Professional Tool Reviews for Pros

Do You Need a HEPA Filter? You May Not

The Case Against Using a HEPA Filter

Everyone knows that using a HEPA filter is the way to go, right? But do you really need a HEPA filter at all times? After gathering information from several manufacturers, we’re going to make the case against using them in many situations. Think we’re crazy? That’s okay. Hopefully, we can persuade you of our reasoning by the time we get to the end of the article.

What is a HEPA Filter?

Do you need a HEPA filter?

Before we talk about the issue of whether you need a HEPA filter, it might help to explain it. Here’s the 30-second breakdown:

  • HEPA stands for High-Efficiency Particulate Air
  • The filter is a mesh design that’s simply finer than other filters
  • They capture 99.97% of all particles 0.3 microns or larger
  • They trap things like concrete dust, pollen, dander, and other small particulates that many people don’t want to breathe
  • You’ll find them in dust extractors, vacuums, HVAC systems, and more where trapping the most particles possible is key

So Do You Need a HEPA Filter at All Times?

The case for these filters is straightforward. You need to follow the rules associated with Table 1 compliance and similar OSHA regulations.

The case against using HEPA surrounds its design. The characteristics that make it so good at trapping particles also hinder it in many vacuum systems. Depending on the work you’re doing, sometimes, you simply don’t need that level of filtration.

Take your typical cellulose (paper) filter. You get 99.9% trapping of particles 2 microns or larger. That’s a pretty close trapping percentage (just 0.07% less effective), but the particles that are nearly 7x as big can pass through. We’re still just talking 2 microns, though. That’s 1/500 of a millimeter.

The Case Against Using a HEPA Filter
Which one’s which? You might be able to tell by looking them, but one will give you better vacuum performance and the other will trap more particles.

The extra space in the filter does more than just let somewhat larger particles though, it also allows more air to pass. Because of that, going with a non-HEPA filter increases the performance of your vacuum or dust extractor more than if you use HEPA.

Here’s the other thing, because these filters trap more, they also clog more quickly. That means you’ll see performance drop more quickly and have to replace it more often.

Editor’s Note: Cyclonic filtration systems like those used in the iQ Power dust extractor avoid bogging down the HEPA filter with larger particles. These systems really optimize the filters and stay running at optimal suction for much longer.

And let’s not forget the cost. Many HEPA filters can cost upwards of $79 or more. You can often buy three cellulose filters for every HEPA filter you buy and still have $10 leftover to take your wife out for ice cream. That’s a win.

Sometimes You Need a HEPA Filter

When in doubt, follow the OSHA guidelines. There are absolutely applications when you need a HEPA filter on site. It just might not be as often as you expect.

Pro Tip: No matter what you’re using, but especially when using HEPA, also use a fleece collection bag. It acts as a pre-filter and extends the life of your filter.

The Bottom Line

HEPA filters are better at trapping particles than standard ones and capture much smaller ones. The trade-off is that your performance can suffer. If your dust collector bogs down more rapidly and you muscle through it, you may be breathing more particulates than you think. HEPA filters cost more while needing more frequent replacement. So use them when required, but save yourself some money and keep your dust extractor running more efficiently when you don’t.

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Frank Anthony

Hi Kenny,
How many layers of the cellulose filter media would equal the filtration of an N95 respirator?
I have my wifes family overseas and as you probably know those items are in short supply. I was thinking that there has to be some filter media stock that can be used to provide some protection since there are no other available options. THanks

David S

The numbers in the comparisons and your statements following them are a little confusing, so I’m not sure if I read and understood them correctly. You state that a HEPA filter traps 99.97% of particles 3 microns or larger, whereas a standard paper filter traps 99.9% of particles 2 microns or larger. It’s obvious that 99.97% is better than 99.9%, but as stated in the article, a HEPA filter traps particles as small as 3 microns, and the standard paper filter traps particles as small as 2 microns. If my math is correct, isn’t 2 microns smaller than 3 microns?… Read more »

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