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Especially during the cold Baltimore area winters, dry indoor air is a common problem that can leave you less comfortable, raise your energy bills, and even cause damage to your home. An indoor humidity level less than 35 percent impairs the air quality throughout your whole home.

humidifierThis is where the connection between indoor air quality and humidifiers comes in. Humidifiers add moisture to your home’s air, increasing the humidity to a healthy level and preventing the problems caused by dry air.

Clear Signs Humidifiers Can Help Your Indoor Air Quality

Many of the air quality problems caused by dry air are easy to attribute to other factors, so it’s not always obvious when your home could benefit from a humidifier. And if you’re used to experiencing these problems every winter, it’s easy to write them off as an avoidable part of living in this climate.
Knowing which issues to look out for and understanding how balanced humidity can help correct them will help you decide if it’s worth investing in a humidifier.

Dry skin and related symptoms – Dry air saps moisture from wherever it can, including your body. You may notice dry skin, chapped lips, dry eyes that itch or burn, a scratchy throat, dry nose, and more frequent nosebleeds. Increasing your home’s humidity level allows your body to retain its natural moisture so you stay more comfortable and look better, too.

Upper respiratory complaints – Breathing dry air while you’re at home can dry out your airways, leaving them irritated and poorly protected. You may suffer from worsened allergy symptoms or more frequent asthma attacks. Because dry air helps the flu virus live longer, low indoor humidity increases your risk of coming down with this illness. Balanced humidity protects your whole family’s respiratory health. It’s especially important if your household includes young children or elderly adults who are more susceptible to illness.

Constant chilly feeling – As your home’s air pulls water from your skin, the evaporative cooling effect this creates leaves you feeling colder than you would in higher humidity. Turn up the thermostat in response and you’ll also raise your energy bills. Boosting your indoor humidity reduces the chilling effect of dry air, so you can turn down the heat. What you invest in a humidifier may be recouped through what you save on heating.

Damage to furniture and other household items – If you’ve noticed fractures appearing in wood furniture and parquet flooring, the paint chipping and wallpaper peeling, dry air could be to blame. Musical instruments and artwork are also at risk for this kind of damage. Sufficient humidity keeps your home looking better and reduces the chance you’ll need to shell out for repairs.

Static electricity – Those shocks you get from the metal around your house, as well as flyaway hair and clinging clothes, are signs of low humidity. The less moisture in the air, the less easily electrons can dissipate into the air. In dry conditions, they tend to build up on metal and other objects. When you touch the metal, the moisture in your hand allows the electrons to discharge into your skin, causing a shock. More than just an annoyance, these shocks can and do permanent damage to certain electronics.

Before investing in humidifiers to boost indoor air quality, test your home’s humidity by hanging a hygrometer on the wall. This inexpensive instrument provides a precise reading of the relative indoor humidity as a percent. Ideally, it should read 35 to 50 percent, with humidity on the lower end of this range in winter and on the higher end in summer.

If it’s less than 35 percent, you’ll most likely benefit from a humidifier. During cold weather, it’s not uncommon for a home to have relative indoor humidity levels as low as 10 percent, so don’t be surprised if you see a very low reading. This is why, in our area, humidifiers are often recommended for improving the indoor air quality.

Indoor Air Quality and Humidifiers: Finding the Right Solution

Before you start shopping around, you’ll need to decide what type of humidifier will best meet your needs. Humidifiers come in two basic designs.

Portable humidifiers – These small tabletop or floor-standing units produce just enough moisture to humidify one room or part of your home. They’re relatively affordable and you can set them up without help from a professional. If your home’s air is only slightly dry, a portable humidifier in your bedroom or other room where you spend a lot of time may be enough to ease any physical symptoms.

On the downside, these models need to be refilled daily and require cleaning once or twice a week. Not all models are fitted with a hygrometer, so they continue producing moisture until you shut them off. This makes it hard to achieve your preferred humidity level and creates the risk of excess humidity, which is just as bad as low humidity.

Whole-house humidifiers – This type is installed inside the heating and cooling system and adds moisture to the air passing through. The humidified air is then distributed to all rooms through the air duct system. These models draw water from your home’s plumbing so they never need refilling. Most require maintenance only once or twice a year.

Due to their complex installation requirements, however, these systems must be installed by a heating and cooling professional. If you want to improve the humidity level in more than one room, consider that opting for a whole-house unit may cost less than buying several portable units.

Whole-House Humidifier Options

If you decide on a whole-house model, there are two basic types to choose from:
Drum model – In this type of humidifier, a barrel-like drum covered with a water-absorbing pad continuously revolves and dips into a pan of water as it turns. As the air coming through the heating and cooling system flows through the wet pad, it picks up tiny droplets of water, increasing its humidity.

Flow-through model – In this type, water drips onto a pad or filter. Air picks up moisture as it flows through this wet material. These models are often cheaper to run and require less maintenance.

Steam models are also available, but they’re typically used only in locations with severely dry air.

You’ll need to find a system with a capacity large enough to handle your home’s needs. This requires calculating the space you need to humidify in square feet and finding a humidifier model with an output, measured in gallons a day, large enough to handle this space. For example, a space of 900 to 1000 square feet requires a humidifier with an output of around 4.0 to 5.0 gallons per day (gpd).

Getting the Most From a Humidifier

Improving indoor air quality with humidifiers isn’t complicated, but following a few guidelines will help you achieve the healthiest conditions possible while avoiding some of the problems humidifiers are prone to.
Choose a healthy humidity level – The ideal indoor humidity is influenced by the outdoor temperatures. In temperatures as low as 20 degrees, aim for an indoor humidity level of around 40 percent. In even colder weather, 35 or 30 percent is sufficient.

Even if your humidifier is designed to shut off once your chosen humidity level is reached, keep a hygrometer on your wall to better monitor your home’s moisture levels.

Give the humidifier time – With some heating systems, the fan may not run long enough during the heating cycle to give the humidifier enough time to add sufficient moisture to the air. Consider setting the furnace or heat pump to let the fan run even while the heat is off.

Don’t neglect maintenance – Because they’re constantly damp, humidifiers can become breeding grounds for mold and bacteria if they’re not properly maintained. Any mold spores or bacteria that develop in the system will be spread around the house as the humidifier runs.

Portable cool-mist and cool-evaporative humidifiers should be wiped down with a bleach solution once or twice weekly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Whole-house models should be cleaned and their pads or filters replaced as recommended.

For more on indoor air quality and humidifiers, or for other home comfort concerns, contact us at Griffith Energy Services, Inc. We proudly serve homeowners around Baltimore, Hagerstown, and Westminster, as well as Dover, Delaware and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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