Pleated Versus Non-Pleated Air Filters: What’s the Difference?

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When buying an air filter, you might wonder: What kind of air filter is best for my home?

The truth is that the type of air filter that you use needs to be appropriate for your home’s HVAC system.

Air filtration quality, airflow, and cost are some of the factors that you need to consider. Striking a balance between all of these factors is critical when selecting an air filter for your HVAC system.

Generally, you can split up air filters into two types: pleated and non-pleated. These types of air filters have glaring variations.

The main difference is that pleated air filters generally provide a higher level of air filtration than non-pleated ones. However, non-pleated air filters generally allow for more airflow than pleated ones.

In this article, I’ll go over the differences between pleated and non-pleated air filters. I’ll also discuss the factors that you need to consider when choosing an air filter.

Pleated versus non-pleated air filtration quality

The quality of the air filters helps determine the purity of air within your home. Quality filters will provide the best filtration and cleanest air in your home. However, the quality of the filters comes with costs. The higher the quality, the higher the cost.

Generally, pleated filters provide higher quality air when compared to non-pleated filters. Pleated air filters are able to trap smaller debris due to their increased surface area and stronger filtration media. When it comes to filtration quality, pleated air filters come out on top.

On the other hand, non-pleated air filters will work fine for most purposes. However, when it comes to filtration quality, non-pleated filters are usually not as effective due to having less surface area and more gaps for particles to sneak through. Also, they can sometimes fall apart and put filtered debris back into the air.

As pleated air filters are used, more particles become trapped. The efficacy of the pleated air filters increases with continued use. An old pleated air filter is more effective than a newer one due to the particles trapped, forming an additional barrier that improves its filtration capabilities.

The downside of using a pleated air filter for extended periods of time is that your HVAC system will suffer from airflow reduction.

A clogged air filter won’t allow as much air to flow through your furnace or AC. The reduction in airflow will reduce the efficiency of your HVAC system and cost you more money to heat or cool your home.

Alternatively, a non-pleated fiberglass air filter’s efficacy reduces with continued use. A new fiberglass air filter is more effective than a used one due to wearing out.

Closeup view of a pleated filter
Some pleated filters have a thin metal mesh to help hold the filter’s shape

Pleated versus non-pleated air filter MERV ratings

The MERV ratings give a score on the efficacy (effectiveness) of an air filter. This means that higher MERV ratings = higher filtration.

Non-pleated fiberglass filters are usually in the range of MERV 2 – MERV 4, while non-pleated polyester filters can be found in the range of MERV 5 – MERV 6. Once you start looking for filters that are rated MERV 7 and above, they are mostly all pleated filters.

Just because a filter has a higher MERV rating, doesn’t always mean that it is better for your furnace or AC. Some air conditioners are designed to run using lower-rated MERV filters.

Filters with lower MERV ratings don’t block as much air and will let your AC run easier and “breathe” more. The tradeoff is that the filter is not as effective at cleaning the air.

You may think that using a filter with the highest MERV rating is the best option. However, using a MERV rating of, for example, MERV-13 would be excessive for most people.

Using filters with MERV ratings higher than MERV 11 is only necessary for those that need intense filtration – such as people with sensitive allergies, indoor smokers, or people with pets.

My Pick: Pleated Air Filters
MERV 8 Air Filters

With a MERV 8 rating and mesh-reinforced construction, these filters block most household particles. Since they come in almost any size, these are my favorite pleated air filters to use.

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It is also important to remember that your AC or furnace may not be designed to run with a filter that has a high MERV rating. Filters with high MERV ratings tend to introduce high pressure drops as well. In layman’s terms, a strong filter will make it harder for your HVAC system to move air throughout your home.

Most home HVAC systems are designed for no more than about 0.5” of total static pressure. Filters with high MERV ratings will contribute to higher static pressures in your HVAC system. So be sure that your fan and system are rated to use filters with high MERV ratings.

For more information about air filter MERV ratings, check out my air filter guide.

Pleated versus non-pleated air filter pricing

Non-pleated air filters are usually cheaper than pleated ones. Due to their low price, you can easily purchase non-pleated fiberglass air filters in bulk. A single non-pleated fiberglass filter can cost a few dollars or less.

The tradeoff is that fiberglass filters need to be frequently replaced due to their short life span. Usually, fiberglass filters need to be replaced every month or sooner.

Pleated filters, on the other hand, can be used for up to three months. However, pleated filters typically cost more. A typical pleated filter will cost about twice as much as a typical non-pleated one.

My Pick: Non-Pleated Air Filters
True Blue Air Filter

This MERV-2 air filter comes in a pack of 12 and is a great solution for return vents. It allows for a good amount of airflow and is easy to swap out.

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Pleated versus non-pleated air filter maintenance and ease of use

Since changing air filters is something that you need to do often, it is good to make a consideration about the ease of use for different types of air filters.

To help you keep things clean during maintenance, pleated air filters are excellent at trapping dust and particles. When handling a dirty pleated filter, the dust will be trapped in the filter material and won’t fall out easily.

On the flip side, non-pleated air filters are not very good at embedding particles. This means that dirty non-pleated air filters need to be handled carefully to not let dust fall off.

Pleated air filters also tend to be more rigid than non-pleated air filters. The rigidity of pleated air filters is beneficial because you don’t want your air filter to bend or fold while your furnace or AC is running.

Waste management is another thing to consider. The use of air filters increases the amount of waste that has to be disposed of. Fiberglass contains materials that cannot be recycled. Alternatively, pleated air filters can easily be recycled since they are usually made of cloth and cardboard.

Conclusion

Your choice of air filter needs to be appropriate for your home. You have to consider several factors before choosing the type of air filter that meets your HVAC system’s requirements.

Some of the key aspects that affect the choice of an air filter would include cost, filtration quality, and ease of use, among others. Oftentimes, it is best to strike a balance of all these factors before choosing the most appropriate air filter.

If you need a top-quality filter that lasts a long time and is easy to use, then a pleated air filter is your best bet.

However, if you are short on cash or need a filter that allows for maximum airflow, then a non-pleated air filter might be better for you.