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For the citizen scientist, air sensors can be a tool to understand air quality conditions

One of the themes of 2023’s Air Quality Awareness Week focuses on participatory science. For the citizen scientist looking to understand the environment around their home or workplace, air sensor technology may be the right tool for the job.

A small white metal cannister (a PurpleAir Monitor) nailed to a wall.

A PurpleAir monitor nailed to a wall. 


Air sensors come in a range of costs and abilities. Sensors may be used by individual citizens, community groups, municipalities, industry, and environmental and health agencies to enhance information available from other sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Sensor Toolbox includes resources on what type of sensor may be right for you and how to understand the information the sensor provides.  You can find out more by reading The Enhanced Air Sensor Guidebook Science Matters story.

There are pros to air sensors, such as:

  • Particulate (dust) sensors are available for under $300 and only require power and a Wi-Fi signal to operate.
  • Although these are not used by EGLE for regulatory purposes, sensors can “fill in the gaps” between regulatory monitoring stations.
  • Sensors require minimal maintenance.
  • Sensors provide “real-time” data at a specific location.
  • Sensor data maps can give a better picture of air quality in your area, and the more sensors contributing data, the better the data. For instance, the PurpleAir site provides air sensor data for particulate levels in areas around the sensors.
  • Sensor data is affected by your own activities and choices, such as recreational fires, smoking, running small engines – which can show how the choices you make can impact the air you breathe.

Although there a many positive things about air sensors, there are things which may be considered a drawback to their use, such as:

  • Environmental and health regulatory agencies, including EGLE cannot use sensor data for enforcement or compliance purposes.
  • Sensors do not show if industrial sites are complying with air quality regulations or where the pollution they are measuring came from.
  • Sensors may have to be replaced every few years.
  • Sensors for other pollutants, like ozone, can cost several thousand dollars.
  • If you don’t have an external power source and/or sufficient Wi-Fi signal where you wish to collect data, sensors with solar power and/or cellular data are available but at a much higher cost.
  • Sensors may become clogged in dusty areas, which would increase required maintenance.
  • Sensor data is affected by your own activities, such as recreational fires, smoking, running small engines – the data is less reflective of ambient air quality (siting sensors away from areas where you conduct these activities can mitigate this effect).

Low-cost sensor technology offers people a tool to help them better understand and monitor the air they breathe, but it is also important to keep in mind the limitations of the technology and use the data accordingly.

More information can be found in US EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox.