Whole-House Humidifier Can Help You Breathe Easier

By Bob Vila

We all know how soothing it can be to breathe in warm, moist air when we're suffering from a cold, sore throat or stuffed nasal and sinus cavities. When a child gets sick, we pull out the portable humidifier to ease the discomfort, or maybe a steamy pot of water and a towel for over the head. The rest of the time, many of us just tolerate the dry indoor air that winter brings.

But dry indoor air can usher in its own set of health and comfort issues -- chief among them scratchy throats, nose bleeds, dry skin and static electricity. If you are experiencing these conditions in your home, there's a relatively easy solution: install a whole-house humidifier.

Studies have shown that people are most comfortable in environments where the relative humidity stays above 40 percent. Skin feels better, eyes don't itch, lips don't chap and sparks don't jump. Even more important, relative humidity levels over 40 percent render some viruses inactive, making it less likely that diseases will be transferred from one family member to another.

Maintaining higher humidity in your home may also allow you to dial down the thermostat and save some fuel. When the indoor temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity is 20 percent, for example, the "apparent" temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. With a relative humidity of 45 percent, the same indoor temperature feels more like 67 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then -- Primitive controls, frequent servicing: Most old humidifiers worked on the principle of evaporation. They were mounted on the supply side of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) duct near the furnace (often straddling the return and supply duct). Tubing supplied water to a small reservoir that had a float-controlled valve to keep it from overfilling. A drum, wrapped with an evaporative pad, rotated through the water at slow speed. Warm air passed through the pad, adding moisture. The warm, moist air was then delivered to the home via ducts and hot air-supply registers.

Controls were primitive. In some cases, you might have been able to speed up or slow down the rotation of the drum, but it was tough to know whether you were delivering too little or too much moisture. Worse, these earlier models required frequent servicing, because the pad would end up encrusted with mineral deposits and become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold. Often, leaks would rust out the furnace cabinet base, leading to premature furnace failure.

Now -- More efficient, easier to maintain: Today's whole-house humidifiers, like most appliances, are significantly better designed than they were even just a few years ago. In fact, there are several types now on the market, so if you are considering installing a whole-house humidifier - or replacing an outdated, inefficient one - here are some things to consider to help you find the right humidifier for your home:

Options: There are various types of whole-house humidification systems available today, including fan-powered, bypass and steam. Fan-powered units are generally used for forced-air heating systems and mounted on the supply duct to the furnace. A built-in low-voltage motor powers the airflow. In contrast, bypass units connect to both the supply and return ducts. These units dispense with the fan and operate instead by making use of the pressure differential between the cool and heated air. Steam whole-house humidifiers, which heat water to create steam that is then delivered throughout your home via existing ducts, are perhaps the most efficient, because they do not require pads and use nearly all of the water they take in.

Controls: Today's whole-house humidifiers are equipped with a humidistat, a device that senses the moisture in the air and allows you to control the desired level through manual, digital or even programmable controls. In fact, some units can monitor outside temperatures and automatically lower humidity levels during very cold weather.

Size: The amount of humidification you need in your home is determined by the total square footage and how well your house is constructed. Humidifier capacity is measured as gallons per day of operation. To figure out the right size unit for your house, measure the total floor area in square feet and then multiply by the average ceiling height. This calculation -- your home's approximate volume -- is then often multiplied by a figure from about .3 to 1 to account for your home's "tightness," or degree of air leakage. (The lower the number, the tighter the construction.) Check online for convenient calculators.

Cost: When you're trying to estimate humidifier cost, you need to look at more than just the cost of the unit itself. You need to consider the operating and maintenance costs as well. Some units consume more energy than others, so it's key to choose a unit that is right for your home and budget to ensure that you're not wasting money on an unnecessarily high-capacity humidifier.

More home improvement tips from Zillow:
The Benefits of a Whole-House Humidifier
8 Common Home Hazards -- and How to Avoid Them
10 Houseplants to Improve the Air Quality in Your Home

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Bob Vila is the home improvement expert widely known as host of TV's This Old House, Bob Vila's Home Again, and Bob Vila. Today, Bob continues his mission to help people upgrade their homes and improve their lives with advice online at BobVila.com. His video-rich site offers a full range of fresh, authoritative content -- practical tips, inspirational ideas, and more than 1,000 videos from Bob Vila television.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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