You hear the words “ultraviolet” (UV) and might immediately think of cancer, radiation, or other harmful effects. Yet, you also heard from neighbors and friends that they have a UV light installed in their home air conditioning system for cleaner air.
To ease your mind about whether you should get a UV light for your home, let’s talk about what this advanced air purification method is all about and answer your question, “Do I need a UV light for my air conditioner?”
Should I Get a UV Light for My Air Conditioner?
More than a century later when the first AC was developed, the air conditioning heating and ventilation industry has grown to be considered more than a luxury but a necessity for quality living.
With over 1.6 billion AC units being used worldwide, air conditioners have been an essential home comfort appliance people cannot live without. The New York Times backed up the prediction of the International Energy Agency that by the midcentury, the use of AC would rise to 5.6 billion units around the globe.
There is no shame to be part of this growing number of HVAC users since countless studies have shown how the use of air conditioners saved numerous lives from excessive humidity and heat-related illnesses and deaths.
But surely, you want to set yourself apart from the myriad of AC users and keep the air inside your home not just cool but more importantly, healthy.
A good quality ultraviolet (UV) light as an air purifier combined with other methods of indoor air purification such as MERV 13 filters will reduce the risk of airborne diseases and respiratory problems. Thus, UV lights have the potential of contributing to the overall indoor air quality of your home.
UV light is a form of electromagnetic energy massively produced by the sun and occupies the 0 to 400 nanometers range, making it invisible to the human eye. This light can also be manufactured by artificial devices for various practical uses and services.
Radiation from UV is capable of breaking chemical bonds of bacteria, germs, and mold as they pass through the UV lights, and is proven helpful in disinfecting surfaces, water, dental, medical, and industrial equipment. Hospitals are known to use UV light to kill microbes in the air and to sterilize surgical apparatus.
Excessive exposure to UV-A and UV-B levels or radiation can damage skin and eye cells and cause skin cancer. But HVAC systems make use of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation lights (UVGI/UV-C) which cannot directly cause cancer or other health problems.
Nonetheless, it is still crucial to keep a strict watch and follow the necessary guidelines and requirements for using ultraviolet lights in HVAC systems in your home to prevent unwanted results.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a balanced and realistic point-of-view about UV radiation from UV lamps in air conditioners.
The government organization recognizes that IF PROPERLY DESIGNED, “UV lamps may destroy indoor biological pollutants such as viruses, bacteria, and some molds that are growing on the moist interiors of HVAC surfaces (e.g., cooling coils, drain pans, or ductwork).”
However, EPA also says that “typical UVGI cleaners used in homes have limited effectiveness in killing bacteria and molds. Effective destruction of some viruses and most mold and bacterial spores usually requires much higher UV exposure than is provided in a typical home unit.”
So DO NOT get easily baited to purchase an air conditioner that says it has a built-in UV light system. Do your research and enlist the service of your trusted and qualified HVAC contractor or technician to help you with the proper installation and usage of HVAC UV lights.
You can also increase the effectiveness of the HVAC UV light by combining it with MERV 13 filters. Finally, never underestimate the power of regular AC service, cleaning, and maintenance for better indoor air quality.
Let us further examine what UV lights do, and if they are indeed your best bet in protecting your family’s breathing space.
Air Pollution Creates the Need for UV Lights
The year 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, a comprehensive federal law that authorizes the United States Environmental Protection Agency or EPA “to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.”
EPA proudly declared that there has been “great progress… in achieving national air quality standards.” The government institution went on to say that one of the indications of this said progress is “that visible air pollution is less frequent and widespread than it was in the 1970s.”
This claim by EPA has been refuted by the American Lung Association with their latest report aptly called “State of the Air,” a yearly national air quality “report card” which ranks counties and cities based on the quality of their air.
CNN covered the results of this year’s State of Air report and announced that the quality of air in the US is “dramatically declining” with almost half of the American population or 150 million people “breathing unhealthy, heavily polluted air.”
The American Lung Association disappointedly adds that instead of progress, close to 9 million more people are breathing dirty air than in 2019.
Although government institutions are doing all they can to achieve and maintain cleaner air for the country, there is no reason yet to feel lax since outdoor air can still pose health problems.
An Urgent Need for Indoor Air Purification System
USA Today published an article where the society of today is branded as the “indoor generation.” This is due to the amount of time we spend inside the comforts of our homes compared to the generations that came before us.
In a survey conducted in North America and Europe involving 16,000 people across 14 countries, it is revealed that 90% of the people spend nearly 22 hours inside every day, and 1 out 6 respondents admitted that they spend up to 24 hours a day indoors, NEVER going outside.
That’s good news then, no? WRONG.
Studies and experiments have shown that indoor air could be more dangerous and even lethal because of the emissions from daily activities.
House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry or HOMECHEM is the “world’s first large-scale collaborative investigation into the chemistry of indoor air.” Led by Marina Vance, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, the team monitored how many airborne particles are present in a typical home doing everyday activities such as cooking and preparing meals.
Spikes in volatile organic compounds, nitric oxide, and carbon dioxide are found in the residence during the experiment one of the researchers commented that “They’re orders of magnitude higher than outdoors.”
