There’s one thing that all furnaces, heat pumps, and air conditioners have in common: A dirty air filter will vastly reduce the efficiency of the system, and regular replacement of the filter is essential for preventing expensive damage and maintaining a high level of comfort.

Experts recommend that you inspect your air filter every month, and replace it with a clean, high quality filter when it’s covered in dust. But what does “quality” mean when it comes to air filters? The answer is found in MERV, or the minimum efficiency reporting value, which is an industry standard that indicates the quality of an HVAC air filter.

The MERV Scale

According to Atlanta HVAC experts Ace & A Heating & Air, a high quality HVAC air filter is essential for not only keeping your heating and cooling systems operating efficiently, it’s also an important factor in maintaining good indoor air quality inside your home. Air filters are designed to trap the contaminants in your air, which include allergens like mold spores, pollen, dust mites, and pet dander. But some air filters only trap very large particles, which leaves the smaller, often more potent pollutants in your air.

The MERV scale is used to determine the percentage of certain-sized particles that will be trapped by an air filter. For residential purposes, the MERV scale runs from one to 12, with higher values denoting a better filter.

MERV 1 to 4

These are the cheapest air filters on the market, and they will only minimally protect your system against dust buildup and do little to nothing to improve your indoor air quality. MERV 1 to 4 filters trap less than 20 percent of particles as small as 10 microns, which includes carpet fibers and dust mites. It’s best to avoid these air filters altogether.

MERV 5 to 8

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an HVAC filter with a MERV rating of 7 or higher is very nearly as effective as a true HEPA filter when it comes to maintaining good indoor air quality. MERV 5 to 8 filters are perfectly sufficient for most residential needs, with a MERV 6 trapping 50 percent of particles between three and 10 microns in size and a MERV 8 trapping up to 85 percent of those particles, which include mold spores and hairspray particles.

MERV 9 to 12

For those who suffer from allergies, COPD, asthma, or other respiratory illnesses, MERV 9 to 12 filters can bring relief. These are the highest quality filters available for residential use, with a MERV 10 filter able to trap up to 50 percent of particles between one and three microns, such as Legionella bacteria and humidifier dust, and up to 85 percent of particles between three and 10 microns. MERV 12 filters are even more efficient at cleaning your air, trapping up to 90 percent of particles between one and three microns and over 90 percent of those between three and 10 microns.

Check Your Specs

It’s always a good idea to double-check the specifications of your system to ensure it can handle a filter with a higher MERV value, which is thicker and denser than a lower-rated filter. Ensuring optimum airflow to your system is essential, and balancing airflow with a filter’s air-cleaning capabilities will help you maintain optimum air quality and system efficiency.

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