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Clearing the air

Asthma sufferer Nicholas Garzon, 13, of Kendall, Fla., shown with his mother Gina Garzon, and brother Christopher, 8, improved after an air-cleaning system was installed in their home. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Asthma sufferer Nicholas Garzon, 13, of Kendall, Fla., shown with his mother Gina Garzon, and brother Christopher, 8, improved after an air-cleaning system was installed in their home. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

DALLAS – 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.”