Professional indoor air quality monitors have existed for years, but it’s only in recent years that the technology has become affordable for consumers.
Indoor air quality (AIQ) is an increasingly important public health issue that no one really thinks about simply because air is “invisible”. Because air is also “all over the place”, it’s nearly impossible to do controlled scientific experiments around air quality across a wide population. But just look around you at the prevalence of lung disease, asthma, cancer, mental illness, and general poor health, and you’ll start to consider whether the air we breathe has anything to do with it. It’s ironic how the world has gotten pretty good at healthy eating for meals we ingest 3 times a day, and yet no one really talks about healthy breathing which we inhale into our bodies continuously.
In 2013, the first consumer-friendly indoor air quality monitor came to the market. It was from a company called Awair, and it was revolutionary in that it was relatively inexpensive ($159 back in the day) but gave accurate readings on temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, VOCs (indoor pollutants), and dust levels.
(For those who don’t know, VOC stands for “volatile organic compounds”. They’re gases emitted into the air from products such as cleaners, pesticides, air fresheners, and gasoline; building materials such as paint and varnishes; and activities such as smoking, dry cleaning and office printers/copiers, and outdoor activies such as wood burning and diesel/industrial emissions. Too many VOCs can lead to irritation, lung problems, damage to the central nervous system, and at worst, cancer.w
As someone with a history of asthma in the family I bought three and placed them in different rooms. It was life-changing—wherever I was in the world, I could see the temperature and humidity in my house, I could set up an alert when carbon dioxide levels got too high, and I could set up graphs to view patterns with VOCs and dust levels. When I saw either spike I could use my detective skills to find the source (for example, just closing the bedroom door when doing laundry helped keep dust levels down). Best thing about the Awair–it was made in South Korea.
Well, you can guess what happened next. Amazon copied the idea, got theirs made cheaply in China, slapped their logo on it, and of course when you searched for “air monitor” in Amazon, their came up #1, along with a bunch of fake or no-name China brands like “INKBIRDPLUS” and “uHoo”. The market became flooded with these fake brands, as well as American-based brands like Amazon, Kidde, and AirKnight that ran to China to manufacture their components. They undercut the market on pricing, and was able to get an influx of highly suspicious reviews to boost them to the top.
Despite the efforts of the fake China brands to submit fake reviews en masse, and the inability for Amazon to stop them, the cheap China brands are clearly smoke and mirrors and consumers aren’t being fooled.
I suppose another thing to consider is this—why would you want to buy an air quality monitor made in the country that has some of the most polluted air in the world? I still remember the experience of walking off an airplane in Beijing and being hit by a wallop of smog in my face, and after just a day there seeing dust in my tissue when I blew my nose. Something just doesn’t feel right about buying an air quality monitor from there.
Which explains why Awair as a company is still around, as well as a number of fantastic options made outside China. Here’s a rundown of the best.
This is ultimately the one I bought for myself. When I first got the box, I was nervous to see Designed in Norway, home of fresh air, by Airthings ASA, because what the next line always says. But in this case, the next line said “Assembled in Tunisia”.
Airthings is a company based out of Norway. They were founded in 2008 as a company called “Corentium”, based on the observation that consumers didn’t have any ways to test radon levels in their house other than expensive and cumbersome process of bringing professionals in. They launched their first consumer product in 2011, and by 2016 they rebranded themselves as “Airthings” and launched in the US. In 2018 they expanded beyond radon to move into indoor air quality (no doubt observing the success that Awair was having at the time).
This product, the View Plus, was launched in 2021. Based on the Amazon reviews, consumers are thrilled with the product, everything from the user interface of the app, the quality of the sensors, and the accuracy of the data. I’ll update this review once I have mine running for a few weeks.
Airthings went public on the Oslo Stock Exchange in 2021, and sadly, it looks like they’re struggling a bit. This is perhaps because we are witnessing before our eyes yet another industry where original innovation took place in developed countries (in this case, countries like Norway and South Korea) but is not being taken over by China (and Amazon), who will copy and manufacture products by stealing the designs and flood the market with their cheap, sub-par products—all which cuts off the oxygen (no pun intended) from the original companies to do additional innovation and R&D. And guess what happens next? The $300 products are pushed out of the market, and the $79 products that have cornered the market no longer need to innovate, they can just raise their prices because consumers have no choice.
Honestly, it’s hard to blame China for this, as the root cause is generally the greed of American businesspeople who lack any kind of values or principles, as well as consumers who are both penny foolish and pound foolish. It’s enough to make you sick to your stomach, but in the case of this industry, it’s not too late to save it.
