Consumer Reports (CR) ranks air purifiers - it reminds me of an old story: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.
The modern screenplay features Sharper Image and IQ-Air taking turns as Brer Rabbit, and stars Consumer Reports rankings as the Tar Baby.
In the classic folk Tar Baby tale, told in Walt Disney's 1949 comeback film "Song of the South", Brer Rabbit gets suckered into attacking the silent sticky Tar Baby.
Like some mastodon mired in the LA Brea tar pits, the Rabbit ends up the loser in a fight with an inanimate object.
CR, first and foremost, is a brand name, widely recognized and trusted worldwide.
From humble beginnings in 1936 as a labor union, and after years spent testing inexpensive products due to budget limitations, Consumers Union has become a giant.
CU created a movement: "consumerism."
Among the leading 501(3)c federal tax exempt nonprofits in America, with $160 million in revenue, CU is the publisher of Consumer Reports Magazine, with about 4.5 million subscribers, and the successful subscription-based website ConsumerReports.org.
CR is a respected product review magazine, with a reputation for objectivity and accuracy in its reports.
My mom subscribed to CR in 1957, it always graced the dining room table for a week after arrival.
Consumer Reports was among the first magazines I ever read, right after Boy's Life.
CR accepts no advertising and asserts they are not beholden to any commercial interest.
CR was an early critic of the tobacco industry, and supported Ralph Nader as he stood almost alone against General Motors.
Recent successes include the Firestone-Ford tire recall and SUV rollover fiasco.
C.R. has long been an inspiration to me, and Air-Purifier-Power is modeled after their basic premise: information is power.
Their reviews of air purifiers demonstrate how C.R. has become a kingmaker, able to make or destroy individual air cleaners.
Air cleaner reviews from Consumer Reports date back to the early 1990's, but it is their more recent air purifiers articles that have stirred controversy and invited criticism.
In 2003 and again in early 2005, CR took aim at a group of ozone-emitting air cleaners which included then best seller Sharper Image Sharper Image Ionic Breeze and runner-up Oreck.
In their traditional groundbreaking style, the magazine gave considerable space to the ozone issue, and exposed questionable practices of two allergy foundations granting "seals of approval" to Breeze and Oreck air cleaners.
By October, 2005, a series of ill-advised legal attacks by Sharper Image had left Ionic Breeze "stuck to the Tar Baby".
A Federal Court sided with CR after reviewing technical merits of both claims.
Oreck, with no shareholder groups to clamor for action, wisely ignored the bait.
In the October 2005 issue, an article titled "Air Cleaners: Some Do Little Cleaning" ranked 30 air purifiers and renewed criticism of CR's testing methods.
Few qualified air purifiers reviewers would take issue with ranking the Oreck XL, Sharper Image Ionic Breeze, Ionic Pro, and Surround Air XJ-2000 at the bottom.
But credulity in the air purifier community was strained when Consumer Reports ranked purifier industry quality leaders IQ-Air and Austin Air poorly.
IQ-Air purifiers are ranked number 19, just below the 112 CADR, $70 at Wal-Mart, 3-stars at Amazon.com, Holmes Harmony HAP-422-U!
And as pigs grow wings, thousands of "consumers" took these rankings as gospel, racing to buy the top pick, the powerful, but also ozone emitting, Friedrich C90A electrostatic precipitator air purifiers.
The Friedrich enjoyed a year of phenomenal sales and faded into well-deserved obscurity.
Critics howled "foul."
The controversy centers around Consumer Report's selection methods, testing procedures, and reporting style.
CR chooses 30 air purifiers to review, among many candidates, by
"market share." From the website;
"To help us determine which brands and models to include in our testing,
our Market Analysts research each brand-name in the product category and
select those that have the highest market share at the time we begin our
Please do not construe our exclusion of any brand negatively.
of any product from our report does NOT mean that it is a poor performer."
This looks like a leave well enough alone, no win situation, to me.
But with so many buyers looking to CR's rankings before their air purifier purchase, IQAir took the bait just like Sharper Image did.
"...when the Tar-baby did not reply, even after hollerin', in case the Tar Baby was deaf, Brer Rabbit decided to teach the Tar-baby a lesson. So he whacked her longside the head."
After years of attempts to get into the rankings, in September 2003 IQAir filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against CR.
IQAir asserted that CR was biased and unfair in their air purifier selection, testing and reporting methods.
So IQAir got stuck to the Tar Baby too.
They are now included, but mighty IQAir got ranked below dime store plastic built in China.
Of close to 1000 air purifier models on the market, less than one quarter are AHAM (Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers) clean air delivery rate certified.
Of 30 models chosen for Consumer Reports testing, 20 are AHAM clean air delivery rate certified.
This is a lower percentage of AHAM units than CR included before the FTC complaint.
Consumer Reports testing procedure is a copy of AHAM's seriously flawed CADRs.
See previous article "AHAM and the CADR rating", under my Buyer Beware navbar.
By avoiding testing air purifiers for volatile organic compounds, gas, and odor removal, the test protocol hurts higher quality air purifiers with heavy, air slowing gas and odor filters.
Leaving this critical data out hurts trusting readers, and the credibility of their reports with the consumer.
Findings are published in a manner I consider unacceptably subjective.
For instance, noise levels could be reported in actual decibel (dB) readings rather than excellent-very good-good-fair-poor.
Better still, the magazine could adopt Air-Purifier-Power noise citations (66dB(A)@410cfm), with sound levels coupled to air delivery rates.
Sound measuring technology is cheap, this would be easy to implement.
As I write this, my super-quiet Sharp Plasmacluster, running on low [16 dB(A)@28cfm], sits 30 inches from my head (not in plasmacluster oxidizer mode).
By comparison, my laptop computer roars.
When I turn my Honeywell 50250(35dB(A)@70cfm,estimated), 6 feet away, on low, I can't hear anything else.
But these two purifiers are rated identically for sound in the magazine.
Widespread discrepancies of this type add credence to critics who claim to see an agenda.
Secondly, the results show data for only 2 speeds: low/high.
This reminds me of a truck driver who calls himself "slow old 2 speed" on the radio, so other drivers will notice he is pushing 18 gears while he blows by standard rigs with only 9.
The Blueair 601, a serious premium unit with 4 fan speeds and phenomenal CADR off the scale, is rated poor for hi-speed fan noise.
As reported by the manufacturer, the 601 makes an excessive 71.0 dB on high, but only 49.4 dB on 3rd, where it is still blowing away most cheaper units.
I think a better criterion is the air delivery performance-to-sound ratio, rather than which fan is the loudest on high.
Let’s ask: Can it clean the room air effectively at acceptable noise levels?
Then there is the C90b substitution: on my hard copy from the October magazine, Friedrich C90a is listed number one.
But CR's website later substituted the more powerful C90b in that spot.
Which unit did they test?
Finally, while Consumer Reports slams Oreck/Breeze for ozone emissions, they exalted the mildly ozone prone Friedrichs (newer Friedrich models are ozone free).
CU has resisted calls for change from voices far stronger than Air-Purifier-Power.
Please note that my rankings are sometimes in accord with theirs.
But I offer the following suggestions as a longtime fan and supporter;
Please consider changing the reporting style to a more scientific format, it could be implemented over time, beginning with noise cites.
Nobody expects Consumers Union to shoulder the multimillion dollar burden and scientifically difficult task of devising a new air cleaner testing standard to replace CADR.
But, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, please consider distancing Consumer Reports air purifiers rankings from AHAM's methods.
I will continue to respect the rankings, but like AHAM's CADR, will apply them to mid priced units primarily.
Buyers should do their own due diligence, and avoid placing so much emphasis on a single source.
Since this article was posted, Consumer Reports
has chosen to make their formerly public air cleaner rankings
a subscriber-only webpage.
Air Purifiers at Amazon.com.