Guide: Portable Air Purifier for Office Cubicles and Small Rooms

Are you searching for an air purifier for the office, whether for your home office or for the cubicle at work? Before you embark on purchasing an air purifier to improve your indoor air quality, you’ll need to understand what air purifiers can do, and their limitations so you can choose wisely. Air purifiers can easily range from moderately effective (when well maintained) to mostly ineffective – and at times the wrong air purifier can be outright dangerous for you and your family, particularly when utilized in a small enclosure.

Why You Should Consider an Air Purifier for the Office

According to a 2001 national survey by Klepeis et al., the average American spends over 87% of their time indoors, with a big portion of it being either at home, the office, or public buildings such as a school.

(Above) Percentage time average American spent indoor vs. outdoor via NHAPS.

This is important to note because indoor air quality can be up to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air. Because of the lack of circulation and ventilation for fresh air in a typical home and office building, pathogens and polluting particles often rest and accumulate to levels that can pose real health and comfort problems. These pollutants include VOCs, allergens, mold, viruses, and bacteria.

The best way to control indoor air quality is to actually eliminate the source of pollutants and ventilate the room with cleaner outdoor air – but what if you can’t simply open the window for your office cubicle; or perhaps your home does not circulate air well due to its floor plan; or maybe your apartment and small room simply doesn’t have enough windows for proper air ventilation? In this situation, most people will begin researching air cleaning devices such as an air purifier to address their indoor air quality problems.

Types of Air Purifier for Your Home or Office

Air Cleaning Technologies Pollutants Technology Targets Overview, Potential Limits of Technology
Filtration Air Cleaners Air filters (HEPA) Particles Ineffective in removing larger particles because they will settle from the air quickly, having never reached the air purifier
Carbon Filters VOCs Carbon adsorbs airborne chemicals but has a low saturation point after which chemicals are being released back into the air.
Other Air Cleaners Ionizers Gases, viruses, bacteria, allergens, molds Ionizers release ions into the air to negatively charge particles in hope to attract them to surfaces. While inefficient, they are also known to produce ozone and are mostly taken off the market.
Photocatalytic oxidation
Gases, viruses, bacteria, allergens, molds EPA: “Application for home is limited because currently available catalysts are ineffective in destroying gaseous pollutants from indoor air in sufficient volume.”
Photoelectrochemical Oxidation
(PECO, Molekule)
Gases, viruses, bacteria, allergens, molds As the successor of PCO, PECO uses the same principle but works at a much faster rate. The technology is able to quickly break down high levels of pollutants in the air.
Ozone generators Particles, gases, biological Sometimes sold as air cleaners, these products produce ozone, a lung irritant that should be avoided.

Above, you’ll find common types of air purifiers typically found on the market today that are readily available to purchase for residences and offices.

These days, you’ll often find air purifier manufacturers combine multiple technologies to address multiple types of pollutants in an attempt to create a “catch-all” product – but by doing this, they are also combining each technology’s potential flaws and limitations.

Most of these combination air cleaning units will come with a higher price tag and less portability as they will need to house multiple air cleaning technologies – giving the units added weight and bulk. This is something to keep in mind as it becomes more of a challenge to move the unit between rooms in your home.

Do Portable & Compact Air Purifiers Work for the Office?

(Above) A desktop air purifier from Sharper Image.

With the various types of air purifying technologies available, there are also a variety of sizes and form factors that are made for specific room sizes (e.g. a small room or an office). Typically, you’ll find these type of air purifiers on the market:

  • Compact: desk/table units
  • Portable: able to move from room to room
  • Console: large, bulky, cabinet-size units that aren’t mobile

There is a whole category of air purifiers that are made to be compact and portable – so you can use it on your desk or easily travel with it. Some compact air purifier units are even similar to air fresheners that can be plugged into an outlet of a room. Be mindful of those air purifiers as their small size also reduces the efficacy of their technology.

Factors to Consider in Compact Air Purifier
Look for units that have filters with a good performance at PM10 / 2.5 reductions such as HEPA. Also look for units that have filters that are easy to change regularly – an important requirement for the purifier’s efficiency. Be aware that even true HEPA filters have limitations to the particles they can filter; they are particularly ineffective on VOCs and bioaerosols such as viruses.

Avoid Ozone Generators and Ionizers
Some units are as cheap as $20 and easily plug into an outlet to ionize the surrounding air. The problem with this type of cleaning is that these pollutants end up resting on other surfaces, like your tabletop, file cabinets, and chairs. Many of these units also produce ozone, a harmful byproduct that is a known lung irritant.

While a lot of these units list their silent fan-less features as ideal for the office, what you end up receiving is a device that could constantly be producing an irritant in a small enclosed space. In short, you should avoid both of these products. To learn more about air ionizers and why you should avoid them, click here.

Caveats and Negatives of Portable Air Purifier Units

Note that even highly rated HEPA filter air purifiers will fail and create problems when they are not well maintained. For example, dirty filters can easily become a source for air contamination as fungal colonies build up in an unchanged filter, potentially releasing spores back into the room as the overloaded filter fails. Small compact units with  HEPA filters, can quickly become cost prohibitive.

In regards to ionizer air purifiers, in a study on the effectiveness of air filters and air cleaners for allergic respiratory diseases by J.L. Sublett, the study found that ionic air cleaners actually yielded more submicrometer particles during these tests. This is due to the interaction of VOCs and the ozone produced by the ionizers. So instead of reducing contaminants in your office, you may end up with even more pollutants caused by ozone byproducts.

Because an effective air purifier that is filter-based requires you to draw a sufficient amount of indoor air of a room into the cleaning and filtering material – you will need to match the appropriate air purifier to their rated room size. Unfortunately, some manufacturers are entirely vague on their purifier’s rated capacity, so you should take extra care before making your purchase.

The Type of Air Purifier You Should Buy for Your Home and Office

Buying a portable air purifier involves steps of “matching your pollutant/issues” with potential solutions, then making a conscious decision to pick the room you want filtered clean – and finally being vigilant on actually replacing the filters of your purifier.

Here’s a summary of everything discussed above, and factors you should consider when you choose an air purifier for your home:

Units with true HEPA filter (for larger particles)
The market tends to affix the word “HEPA-like” and “HEPA-type” marketing jargon onto every single air purifier. Consumers should ensure they are choosing units with true HEPA filters, with the realization of HEPA limitations regarding viruses.

Avoid ionizers and ozone generators
These air purifiers produce ozone, a lung irritant and should be avoided. Some may claim smaller parts per billion of ozone being produced, but the safest course of action is to simply avoid it.

Most compact units will not be sufficient
Units on the market sold for their portability are limited by current technologies. Consumer Reports suggests larger units (that are not fan-less) so you can run it at a lower speed, versus picking a smaller fan-driven unit and being forced to increase fan-speed to provide sufficient volumes of air being cleaned.

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