Towards the end of the assessment, the proponents of the study concluded that “if the house were a city, it would have been officially labeled polluted” or in EPA’s standard, “very unhealthy” and merits triggering a public alert.
Besides this shocking threat to our health caused by mundane indoor activities, EPA warned how terrorists can introduce “biological warfare agents (BWAs) into the HVAC systems…to distribute pathogenic organisms.”
Clearly, staying more time indoors does not exempt our family from harmful health hazards from the air we breathe because of the declining state of indoor air quality in the country.
Is there anything we could do?
Can HVAC UV Lights Save the Day?
The same report issued by EPA about biological warfare agents heavily suggested the use of UV lights inside the air ducts. The agency confidently stated that UV lights are one technology that can destroy BWAs and prevent them from harming the health of residents.
Is there truth to this information? Lincoln Technical Institute supported this claim by saying that the “use of certain UV lights can reduce or prevent microorganisms from circulating within the duct-work of your home or office.”
A published study entitled Effectiveness of Germicidal UV Radiation for Reducing Fungal Contamination within Air-Handling Units concluded that “germicidal UV irradiation may be an effective approach for reducing fungal contamination within [air-handling units]. The tests conducted also showed “significantly lower levels of fungal contamination…[and] viable and total airborne fungi.”
Because of this breakthrough, an increasing number of hospitals and clinics use UV light for disinfecting patients and operating rooms. Medical News Today released a finding that the disinfection technology of UV lights eliminates up to 97.7% of pathogens in the operating room. It even has the potential to conquer superbugs, the article declared.
An HVAC UV light can also be installed in heating systems such as the furnace and its ductwork.
Some germs and bacteria are hidden away in the evaporator coil, cooling coil, and HVAC air duct system. Without thorough cleaning, mold, mildew, and viruses are simply lurking and mixing in with your family’s breathing air. UV light can help with the air duct cleaning and get rid of these harmful airborne toxins.
Despite these many proven benefits, you may still have some doubts about whether it is safe to invite this sophisticated air purification technology inside your home.
Are There Risks in Using UV?
The best way to understand whether UV lights are safe to use to purify your air is by knowing what ultraviolet really is and which types are harmful and which are beneficial.
Ultraviolet light is electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun and then transmitted in waves or particles with shorter wavelengths than visible light. UV light occupies the 0 to 400 nanometers (nm) range which makes it invisible to the naked human eye.
This range can be further broken down into four levels: UV-A, UVB, UVC, and UV under 200 nm. We will no longer discuss the last level as UV under 200 nm or called vacuum UV can only produce ozone (O3) in air.
The long-wave ultraviolet or UV-A is produced by sunlight in large amounts. Exposure to this level of UV heating is useful for skin tanning with side effects of skin wrinkling.
UV-B or medium-wave is singled out as the prime source of skin reddening or sunburns and more dangerously, skin cancer. Too much exposure to UV-B “increases the risk of DNA and other cellular damage in living organisms”, according to NASA Science.
Now, UV-C or short-wave is what the HVAC system use and was also coined as ‘ultraviolet germicidal irradiation’ or UVGI. EPA mentioned that UVGI systems produce UV-C which has the least impact on humans. For this reason, the services of UVGI have been used to inactivate microorganisms for more than 100 years now.
The genius behind the HVAC UV-C light is its capacity to break down the chemical bonds of a microorganism like bacteria and germs as they pass through it, eliminating its ability to spread sickness and diseases.
Is UV Light Worth It?
You may be thinking that since you already have MERV 13 filters in your home, the installation of a UV-C light air conditioner can be a bit too much. But having these two systems work in tandem might as well be worth it.
MERV 13 filters are specialized filters meant to catch larger particles such as dust, pollen, and pet dander. While some bacteria and mold which are less than 0.3 microns can be killed by your UV light.
Still, an additional level of air purification means extra cost. You can weigh the upfront price, installation, and upkeep costs and whether it suits you to have UV lights installed in your HVAC system.
Air Sanitizing Lights, a type of UV light that sterilizes the air as it cycles through the return ducts of your air conditioning system. The purchase price of the light ranges from $80 to $400, while its energy consumption may be between $15 to $30 annually.
On the other hand, Coil Sanitizing Lights are the version of HVAC UV light that focuses on sensitive and problematic parts of the AC like the cooling coils, condensation pans, and filters. The upfront cost of this type of UV is between $60 to $285, while its energy consumption is more or less the same as air sanitizing lights.
What Should I Do to Get UV for My AC?
Even though we said that UV-C or UVGI is the least dangerous level of ultraviolet light compared to UV-A and UV-B, it is still not safe to install it in your air conditioner or heating system all by yourself. Direct exposure to germicidal UV light still has the potential to damage your skin and eyes.
Since there are certain risks in installing devices with ultraviolet capabilities in them, a qualified HVAC contractor would be cautious with the appropriate placement and direction of the UV lights. He would also know how many purifying lights are needed for the size and style of your home, and what would be the effects on the temperature level and overall humidity indoors.
A professional technician would know what to do to protect himself while installing the UV light, and keeping it away from you and your family. Consider it a silent unseen protector of the indoor air which can help you sleep and breathe better inside your home as you go about your day.