Airviz Speck indoor air-quality monitor review: It’s great, as far as it goes

We hear a great deal about outdoor air pollution, but most of
us don’t give much thought to the quality of air
inside our homes. The Speck air-quality monitor will
reveal one source of indoor air pollution: particulates.

More specifically, the Speck—originally developed by Carnegie Mellon
University’s CREATE Lab
—measures the levels of fine
inhalable particulates measuring .5 to 3 microns. These
particles can lodge deep inside your lungs, leading to
decreased lung function and the aggravation of chronic medical
conditions such as asthma and heart disease, according to the EPA. They’re a mixture of
solid particles and liquid droplets—including dust, soot, and
smoke—and they can come from outside as well as inside your
home, generated by everything from cooking meals on your stove
to burning candles.

The diminutive device is deceptively simple in appearance,
measuring 4.5 inches wide, 3.5 inches high, and 3.7 inches
deep. Inside its enclosure you’ll find an Atmel XMEGA
processor, a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi adapter (802.11b/g), a very quiet
intake fan, and enough onboard storage to retain two years of
data (with one air sample taken each minute). If you create an
online account with the manufacturer, the Speck will upload
this data to your account. Those with privacy concerns can
install a free and open-source Chrome app to download this data directly in the
form of a CSV file.

Speck air intake Michael Brown

A near-silent fan on the side of the Speck pulls in air for
analysis. Airviz recommends cleaning this intake with
compressed air on a monthly basis.

A 3.2-inch color touchscreen displays the most recent readings
in either the number of particles measured per liter of air
(ppL) or based on an estimate of mass in micrograms per cubic
meter of air (μg/m3), but the app reports only the latter. The
Speck also monitors ambient temperature and humidity levels
inside the home, but it reports temperature only in Celsius.

Android and iOS apps are available that will display this same
information on your mobile device of choice. The app also
reports the current air-quality index (AQI) for your location,
whereas the onboard display reports outdoor air quality in much
simpler terms (“good,” in my case, I’m happy to report). It’s
worth noting that AQI measurements are drawn from a database of
federal monitors within the U.S. (and a few in Canada and
Mexico). Set up a Speck elsewhere in the world and it will be
useful only for measuring indoor air quality.

Speck Android app Airviz

The very basic mobile app displays the amount of
particulates in your home’s air (reported
in micrograms per cubic meter of air), the ambient
room temperature (but only in Celsius), relative humidity,
and the air quality index report for your home’s location.

I found it easiest to wrap my head around the ppL readings, but
an arrow pointing to a stack of colored bars on the left-hand
side of the unit’s display provides an even
easier-to-understand indicator of your current indoor air
quality. The deep-green block at the bottom of the display
indicates a particle count of zero to 500 ppL (zero to 20
μg/m3), meaning there’s little chance of particulates in the
air causing harm to your health.

The red block at the top of the display warns that levels are
unsafe (8,001 to 16,000 ppL, or 321 to 640 μg/m3), and that
you’re at risk of long-term health effects if those levels are
sustained. The app uses the same color scheme.

If you’d prefer to monitor your air quality based on micrograms
per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), you can tap the value displayed
on the Speck to toggle between the two units. 

I’ve been monitoring my home’s air with the Speck for about
three months, in conjunction with 3M’s new Bluetooth-connected
Filtrete Smart air filters (3M folds the Speck’s air-quality
reporting into its own app). I’ll review the air filters in a
separate review down the road. I’ve found the Speck’s reporting
to be informative, as far as it goes, but the Speck would be
much more useful if it generated an alert—via either an onboard
speaker at least through its app—when my air quality
deteriorated, so that I could take immediate action by opening
a window or turning on a fan.

Speck 30-day report Speck

If you create an online account, you can see long-term
reports on your indoor air quality, along with a map or
satellite image of your location. If you’re concerned about
privacy, you can download collected data directly from the
device and not upload it to the cloud.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the Speck did measure
one extremely high spike in ppL on March 10. Looking back on my
calendar, I remembered that I had prepared a steak that day by
frying it on my gas cooktop at very high heat with butter and
garlic in a cast-iron pan. That generated more smoke than my
range hood was capable of capturing, and it also triggered one
of my smoke/CO detectors. Had the Speck also generated
an alarm, I would have opened some windows to bring in some
fresh air. I instead just waved a towel under the smoke
detector to clear the air around it so it would stop sounding
off.

Speaking of carbon monoxide, that’s one of the many indoor air
pollutants the Speck cannot detect. It is also
incapable of measuring or alerting you to the presence of
volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mold spores, carbon dioxide,
radon, or anything else lurking in your home’s air that could
compromise your respiratory health. Fortunately, many smoke
detectors on the market today are also capable of detecting the
presence of carbon monoxide (here’s
our take on the best smart models
). There are also
dedicated radon detectors, such as the
AirThings Wave we reviewed recently
.

If you or anyone else living in your home suffers from a
compromised respiratory system, or if you’re just generally
concerned about the quality of air in your home, the Speck can
either provide peace of mind or prompt you to take steps to
improve your home’s indoor air quality. Its sensor seems much
more grounded in science than the jack-of-all-trades that’s
built into the
Canary home security system
. But the Speck will be useful
only if you monitor its readouts on a regular basis. Even then,
it will only report levels of particulate matter in the air.

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