Gone with the wind

This is a writing sample from Scripted writer Jared Cline

This piece was published in the Property Section of Time Out Beijing's March 2014 issue.

Smart Air's Gus Tate tells Jared Cline the secret to his 200RMB filter system that'll blow you away.

Walk into Gus Tate's home and you'd think you were in a well-furnished storage unit. Stacks of boxes tower like a huge childhood fort. But he's not an exceptionally organised hoarder, Tate is the head of distribution at Smart Air, and the boxes contain components for creating a simple, yet sophisticated air purification system, for a fraction of the price of units available from the leading brands.

There's no real mystery to what they do, no '11 herbs and spices', no secret, patented formula. Smart Air pre-assembles an air purification system comprised of three main parts—a fan, a HEPA filter and a strap—all of which are available on Taobao, albeit for a slightly higher price (Smart Air buys in bulk from the manufacturer at a reduced rate). Their business model is akin to paying someone to get Cheerios and milk from the store and pour a bowl of cereal for you.

From the outset, the company has been going whichever way the wind blows—the success of Smart Air has surprised no one more than them. The product grew out of a blog called Particle Counting by inventor and founder Thomas Talhelm. Talhelm bought a particle counter—a device that monitors the cleanliness of the air—to test his theory that a basic homemade filter could compete with the big boys.

Surprisingly, it just about did. Over the course of three hours, the DIY purifier produced stunning results, clearing out 92 percent of the PM2.5 (the most harmful particulates) in a 15-square-metre bedroom and 84 percent of the PM.5. Giving readings of around 96 percent PM2.5 removal, Blueair and Philips models hardly trounce it. Talhelm spent just 166RMB putting his DIY filter together—12 times less than the cost of the particle counter used for the test, and 48 times less than most purifiers on the market. Filtration, at least as far as particulates are concerned, isn't rocket science, Tate tells us. Air from the room is sucked in by a fan and blown out through a HEPA filter. Goodbye, pollutants.

Out of a sense of obligation to get the word out about these incredible findings, Talhelm published the results online, but the response was not quite what he expected. 'At first, he thought that would be enough, that the blog would be his legacy,' says Tate. 'People would be like, "Oh, you're the blog guy that told the world about DIY air purifiers and now everybody's doing it".' But there was no DIY revolution; people were still tolerating smoggy air in their homes. Workshops were the obvious next step; a chance to share the research demonstrating that the filter really works. Feedback from these workshops proved the final tipping point in the founding of Smart Air. 'There were requests for the links on where to buy the filters on Taobao and which were the best,' says Tate. 'Eventually, we decided we could just sell kits directly to people. It was just a logical next step.'

The website went live in mid-September 2013. 'At first, the site was just going to be us selling the materials with an instruction booklet, and then Tom was like, "Maybe you should put an option on there for preassembled units, just in case people want you to do it for them".'

'Just in case' turned out to be the vast majority. And with Talhelm in the United States, Tate was charged with distribution. 'That went from two a day, to ten and then coming up on 20 a day.'

Even with the pre-assembled product available online and at the Wudaoying bike shop Natooke, Tate keeps the DIY workshops going. 'We still want to emphasise the education part of it. We're not just selling a bunch of air filters. It isn't quite the revolution that Tom wanted to begin with because most people don't want to build it themselves, they want a product. But still, it's close enough.'

Smart Air kits with DIY instructions and pre-assembled kits are available online at ww.smartairfilters.com. Pre-assembled kits are also available at Natooke. See Shop listings

Written by:

Jared Cline
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Jared Cline is writer and editor focused on delivering clear, compelling content. He is a co-author on published diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) research and a former lifestyle and entertainment journalist. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his dog, Kutana.
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