How to … Tips on using Humidiifers

December 30, 2016 by

In keeping with my attempt to provide what I hope is interesting and/or useful information in my blogs ...

With winter weather, our homes tend to have drier air inside.

Dry air can lead to respiratory discomfort and even medical problems.  Static electricity increases, so you get that undesirable or even painful spark jump when you touch a door handle or something or someone that's grounded or at a different charge from you.

People tend to have a range of susceptibilities to lower humidity levels.  About half the people begin to experience respiratory and/or dry skin problems when the relative humidity level drops below around 25-30%.

Why does this happen?

There are at least a couple of reasons or contributing factors.
1 - The air outside is generally drier in winter.  Colder air has less moisture-holding capacity.
2 - Using heaters may in effect dry the inside air by pulling in the drier air from outside.

The second point may seem like a negative.  Why pull in drier air when you want more moisture?  But you also want the fresh air exchange to remove chemical and other contaminants in your home air.

Activities within the home will add some humidity to the air - things like baths or showering, cooking, even breathing - but these might not be enough to maintain comfort levels.

"Whole home" and portable humidifiers exist to help solve this problem.

I've tried both.
The whole home humidifier we tried, a nationally advertised brand, was a colossal failure for several reasons.  We had it plumbed in to our central HVAC system - like it should be.  That system supposedly "worked" by heating water to generate steam, which then flowed directly into the ducting for distribution to the house.  The automated system would flush and refill the steam generation bottle using the house water supply.
The problems we experienced were noise, expensive maintenance, and premature steam condensation.
The steam generation bottles cost about $100 apiece, and with the house water supply (which wasn't too badly mineralized), they only lasted a couple of months.  We went through two of these in one winter season.
That might have been okay, except for the other problems.
Even with the well insulated tubes carrying the steam, it was condensing in the tube and running down the drain before it ever got to the ducting.  We never got any significant humidity increase.  It took us some time to realize the cause of this problem.
The system was also very noisy.  Unfortunately, the HVAC unit was located in the attic just a short distance from over our master bedroom.  Each time it came on, there was a loud relay click.  The water flowing into the bottle and draining from it during fill and flush operations was very noisy as well.  This would happen at least twice each night.  Our sleep suffered.
We tried a couple of things to help.  We tried to muffle the noise by insulating the lines to quiet them.  No success.
We tried using it only during the day.  That's when we discovered the premature steam condensation problem.  The HVAC tech was unable to solve that problem.
We finally gave up.

To resolve the low humidity problem in our home, we now use portable humidifiers.  I've had several models over the years.
The two units I'm using now are different brands.  Both are ultrasonic and work well.
Both were under $100.

If you want to use humidifiers, consider several factors.

First, and probably most important, is the water you use.
Tap water, whether from a city source or a well, is going to contain dissolved or suspended minerals.  Neither of these is suitable for a humidifier.  You must use either distilled water or water which has been filtered to remove those minerals.
The consequence of not doing so is that you will have a fine white powder deposited on furniture or other items near the humidifier - and maybe throughout much of the house.
You can get distilled water from the grocery store.  Setting up your own distillation system is awkward and high maintenance.
I wouldn't trust store-bought filtered, spring, or other types of water in a unit without looking at the specifications (if they have anything) or actually testing it to see if it generates the white powder.  Some companies make filters for home use which remove those minerals.

Humidifiers use two primary methods of increasing moisture levels - ultrasonic and heat.

Again, I've used both types.
The ultrasonic units vibrate a small plate at frequencies above what humans can hear to put out a cold vapor.  They appear to use less electricity because they aren't actually heating the water to boiling.
The heat units have a heating element to boil the water and actually produce steam.  This type also helps raise room temperature in the immediate area.

Back to the water for a moment.  I've noticed that the heat units will tolerate a slightly higher mineral level without spreading the white powder, but I think it's because the minerals react with the heating coil and get deposited there.  If you have a high mineral content, though, you will still get the white powder.

My experience with the useful life of both types is about the same - 3 to 4 years if maintained.  I'll discuss maintenance later.

I look especially at these features.

- noise level
- water tank capacity
- ease of tank filling
- adjustable vapor flow

You want a quiet unit when you're trying to sleep.
A humidifier will produce two types of sound.  One is that of the water vapor being sent into the air.  One of the units I have now is the quietest I've ever heard in that regard.
The other sound is from the small reservoir where the vapor is produced.  This reservoir refills periodically as the water is turned to vapor.  It makes a sort of faint "splashing" sound.  This will happen every several minutes, depending on the vapor generation rate.

Tank size:
You want at least a one gallon tank capacity.  Otherwise you'll be filling it more often.  Some larger, more expensive humidifiers come with a multi- gallon capacity, but at that point they aren't very portable any more.
I think one gallon or slightly more is a good size.  The two units I have now will run for a day or so on a gallon of water.

Ease of filling:
Related to this is the ability to refill the tank.  Some units are easier than others.  The tanks must have decent handles or grips positioned for easy removal, filling, and reloading.  The fill opening should be at least one inch in diameter - somewhat larger is better.  You'll likely be filling the tank from a water jug, a filtering container, or something similar.  You may not know this answer in advance, but if what you get is a problem, you can always use a funnel.

Vapor flow rate:
The capability for an adjustable vapor flow is a nice feature.  That way you can dial down for situations where the humidity is just a little lower than comfortable or you can crank it up for faster humidification.  The setting you use will have an impact of how often you have to refill the tank.   You also want some air circulation so you don't get condensation in a localized area.

Now to decide which units to get ...
First, check any reviews on the brands and models.  I've found that even some Amazon reviews can be misleading or inaccurate - not necessarily Amazon's fault.  People don't always realize how to use a humidifier properly, and they complain about the unit when it's really an operator error or ignorance.

Finally, as with most operational items, there is some maintenance.  It's not a big deal but will take some time occasionally.
The biggest thing to check for is mold in the vapor generation chamber.  This, in my experience, is usually a black material located in the chamber.  (Depending on your water source, you may see some orange material.  This may be either mold or bacteria.) The heat units may also have some black, but in my experience it's more from mineral or other reactions with the heating element than actual mold.  I would expect the heat to kill any mold that does form in these units, but it can't be ruled out.
Sometimes just using a clean paper towel or tissue paper is adequate for cleaning the chamber.  Occasionally, you may need to use chemicals of some type.  Always check the owner's manual for safe things to use.  If you use something corrosive, you may damage the plate and shorten the life of the unit.
You may also find black mold elsewhere in the base where the water flows.  Treat it the same.  Flush the region with distilled or whatever type of water you're using before using the unit again.
I have on rare occasions rinsed the tank, but I've never found the tank to be a problem.

Some Other Suggestions:
Since you are dealing with water, it can leak or spill, I would suggest only using the humidifier in a bathroom or some place where water won't hurt anything. Maybe a granite, formica, or other solid type of counter top.

I would also suggest you get a hygrometer (humidity meter) to keep track of where your sensitivities might be. They aren't very expensive. Using this meter, you could learn over time when to begin raising moisture levels before you have a problem, not wait until you do.

An alternative to using a humidifier is just to fill the bathtub and other basins with hot water.  It will evaporate and give you higher moisture levels.  Do not use hot water streaming from a shower head.  Although it may humidify faster than the tub, your tap water will have the minerals and you will get a fine white powder deposit in the area.

I hope this helps keep you healthier this and every other winter from now on.

Jim Stramler
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