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Make this DIY air filter to (possibly) reduce your indoor exposure to coronavirus

All you need is a window fan, some duct tape, and five of those pleated, cardboard-framed filters that are designed for home forced-air heating systems.

Inquirer staff writer Tom Avril sprinkles sawdust to demonstrate how particles are sucked into a do-it-yourself air filter, which he made with Tom Meyer, president of a Philadelphia maker space called Hive76.
Inquirer staff writer Tom Avril sprinkles sawdust to demonstrate how particles are sucked into a do-it-yourself air filter, which he made with Tom Meyer, president of a Philadelphia maker space called Hive76.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

UPDATE: A reader asks if the device can be built with just four filters, if it will be placed on a table or floor. The answer is yes: a piece of plywood can be used for the bottom instead of a fifth filter. Or you can stick with the five-filter design, as described below, and raise the device off the floor with supports.

Let’s say your job requires you to be inside with others this winter in a poorly ventilated space. Maybe a windowless room in an aging Philadelphia school building, where the lack of fresh air raises the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Masks will help. Maybe you also want a portable air-cleaning device to help filter particles that may carry the coronavirus. But those can cost hundreds of dollars.

Why not make your own?

I built one this month at Hive76, a “maker space” — a member-owned workshop and tinkerer’s paradise, located in a former factory building in Kensington.

OK, maybe “built” is the wrong word. I helped hold things while Hive76 president Tom Meyer did most of the work. (He is a biomedical engineer by trade, so who was I to take charge?)

But, really, it was pretty easy. All you need is a window fan, some duct tape, and five of those pleated, cardboard-framed filters that are designed for home forced-air heating systems, as we explain in step-by-step instructions below.

We can’t guarantee that this contraption will stop you from getting sick. But if done right, it is a reasonable approach for removing some potentially virus-laden particles from the air, according to air-quality scientists who have been batting around various designs on Twitter.

Drexel engineering professor Michael S. Waring, who has been following the online discussions, agrees.

“This is definitely better than nothing,” he said.

Months after scientists called for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to acknowledge that COVID-19 can be spread by airborne particles — those that remain aloft for a while, rather than settling within six feet — the agency updated its guidance to reflect that evidence this month.

Here’s how to remove particles from the air with the flick of a switch.

1: Buy supplies

An easy approach tried by some do-it-yourselfers is simply to slap one filter onto a window fan, attaching it with big rubber bands and sealing the edges with duct tape. That design costs less than $20, assuming you already have a fan and some tape.

But forcing air through just one filter could put a fair amount of strain on the typical fan — especially if you run it for hours at a time, said Meyer, the Hive76 president.

“You’ll burn out your motor,” he said.

Better to increase the surface area through which the air travels by building a box of five filters, said Jim Rosenthal, past president of the National Air Filtration Association and chief executive officer of Tex-Air Filters, a filter manufacturer in Texas. That way, the fan is forcing the same amount of air through a greater number of “pores,” easing the load on the motor. Rosenthal came up with that design in consultation with Richard Corsi, an engineering professor at Portland State University, in Oregon.

But what type of filter? The air-quality industry uses a rating system called MERV — minimum efficiency reporting value. To capture viruses, guides from the industry and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health both recommend air filters with a rating of at least MERV-13.

That means in a single pass, they capture 85% of particles that measure 1 to 3 microns (millionths of a meter) and at least half of the particles that measure between 0.3 to 1 microns. Individual viruses are much smaller than that, but they are carried in larger particles of moisture and dust — most of them in the size range for which these filters are designed. (HEPA filters trap even more.)

Yet, when I went to Home Depot, I discovered that the store uses its own ranking system. I went with a rating of 10 (“premium”) because a quick Google search suggested that was roughly equivalent to MERV-13, and because the label claimed the filter could trap particles that carry viruses. Those filters were $20 apiece (ouch!). I later discovered on Amazon that MERV-13 filters can be had for just $10 apiece if you buy a package of four or six. (Sorry, boss!)

  1. Five MERV-13 filters, measuring 20 inches by 20 inches and one inch thick. $100 if you’re in a rush, like me. ($50 if you buy in bulk.)

  2. 20-inch window fan, $19. (Any will do — use an old one to cut the project cost.)

  3. A roll of adhesive weather-stripping, $4.

  4. Duct tape, $3.

2. Build the box

Hold two of the filters at right angles, butting the edge of one up against the face of the other while your partner applies a 20-inch length of duct tape. Be sure to make a tight seal.

Add the three other filters, one by one, until you have a five-sided box, leaving an open side to accommodate the fan. The arrows indicating the direction of airflow (printed on the filter edges) should point inward, toward the fan.

Note: With five filters that measure 20 inches square, a couple of the edges in your box won’t line up quite right. You have to play with it a little, sealing off gaps with duct tape.

Rosenthal had a better design, combining two different sizes of filters. All of them were two inches thick, but two measured 16-by-20 on a side, and three were 20-by-20. Those dimensions allow for a perfect snug fit.

Home Depot didn’t have either of those sizes, so Meyer and I made the best of it.

3. Line the fan with a ‘gasket’

Lay the fan face down on a table, so that the back (the side through which air gets “sucked”) is facing up.

Line the outside edge with adhesive weather-stripping, creating a sort of gasket.

When you attach the box of filters in the next step and turn on the fan, the airflow will pull the box against the gasket, helping to maintain a tight seal. Airborne particles are captured in the filters as air is sucked through.

Another option is to attach the gasket and filters to the front of the fan — in other words, capturing particles by blowing the air through the filters. But in that design, the airflow pushes the filters away from the fan. Over time, the seal made by the duct tape will weaken.

4. Attach the box

Place the box on the gasket.

Seal the edges with more duct tape.

Double-check to make sure there are no gaps.

Stand the fan upright, place it in the center of the room, and ...

5. Let 'er rip

We first tried the fan on “low” setting, then bumped it up to “medium,” as Rosenthal recommended. It was fairly quiet, though it vibrated a bit.

But did it work?

Meyer had a great idea to test the device with a spur-of-the-moment experiment: Sprinkle sawdust in front.

Hive76 had a Shop-Vac full of the stuff, so I scooped up a handful and let it fall through my fingers. Sure enough, the dust drifted toward our boxy apparatus as it hummed away.

And after a few minutes, we could see a fine layer of dust on the pleated surfaces of the filters. Rosenthal estimates it will last six months before the filters become so clogged that the fan can no longer draw an adequate amount of air through them.

Again, no guarantees vs. COVID-19. But that would be the case even if this were a factory-made air-cleaner. No protection is perfect, which is why infectious-disease experts keep stressing the need for multiple precautions when indoors: Wear masks, open windows, and keep your distance as much as possible.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health-care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker, or other expert? We want to hear from you.

When I wondered aloud what to do with our handiwork, Meyer said it was good enough for him.

“We’ll take it,” he said.

Here’s hoping the air at Meyer’s workshop remains virus-free.