Pros and Cons of Reusable Air Filters

person cleaning reusable air filter through a blower

#NoFilter may be a social media flex, but running your AC or heat pump without one can ruin your HVAC and your indoor air quality. If you’re worried using filters will throw your carbon footprint out of whack, consider using washable air filters, instead. They’re more sustainable and cost-effective but may also be less effective with overall filtration. Before making the switch, check out the pros and cons of reusable air filters below.

But First, What Is a Reusable Air Filter?

A greener alternative to disposable air filters, reusable ones (aka washable air filters) are more sustainable, as they help reduce the amount of household trash that ends up in landfills every year. Rather than throwing them away every three months or so, simply wash them with dish soap or an air filter cleaner you can pick up at your local hardware store, and reinstall them once they’re dry.

Like disposable air filters — flat (fiberglass) filters, high-efficiency particulate air/HEPA filters, and pleated filters — washable filters control airflow throughout your home and help keep airborne contaminants like pollen, dust, pet dander, and other allergens from entering your living spaces; some can even filter out mold spores. Not only does this maintain good indoor air quality, but it also helps extend the lifespan of your HVAC system and increase its overall efficiency.

The Pros of Reusable Air Filters

woman cleaning and washing a air filter
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They’re Better for the Environment

HVAC air filters clogged with months’ worth of airborne particles and pollutants can restrict airflow and cause your HVAC unit to work harder, in turn, using more energy. Additionally, this dirtiness can lead to the freezing of your air conditioning coils, which can set off a slew of other issues. This is why experts recommend changing your air filters at least every three months.

But where do all those disposable air filters go? Straight to the landfill, as the filter material is neither recyclable nor biodegradable. By switching to a reusable air filter, you can help decrease that waste. Instead of tossing your filters every few months, you’ll wash them with gentle soap and warm water and put them back into their slots once they’re fully dry. 

Note: Be sure to heed the “fully dry” instruction — if reinstalled with even a little dampness, you could be inviting mold and mildew to set up shop.

They Have Lasting Durability

Made of aluminum mesh, foam, or a polypropylene-polyester mix of filtration materials held together by a steel frame, washable air conditioner/furnace air filters are built to endure quarterly cleanings. And, since these washable filters have such lasting durability, they’re also more cost-effective. You’ll only have to purchase a whole new filter once every three to five years or so; some homeowners have reported theirs lasting up to 10 years!

They Can Capture Smaller Particles

There are two main types of filtration — mechanical and electrostatic. Mechanical filters capture dust, pollen, and other larger particles as they float about the air and come in contact with the filter. Electrostatic filters (which the majority of reusable filters are), however, use static electricity to attract smaller airborne contaminants that may literally fall through the cracks of other filters.

Note: While reusable electrostatic filters are really good at removing smaller particles like bacteria, viruses, and smoke from the air, larger particles like dust and pollen are harder for reusable filters to catch, as a stronger electric pull would be necessary to draw in more that size.

The Cons of Reusable Air Filters

woman diy homeowner inspects dirty and clean filter
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They Typically Have Limited Air Filtration

As mentioned above, since so many reusable air filters are electrostatic air filters, they aren’t able to trap as many larger particles as their mechanical filtration counterparts. Also due to their lack of mechanical filtration, these filters aren’t particularly effective at filtering any particles under heavy airflow. If your airflow is too strong, it could literally blow all the trapped pollutants out of the filter and back into the air.

Further, while pleated filters, for example, become even better at blocking pollutants (and airflow, too) as they get dirty, most washable air filters lose what electrostatic strength they do have once clogged with dirt and dust, meaning they won’t be able to capture much of anything.

They Have Higher Upfront Costs

A brand-new reusable filter may cost anywhere from $25 to $120, depending on filtration materials and efficiency, as well as overall design. On the contrary, a new disposable filter can be purchased for as little as $10 to $50, depending on those same factors. 

While reusable filters cost more upfront, you’ll only spend that amount once every three to five years or so. Stick with disposable filters, and you’ll be doling out the cash at least four times a year — and that spend adds up.

They Have to be Hand-Washed

What makes reusable HVAC filters convenient also makes them inconvenient. Sure, you won’t have to worry about running to the hardware store to spend money several times a year, but you will have to wash them by hand every one to three months.

It’s not difficult to wash reusable filters, but it is a bit time consuming. After shutting off the air conditioner or heat pump, remove the filter, give it a good clean with dish soap and warm water, let it dry thoroughly, reinstall it, and then, turn your system back on. Be sure to let the filter dry completely; if it’s still even slightly wet, mold and mildew can start to grow. You can expect to wait about eight to 10 hours for your air filter to dry all the way.

dirty and clean ac filters
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FAQ About Reusable Air Filters

What is a MERV rating?

An acronym for minimum efficiency reporting value, a MERV rating measures how effective an air filter is at trapping particles (0.3 to 10 microns). The ratings run on a scale of 1 to 20: If a filter’s MERV rating is high, that means it can capture a considerable amount of larger particles and smaller particles; if low, it can trap a small percentage of larger particles. And then there’s the HEPA filter, which stands alone as the highest-rated air filter.

What is the most effective type of air filter?

Technically, HEPA (or high-efficiency particulate air) filters are the most effective, as they filter 99.97% of small and large airborne contaminants. While they’re the perfect type of filter for places like hospitals, restaurants, and labs, they could impact airflow if installed in your home. Residential HVACs don’t typically blow air with the force necessary to efficiently push through such tightly woven material.

If you were to install a HEPA filter in your home, you’d most likely notice higher energy bills and less airflow, which could, in turn, affect temperature adjustments throughout your house.

What’s the difference between a reusable filter and a disposable pleated or fiberglass filter?

Again, a reusable filter is simply an HVAC filter you can wash repeatedly; they typically last around five years. These washable furnace filters save you money on filter purchases and are more eco-friendly.

Pleated filters have more surface area to catch pollutants and allergens and can have MERV ratings ranging from 5 to 13. This means they can trap everything from dust, dust mites, mold and pollen to bacteria, viruses, and smoke.

Fiberglass filters (or flat filters) typically have a MERV rating of 5 or less and are the cheapest of the bunch. As such, their filtration capabilities are pretty basic, trapping, on average, less than 20% of particles 3 to 10 microns in size (pollen and dust).

When to Hire a Professional

You won’t need expert HVAC services to install and care for your reusable air filters. However, an HVAC pro near you can help you decide what type of air filter is most compatible with your home’s cooling and heating system. The HVAC technician can evaluate the power of your particular system and recommend the MERV rating that fits your needs best.

Main Image Credit: Janwikifoto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler is a writer and editor. And while she hasn't been blessed with DIY skills herself, she is adept at writing and enjoys sharing home improvement tips and pool care guides for the true DIYers out there.