If you can afford the higher price of an Airthings or an Awair, please buy one (I did) if only to give them a fighting chance. For the extra price you may pay, you’ll be rewarded with quality, longevity, accuracy, and the knowledge that your money is not going to greedy American executives or China’s military.
It looks like Awair is hanging on to life amid this onslaught of cheap China manufacturing. This company was founded in 2013 by South Korean entrepreneurs, and is currently headquartered in San Francisco. Awair is still a private company which has been funded by investors who are no doubt growing impatient at the good idea they invested in taking so long to turn a profit. It’s usually at this time that the investors will question the practices of the founders, including why they’re not making things for pennies on the dollar by going to China. Let’s hope the founders can stay strong in their convictions, and let’s hope that consumers don’t make the transition to China inevitable by snapping up products like Amazon’s that are being dumped onto the market.
As I mentioned, I have personal experience with Awair. It has been nothing short of amazing, and I’m talking not just about the quality of the sensors (I was an “early adopter” and yet my original units are working just as good as every). The app is also well made and doesn’t just give you a snapshot of your air quality at the moment, it helps you track air quality over time.
Here’s an example. I was having difficultly falling asleep last night. I checked my Awair scores for my bedroom and this is what I saw.
My temperature was fine, with the temperature maybe a tad on the high side. I turned on my AC.
My humidity was fine too. That’s generally the case in the summer, but in the winter this number can get ridiculously low, in which case I turn on my humidifier.
It’s these numbers that tipped me off that something wasn’t right. My room’s CO2 levels were elevated, and the VOC levels were through the roof around 9pm. I’ve seen this happen before and for the life of me I can’t figure out the root cause. There’s nothing happening in my room at that time, so I figure it must be something happening outside my walls. Maybe my neighbor is doing some cleaning, or maybe there’s some industrial work happening outside. But when I opened my window, the levels started to taper down.
The problem with products in a category like this, of course, is that Amazon will push people to buy their $70 made-in-China product, so users will avoid the $300 Airthings and $236 Awair (which doesn’t even show up in Amazon for “air quality monitor” anymore). And when the cheap made-in-China product breaks, as it invariably will, the consumer will just go back to the troph, throw their garbage unit into the trash to be sent to a landfill, and buy another cheap brand.
I paid $159 back in the day for my three units that were made in Korea. It’s lasted for many years, and I believe it will last for many more. And while inflation has driven the price up to over $200 (hint: you can often find even better prices on Awair’s Web site) I would pay that amount in a heartbeat for another one.
To Awair’s credit, it looks like they are trying to build their brand outside of Amazon by using their Web site to educate consumers and to reach out to Enterprise buyers like WeWOrk, AirBNB, and Stanford University. Let’s hope that there are more conscientious corporate buyers than consumers.
Ecobee is more than just an air quality monitor, it’s a smart thermostat. I wish I could create a separate post called “Best Smart Thermostats not Made in China”, but the reality is that Ecobee is the only game in town. Google’s Nest is made in China. Amazon’s Smart Thermostat is made in China (of course). MEWMEWCAT by JiNanChengHongZhuangShiGongChengYouXianGongSi is made in China (duh). And so are Emerson, Honeywell, Bosch, and every other once-reputable brand.
But happily, ecobee is made in Malaysia. And in a rare example of Wirecutter getting it right, they named ecobee as their top-rated smart thermostat.
This particular model (Smart Thermostat Premium) does all the things a smart thermostat should do, but also adds air quality monitoring. It monitors the temperature, of course, but also adds VOCs and CO2.
One thing should be clear after reading this article. The way that a capitalist system SHOULD work is this. Someone invents an innovative product. They invest heavily into R&D to get that product to market. The early adopters who can afford it buy those products at a higher price point. As the inventors earn this early revenue, they can re-invest the money into developing products for a wider audience. It’s when their product is accessible and affordable to this wider audience that they can sell in high volumes and make bigger profits even on lower margins.
China has completely upended this system. By the time the innovator of the product is ready to introduce their product to the lower end of the market, American companies using cheap China manufacturing and China companies (who often steal IP from Americans throwing manufacturing at them) then look to bypass non-China companies altogether slap together substandard copies of the original innovation, flood Amazon with fake reviews, and trick consumers into thinking they’re getting a good deal.
But the deal is rotten all around. Innovators are pushed out of the market, China companies who did none of the innovation reap all the rewards, the CCP enriches its (literal) war chest, consumers are left holding the bag with inaccurate products that break and end up in landfills, and the industry as a whole dies as the original innovators can’t make money.
We have an opportunity with this market to NOT let what happened with alarm clocks, toaster ovens, and air fryers happen to it. Can we do it?
If you’re looking for an air purifier not made in China, be sure to check out our rundown here.
Do you know of other air quality monitors worthy of mention here? Let us know in the comments!