes fine particles.

The MERV rating determination process involves testing the air filter against a set of particles that vary in size from 0.3 to 10 microns ( µm). A micron is one-millionth of a meter or about 1/25,000 of an inch. For comparison, a human hair is about 50 to 70 microns in diameter, and a grain of sand is about 200 microns. Some common particles tested in air filters include dust mites, pollen, textile fibers, dust, mold spores, pet dander, tobacco smoke, and bacteria.

Why Is MERV Rating Important?

The MERV rating of an air filter is essential because it indicates how well air filters can protect you and your family from airborne pollutants that can affect your health and comfort. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, and sometimes even more. Poor indoor health effects can include:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Respiratory infections
  • Eye irritation
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

How to Choose the Right MERV Rating for Your Home?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as different homes and people have different needs and preferences. However, here are some general guidelines to help you choose the correct MERV rating for your home:

MERV 1-4

These are the lowest-rated air filters. They are typically found in window air conditioners, residential furnaces, and commercial buildings. They can control large particles like dust mites, pollen, sawdust, or textile fibers. However, they lack effectiveness at removing smaller particles like dust, mold spores, tobacco smoke, pet dander, or bacteria. They can filter out particles that are down to 10 microns in size.

These air filters are cheap and easy to find but offer minimal protection and require frequent replacement.

MERV 5-8

These are the most common air filters found inside residential and commercial buildings, paint booths, and industrial buildings. They can control medium-sized particles like dust mites, textile fibers, sawdust, pollen, household dust and lint, mold spores, and concrete dust. They can filter out particles down to 3 to 10 microns in size.

These air filters are affordable and widely available. They offer moderate protection and decent airflow. These air filters are suitable for most homes and offices unless someone has severe allergies or asthma.

MERV 9-12

These air filters are higher-end products used in residential and commercial buildings that need better than average air quality, including hospital laboratories. They can control small particles like sawdust, pollen, carpet fibers and textile fibers, dust mites, mold spores, concrete dust, general household dust, legionella, coal dust, lead dust, nebulizer dust, and humidifier dust. They can filter out particles down to 1 to 3 microns in size.

These air filters are more expensive and harder to find, yet they offer high protection and good airflow. They are the recommended air filters for homes and offices with people with allergies, asthma, or other respiratory conditions.

MERV 13-16

These are the highest-rated air filters that would be used inside general surgery settings and hospitals, clean rooms, and other environments that require very high air quality. They can control small particles like bacteria, viruses, smoke, and smog. They can filter out particles down to 0.3 to 1 microns in size.

These air filters are expensive and rare, but they offer maximum protection and reduced airflow. They are not usually suitable for residential use, as they can cause too much pressure drop and damage the HVAC system unless designed to handle them.

MERV 17-20

These are the HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. They are a variety of pleated mechanical air filters. They can theoretically remove 99.97% of particles in the 0.3-micron range, which is the most penetrating particle size (MPPS). Particles of all sizes get trapped with even higher efficiency.

These air filters are the best at removing airborne contaminants but are also the most expensive and restrictive to airflow. They are for special applications, such as medical, pharmaceutical, nuclear, and aerospace industries. They are not for residential use.

How to Maintain Your Air Filter?

No matter what MERV rating you choose for your air filter, maintain it properly to ensure optimal performance and longevity. Here are some tips to keep your air filter in good shape:

Check Regularly

Check your air filter regularly, at least once a month, and replace it when it is dirty or damaged. A dirty air filter can reduce the airflow, increase the energy consumption, and compromise the air quality. A damaged air filter can allow particles to bypass the filter and enter the HVAC system, causing wear and tear and potential breakdowns.

Follow Manufacturer Instructions

Follow the instructions on how to install, remove, and dispose of your air filter. Ensure the air filter fits snugly and securely in the filter slot and that the airflow direction is correct. Avoid a filter that is too big or too small for your system, as it can cause air leakage and inefficiency.

Choose the Correct Filter for Your HVAC System

Choose an air filter that matches the specifications and requirements of your HVAC system. Consult your HVAC manual or a professional technician for the recommended MERV rating, size, and type of air filter for your system.

Environment and Preferences

Consider the environmental factors and personal preferences that affect your air filter needs. These factors include:

  • Outdoor air quality
  • Indoor pollution sources
  • Number of occupants
  • Presence of pets
  • Frequency of vacuuming and dusting
  • Health conditions and sensitivities of occupants

These factors can influence how often you need to change your air filter and what MERV rating you need. Adjust your air filter choices accordingly to meet your specific needs and goals.

Choosing the right air filter for your home is not a simple task, but it is essential. By understanding the MERV rating system and how it relates to the efficiency and performance of air filters, you can make an informed decision that suits your home and your health. Don’t be afraid to consult with a professional.

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Meet the Author
Travis Smith
Travis Smith

Travis Smith started in his family's Heating and Air Conditioning business at 6 months and 5 days old "helping daddy do trim outs". He then worked at Sky Heating & AC for over 22 years before partnering with the Comfort Bros.
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