What You Need to Know Before Buying a Humidifier

By Lyle Weischwill | Oct. 05, 2015 12:37 pm PST

Humidifiers and dehumidifiers can be part of a larger HVAC solution

Does your home have especially dry air? Don’t jump the gun on buying a humidifier. Too much moisture can actually be a bad thing.

Do you ever wake up with cracked lips, dry eyes or parched skin? That’s a good sign the air inside your home is too dry. But before running out to buy a humidifier to put moisture back into the air, do a little research.

Assess the air

Start with a hygrometer, an inexpensive device to measure the amount of moisture in the air.

“You want it between 35% and 55%,” says David Kenyon, training manager specializing in heating, ventilation and air conditioning for Sears Home Improvement Products in New Rochelle, New York. “If it’s higher, mold, bacteria or dust mites could thrive,” he says. “And humidity that’s too low can dry out your furniture, floor boards, doors and artwork. It can also cause dry skin and even nosebleeds.”

If every room needs a boost, there could be a larger problem. “If you’ve got a family of three and a dog living in a modest-sized home, the moisture generated by breathing, plus that from showers and baths and dishwashing should generate enough moist air to keep you comfortable,” says Ed Voytovich, a retired energy advisor based in Syracuse, New York.

If that’s not happening, it’s worth your while to schedule a home performance check-up to find out where the moist air is leaking out and dry air is coming in.

Finding the right humidifier

If it’s just a bedroom, a simple room humidifier might do. Some let you set your ideal humidity level; some are cool mist, some warm; and some are quieter than others. There are even kid-friendly options that have a heavier base to keep them from falling over and a cooler mist to avoid a scalding hazard.

Regardless of what type you choose, you’ll need to keep the machine bacteria-free by cleaning it according to the product manual. Keep in mind that making a room too moist can lead to mold growth, which can affect those with allergies or asthma.

A bigger solution

For a whole-house humidifier, “you need to have a forced air system and ductwork,” Kenyon says. “And it has to be in a conditioned space like the basement or the living space. If it’s in the attic, the humidity lines will freeze.”

The advantage of this type of system is the humidistat, which measures and regulates humidity levels. “Set it once and forget about it,” Kenyon says.

The downside is that you have to remember to regularly change the filter to avoid mold growth, both in the system and in your walls. “In a leaky home during cold weather, the warmer, moist air can come into contact with the cold surface of the outside wall and condense from vapor to liquid, which will support mold growth,” Voytovich says.

Think big picture when you make the decision. “Don’t use a humidifier as a Band-Aid,” Voytovich says. “Get a separate, inexpensive hygrometer for the basement, one for each occupied floor and one for the attic. If there are sudden changes on one or more levels, you may be able to identify and correct a moisture issue that develops over time before it becomes a problem.”

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