The short answer is “Nope! It’s not worth the risk.”
Your Filter Needs Cleaning
HEPA filters protect us from allergens and pollutants in the air we breathe. Originally developed to filter out radioactive particles from the air in nuclear testing labs, HEPA filters are now part of HVAC systems in our homes, air purifiers, cars and vacuums.
Constructed of a variety of finely woven materials (such as coarse glass, synthetic and natural fibers, among other things) a HEPA filter is designed to trap unwanted substances in the air we breathe – pet dander, mold particles, viruses and bacteria – and stop them in their tracks. However, eventually HEPA filters need to be replaced with a clean version, and the question is often asked, “Can I just clean my filter instead of purchasing a new one?”
The answer is no, and here’s why…
When remove a vacuum filter to extract the dust and dirt, we have no way of knowing if the pollutants that we can’t see will remain. Vacuuming arguably gives us a false sense of power over something that we have no way of verifying, unless you have a powerful microscope on hand and know what to look for. Additionally, the construction of the HEPA filter is specific to the job of filtering pollutants.
Vacuuming can compromise that. While sucking up dirt and debris, it is possible, and likely, that the fibers that were put in place to properly filter the air won’t be able to do their job. In fact, after shaking dirt and dust away or using a vacuum, if the filter looks undisturbed you should assume it is not working.
If fibers are pulled out of place and holes become bigger, the HEPA filter will not function as intended and will allow pollutants into the air we breathe. In addition, HEPA filters are multi-layered: Even if we could see all pollutants with the naked eye they could be buried deep inside. Takeaway: The dirt we see on our filter is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Fine, I can’t use my vacuum. Can I clean my HEPA filter with water?
This is even more ill-advised. Once again, we are faced with the fact that we will not be able to see all harmful pollutants on our filters. Water alone does not wash away viruses and bacteria.
Washing with water also invites a high possibility of mold growth. When the filter is rinsed and put back inside there is the potential for mold to be dispersed freely into the air that we breathe. An experiment done in Beijing illustrates the decrease in efficacy of HEPA filters that have been washed with water. Filters that have been washed with water trap far less particles from the air.
But…I have a pre-filter
Okay, so you have a pre-filter that helps the HEPA do its job effectively. It traps some of the larger particles and dust in the air before they even have a chance to get to the filter itself. Some say that the pre-filter can be rinsed of this superficial dirt and grime. This is okay, as it is not the HEPA filter itself you are cleaning.
Those who know agree: Purchasing and installing a new HEPA filter is a far better choice than attempting to clean and re-insert. It will give you peace of mind to know that the air you are breathing is truly clean, and that you and your loved ones are protected.
My filter says it’s “permanent”. Does that mean I can clean it myself?
If your filter is marked “permanent” go ahead and clean it yourself with a vacuum. As gently as possible, use a vacuum to extract everything the filter has collected. If it is marked “washable” you can do just that, and run it under water. Be careful, though: Some filters come with special instructions.
What’s the verdict?
It seems widely recommended to replace your HEPA filter instead of trying to clean and reuse. How often you have to replace your filter likely depends on whether your appliance is running all the time, and what level of particle activity (for example: having pets or smokers).
So check your filter from time to time, and use your vacuum cleaner to keep your house tidy in the meantime. And then: Sit back, relax, and take a deep breath.
If you have any questions or comments, please add them below in the comment section. Similarly, please let us know if you spot any mistakes or omissions. Thanks!