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Absolute rating vs.

nominal rating for filters

Filters are rated on their ability to remove particles of a specific size from a fluid, but the
problem is that a variety of very different methods are applied to specify performance in this
Pore size ratings refer to the size of a specific particle or organism retained by the filter media to
a specific degree of efficiency. A filter that is marked '10 micron' has some capability to capture
particle as small as 10 micrometers. However you do not know exactly what this means unless
you also have a description of the test methods and standards used to determine the filter rating.

The two most used reported media ratings are nominal and absolute micron rating.

Absolute rating

The absolute rating, of cut-off point, of a filter refers to the diameter of the largest spherical glass
particle, normally expressed in micrometers (mm), which will pass through the filter under
laboratory conditions.
It represents the pore opening size of the filter medium. Filter media with an exact and consistent
pore size or opening thus, theoretically at least, have an exact absolute rating.

The absolute rating shouldn't be confused with the largest particle passed by a filter under
operating conditions: the absolute rating simply determines the size of the largest glass bead
which will pass through the filter under very low pressure differentials and nonpulsating
This does not usually apply in practice:
pore size is modified by the form of the
filter element and it is not necessarily
consistent with the actual open areas.
Furthermore the actual form of the
contaminants are not spherical and the
two linear dimension of the particle can
be very much smaller than its nominal
one, permitting it to pass through a very
much smaller hole (i.e. cylindrical
particles with a thickness less than the
slot opening of the filter).
The passage of oversize particles in this manner depends very largely on the size and shape of
the opening and on the depth over which filtering is provided.

Most of filters generate a filter bed: contaminants collecting on the surface impart a blocking
action decreasing the permeability of the element bad improving filter efficiency. When the
blocking is so severe that the pressure drop is excessive, the flow rate through the system
decrease seriously. This explains why the performance of a filter can often exceed its given
rating based on the performance of a clean element and why test figures can differ widely with
different test conditions on identical elements.

It may be argued that the term absolute rating is not a realistic description. Strictly speaking the
term absolute indicates that no particle larger than that rating can pass through the filter, limiting
the type of media to those of consistent pore size where they show 100% retention of particles.

Absolute ratings can only be applied to membrane filters (see definition below) due to the
requirement of a definable pore. If a filter manufacturer applies an absolute rating to a filter,
they should be able to provide the user with a non-destructive test protocol that will allow the
user to verify the absolute rating.

Nominal rating

The nominal rating refers to a filter capable of cutting off a nominated minimum percentage by
weight of solid particles of a specific contaminant (usually again glass beads) greater than a
stated micron size, normally expressed in micrometers (mm). I.e. 90% of 10 micron.
It also represents a nominal efficiency figure, or more correctly, a degree of filtration.
Process conditions such as operating pressure, concentration of contaminant etc, have a
significant effect on the retention of the filters. Many filter manufacturers use similar tests but,
due to the lack of uniformity and reproducibility of the basic method, the use of nominal ratings
has fallen into disfavor. Nominal ratings are usually applied to depth filters (see definition

Membrane filters are very thin and are usually cast or extruded in a variety of proprietary
processes. Membrane filters retain over 90% of the particles to be removed on the surface of the
filter due to the fact that the well-defined holes or pores are smaller than the particle being
retained. Membrane filters tend to have lower porosity than typical depth filters requiring higher
operating pressures and they typically achieve lower flow rates. During the casting and curing
processes pores are formed that are uniform in size, shape and length. A bubble point or
diffusional flow test can be performed to confirm the actual size of the largest pore in the filter
being tested. This type of test confirms the pore size without exposing the filter to the actual
particle or organism and is called a non-destructive test. Membrane filters can be integrity tested
multiple times, and in most cases are tested prior to, and after use to verify that the filter
maintained integrity during the entire time it was in use.

Note the two examples of membrane filters below: On the left is a low porosity filter with very well
defined pores; On the right is a high porosity filter with a more open, and yet still well-defined
pore structure. Both filters are 0.2μm absolute rated, and in both cases the largest pore diameter
can be verified using a non-destructive integrity test.

Depth filters rely on a torturous path to capture particles within the matrix or depth of the filter.
Simply put, particles are caught within the depth of the filter as they come in contact with
obstructions. There is rarely a uniform, defined pore structure in a depth filter. Even though there
may not be defined pores, depth filters can be performance rated based on challenge testing. In
these tests, the filter is challenged with pre-set quantity of defined size particles or organisms. This
type of testing renders the filter unusable and is referred to as destructive testing. Manufacturers
will perform these tests on a representative sample of each filter batch. Since every filter cannot be
tested and verified individually, a nominal rating is associated with depth filters. Depth filters can
be produced using several methods. The most common types are fiber filters and sintered filters
(see illustrations below). Fiber filters are either spun or woven into a cloth or felt. Sintered filters
such as ceramic, metal or porous plastic filters are formed by fusing particles together under heat
and pressure. The spaces between the particles form the flow path or pores of the filter. Filter aids,
such as activated charcoal, may be added to improve the filtration capability of the filter. Many
filter aids use attractive forces to pull particles out of the water stream and hold them to the surface
of the filter aid. This process is called adsorption

Mean filter rating

The mean filter rating refers to the measurement of the average pore size of a filter element. It
establishes the particle size above which the filter starts to be effective. It is determined by the
bubble point test and it is more meaningful than a nominal rating and, in case of filter elements
with varying pore size, more realistic than an absolute rating.