Earlier this year Peter Hall of DesignInquiry wrote up a fantastic case study and origin story of Humanair's Air Purifier, now re-branded the Personal Zone Air Purifier. After six months with the unit, we now bring you the "Living With" product review.
If you work in an open-plan office, there are certain things that belong to everyone and certain things that belong just to you. That light coming in from the windows and the overhead lamps is for everyone; the task lamp on your desk provides light just for you. The electricity piped in is for everyone, but the outlets under your desk are just for you to plug into. But one thing that you typically cannot get is your own air supply.
This is an area that Humanscale is addressing with their Personal Zone Air Purifier. Their goal was to provide a desktop source of clean air, qualitatively different than the air piped into the larger space around you, that would essentially encase the user in a sort of bubble of freshness.
The PZAP removes about 99% of all airborne contaminants, including those nasty VOCs you read so much about, and rids the air of dust (a huge plus for me in particular due to the space I work in). It produces a negligible amount of ozone, an improvement over earlier air purifiers that used a technology called ESP, or Electrostatic Precipitation. The PZAP utilizes DEP, a technology developed in Sweden that's used to clean the air in subway stations and bakeries, where fine soot and the superfine flour bakers are constantly exposed to are recognized as long-term health hazards. DEP, or Disposable Electrostatic Precipitation, makes use of a special type of paper filter that obviates the need for the step that produces ozone in ESP. (You can learn more about DEP and the science behind the PZAP here or at Hall's lengthy piece.)
As opposed to a standard floor-sitting air purifier that's meant to clean the air in an entire space—a scientifically unlikely proposition, given your average room's nooks, "dead spots" and furniture, to say nothing of the size of the room versus the size of the purifier—Humanscale's purifier is designed to sit on your desk and deliver clean air to a targeted area, the spot you're sitting in. Thus the form factor chosen is close to a table fan with a tight, relatively unobstrusive footprint. It's 13" wide and the body of the unit is just 3.5" deep, though the base takes up an additional 5.5" in depth behind it, presumably so that if you push it up against a wall, air can still circulate behind it.
The aesthetics of the PZAP is exactly what I'd want in any desktop device, and exactly what you'd expect from Humanscale: Minimal, modern and clean-looking. The footprint takes up a minimum of space, and placed at the back of the desk, during my testing it never interfered with the day-to-day desktop clutter I have to deal with.
There's only one light on the unit, a small green LED on the bottom that lights up when the filter needs changing. In nearly six months of testing and almost constant use, my filter hasn't needed changing yet, though obviously your mileage may vary.
Of the two buttons on the entire unit, there's only one I use in practice, a simple on-off slider located on the side in an easy-to-reach position. (Directly above it there's also a timer button, which I never mess with as I can't see the point.) The slider allows you to set the fan level. In practice I leave mine on high, as it's not noisy and the higher setting provides the cleanest air.
Actual Usage & Maintenance
The PZAP is my favorite type of object, as usage is simple: Set it and forget it. The only time I turn it off is if I need to record audio of something, as sensitive mics will pick up the fan noise, which is otherwise low enough that it doesn't bother me and serves as a sort of white noise.
During the cold winter months I didn't keep the PZAP pointed directly at me, because in early testing in my poorly-heated space I found the soft breeze to be distracting; it's gentle enough and is not really a breeze—you feel more like the air is being stimulated on a subtle scale—but it was enough to constantly make me aware of it, so I kept it pointed just to the side of me.
However, during hot months, like the 90-degree days we've recently had in New York, I angle the PZAP towards me and welcome the soft "breeze." It's not enough to move your hair but enough to provide a "fresh" sensation that makes it nice to take a deep breath.
I work in a high-dust environment, and one of the ironies in maintaining the Honeywell floor-sitting air purifier I've owned for years is that cleaning this cleaning device is a real bear. Dust settles all over the matte plastic finish and gets into the grills. In contrast, the PZAP is thoughtfully finished in a high gloss, with virtually no nooks for dust to get into, and cleaning it off with a Swiffer is a simple, one-wipe-per-surface affair. However, this does not hold true for the honeycomb grill on the back of the machine that serves as the air intake. Dust can settle on the insides of the honeycomb, and I haven't figured out a way to easily remove it short of blowing it off with compressed air.
In practice, I end up Swiffering the PZAP clean about once a month and it takes literally just a few seconds, as opposed to the hour or more I can spend trying to get the Honeywell clean.
As I mentioned earlier I haven't had to change the filter yet, but I've practiced doing it for the sake of the write-up and can report it's also a simple affair. The white disc in the center of the grill flips open into a sort of handle that you use to unscrew the grill, and behind that the filter just pops in and out by means of little paper tabs you grab. Happily, it passes the test of "If I gave this to my tech-challenged parents as a gift, could I easily describe to them over the phone how to do it?"
Once the filter's off, you can either vacuum it out, or replace it with a new one. Should you go for the latter option, the paper filter is recycleable.
The PZAP is difficult to compare to other air purifiers on the market, because it is not a whole-room-cleaning device. But I like Humanscale's different take on the purifier and the "personal zone" concept, and the thought that you're given a measure of control over your own air and are not beholden to the building's filtration system, the particulars of which are usually unknown to office denizens. Maintenance of the PZAP is virtually nil and the object fits cleanly on even my overcluttered desk. In the end, the PZAP is essentially what it provides: A breath of fresh air.