IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Air conditioner makers turn focus to cleaning

Gina Garzon, center, poses with her son Nicholas, 13, left, and Christopher, 8, in their Kendall, Fla. home. Air conditioning manufacturers see consumers like Garzon as a huge source of new revenue. Several are beginning to market whole-house cleaning systems to capitalize on Americans' growing concern with the quality of the air they breathe.Luis M. Alvarez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nicholas Garzon has such trouble with asthma and allergies that the 13-year-old’s mother gave him an over-the-counter antihistamine each night to help him sleep.

Gina Garzon had removed all carpeting from her home in Miami, covered the mattresses and tried portable air cleaners, with little apparent benefit.

When an air conditioning salesman mentioned a new machine that cleaned air throughout the house, Garzon decided to try it.

“Within a couple days, my son said, ’Mom, I didn’t sneeze all night. I’m feeling great,”’ said Garzon. “He hasn’t taken an allergy pill to sleep since.”

Garzon, a high school biology teacher, hasn’t seen the results of testing of the air in her home, but she believes the $1,400 machine is working. Nicholas and his younger brother are sleeping better, she says, and there is less dust when she does her weekly housecleaning.

Air conditioning manufacturers see consumers like Garzon as a huge source of new revenue. (Garzon got her machine free when she bought a new air-conditioning unit.)

Several companies are beginning to market whole-house cleaning systems as the best way to remove dust, mold spores and other forms of indoor pollution.

“There are a lot of people with asthma and allergies,” said Fred Poses, the chairman and chief executive of American Standard Cos. Inc., whose Trane division makes the unit that was put into Garzon’s house last month. “We’re going to make a big difference here.”

But independent experts question whether the devices will do much for anyone’s health. They say the units won’t catch all the airborne chemicals that can trigger asthma and allergic reactions, and that heavier particles such as dust mites don’t stay in the air long enough to be trapped in a filter.

Trane has just begun shipping its cleaner to dealers, and Lennox International Inc. has a similar product. Carrier, a unit of United Technologies Corp., plans to start selling one by the end of April.

The companies hope to capitalize on Americans’ growing concern with the quality of the air they breathe — indoors and out.

That could add 3 percent to the residential air conditioning business’ current growth rate of 6 to 8 percent, said Jeffrey D. Hammond, an analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets.

“In this industry, it’s hard to hit home runs, but this could be a single or a double,” Hammond said.

The companies plan big marketing campaigns for their products. American Standard plans to spend in the tens of millions for the Trane air cleaner, the parent company’s biggest product launch since the Champion toilet several years ago.

Analysts think the campaign could pay off. Poses said first-year sales could be $50 million to $70 million, and could top $150 million by 2008.

The new systems are expensive — from about $600 for the Lennox model up to $1,400 or more for the Trane, including installation. The Lennox and Carrier models also require annual replacement of filters that cost up to $150.

Poses, however, figures that if people will pay a dollar for bottled water because they think it’s healthier than tap, they will spend what it takes for cleaner air.

Three years ago, Trane executives armed with consumer surveys figured they could expand their core air conditioning business by selling clean air, not just cool air. They were inspired by Sharper Image, which was selling thousands of Ionic Breeze machines at more than $300 each even after Consumer Reports repeatedly dismissed the devices as ineffective and told buyers to get their money back.

Trane paid an undisclosed sum to license air-cleaning technology from a British company, Darwin Technology, that had refined a decades-old system of using alternating electrical currents to trap dust and other tiny particles on tightly spaced collection plates.

Trane designers in Tyler, Texas, produced several models, all about two feet high and deep and 8 inches wide. They attach to the air-flow line near the furnace. The company hired Harvard public health professor John D. Spengler to test the device, and he claims that it worked five times better than portable units at clearing small particles from the air.

Company executives are careful to stop short of making health claims, which could subject them to increased government regulation.

“We don’t go that far out there,” said Mike Branson, a marketing executive at Carrier, “but we definitely think it would be an improvement in their indoor environment.”

Branson said new houses, which are made more airtight for energy efficiency, increase the importance of cleaner indoor air.

Carrier uses a technology developed by Lawrence Livermore national laboratory for use in nuclear reactors. Like the Trane device, it zaps particles with an electrical charge to make them stick to a filter.

Lennox, based in suburban Dallas, uses a dense material with microscopic holes to trap most particles larger than 3 microns — the smallest speck visible to the human eye is about 40 microns.

Experts say air cleaners are of marginal benefit.

Paul Ehrlich, an allergist who teaches at the New York University medical school, said many of the portable air cleaners are “junk” and was skeptical that the new machines could pull enough air through filters to make a difference.

Janice Nolen, national policy director for the American Lung Association, said cleaners are not good at trapping dust mites, which fall to the floor quickly, and the noxious gases in cigarette smoke.

“They are not the first or even the second thing you should do to improve your air,” Nolen said. She said more effective steps include eliminating smoke, preventing water leaks that cause mold, and covering and washing mattresses and bed linens to kill mites.

Even some people considering one of the new devices aren’t sure how much good they will do.

Dallas pathologist Scott Branch suffered constant sinus infections in his last house, even with three Ionic Breeze machines going all the time. He blames vapors from oil-based paints, and says the new machines might not stop them, but he’ll try anything.

“It’s way more than a nuisance,” he said. “When you get these sinus infections, you feel bad all over.”