Coping with low humidity

By Tom Seymour | Dec 12, 2013
Photo by: Tom Seymour Whole-house humidifiers use paper filters such as these.

Now in winter, with the woodstove going, the inside humidity descends to unhealthy lows. Airborne dust irritates the mucous membranes and causes us to sneeze. Such low humidity causes other problems, too.

For instance, wooden furniture becomes loose as the joints shrink on account of dryness. I’ve sat on chairs that had become so rickety that it seemed they would surely collapse. Musical instruments suffer as well.

I play several different kinds of bagpipes and all of them are made of exotic woods. In winter, with my woodstove ramped up to full tilt, the pipes become almost impossible to play because the cane reeds close up, unwilling to vibrate at the correct rate and thus, to make the correct sound.

In fact, without some kind of remedial action, the insides of our houses in winter have about the same relative humidity rating as a genuine desert. Dry, dry, dry. And we suffer for it. It was only two years ago that I decided to take steps to combat desert-like conditions inside my house. The answer was a humidifier.

Teapots and bath towels

Oh, yes, I tried all the little cutesy antidotes. None of them worked, including the fairly expensive, cast-iron kettle. That’s because it takes a whole heck of a lot more moisture in the air to combat low humidity than any kettle can produce. Besides that, the kettle needs frequent refills, a real nuisance.

Even a 3-gallon stock pot filled with water failed to raise the humidity in my place by even 1 percent. It did provide a ready source of hot water for doing dishes, but that wasn’t the reason for keeping it on the stove.

One remedial measure that works to at least some extent involves a bathtub and bath towel. A Holiday Inn manager taught me this many years ago. Fill a bathtub up at least halfway and then put a large towel to soak in the water. When the towel becomes saturated, wring it out so it no longer drips. Then place one end of the towel in the bath water and drape the other end over the side of the bathtub. The towel acts as a wick and it introduces a considerable amount of water into the air.

The drier the air, the better the “wick” works. The bathroom door must remain open so that the moist air can mix with the dry air beyond. But this fix is not a long-term solution because it is so inconvenient.

Humidifier varieties

My sojourn into the world of humidifiers was a real eye-opener. What seemed so easy at first was in fact rather difficult. The marketplace, as it turned out, was filled with humidifiers of every sort. But which one would do the trick for me?

The first humidifiers I saw were of the mist-type. These are often used in sick rooms and are barely adequate for even one small room, which is why they are usually placed near the patient’s bed. These humidifiers have a plastic water reservoir that fits on the part that spins around to emit a spray. These devices have a very limited use and are not effective for whole-house use.

So on to the next type of humidifier, larger models meant for a large room or even an entire house. These cost far more than the little bedside misters, but they do the job. These resemble small, wooden cabinets and may even be mistaken for some kind of space heater at first glance.

My online search for cabinet-type humidifiers almost had me convinced that I couldn’t afford a real good one. Some of the whole-house types, which was what I needed, were far too expensive for my household budget. These were large capacity models, designed to tap into existing heat ducts. But my house doesn’t have heat ducts. I heat with wood, which causes excess dryness, which is why I needed a humidifier in the first place. What a conundrum.

Finally, I found several cabinet-style humidifiers that were of the stand-alone variety. These come with removable reservoirs and the reservoirs, when filled, hold enough water to properly humidify a house for up to 24 hours. Best of all, this kind of humidifier was well within my budget.

After narrowing my choices down to two models, I opted for the Sears humidifier, and for good reason. Cabinet-style humidifiers use paper filters. The cheaper model, the one that would have probably worked just fine for me, required buying filters online. That didn’t seem like such a good idea. Imagine having to buy your vacuum cleaner filters online. When the filter becomes full, you need another one right now, now when the post office delivers it. You need to be able to run down to the local store and buy filters as needed and that’s all there is to it.

Humidifier maintenance

Finally, I went to my local Sears outlet and bought my humidifier, but not before ascertaining that Sears could keep me supplied with filters upon demand.

Setting the thing up was quite simple. Just fill the reservoirs and wait a few hours for the filters to absorb water. Then turn the thing on. Two fans, each located above a filter, blow humidified air throughout the room. This is not a spray or mist, either, but just air that contains a lot of moisture. In fact, the filters act as a wick, the same as the bath towel in the tub that I mentioned earlier. The fans just help to disperse the moisture.

The humidifier has a digital readout and several fan speed adjustments. I chose the medium speed and that worked out fine. The readout was another matter. It took me a while to realize that the number on the digital readout was not, in fact, the same as the number on the humidity gauge on my indoor weather station. There is a trick to keeping the humidifier set so that it keeps the house at optimum humidity, and here it is.

The actual humidity in the house is always considerably more than what the readout on the humidifier indicates. I began by setting my humidifier at 55. That was because any humidity factor lower than 50 is way too dry and 55 seemed about right. But the house soon became overly humid. Condensation built up on windows and soon I was unable to see outside. Water ran down the inside of my sliding glass door. Something was wrong.

I checked the humidity gauge on the weather station and the humidity was in the high 60s, much too high. So I lowered the number on the readout to 45 and waited for the humidity on the weather station to settle down to somewhere between 50 and 55. It took some time and some adjusting, but finally it worked. And that’s what anyone will need to do. Set the humidifier and then see check humidity levels at different parts of the house. If still too low, raise the number on the readout. If too high, lower it. Once you establish the relationship between the two, you will have the settings mastered. While indoor humidity is relative to outdoor humidity and changes as the outdoor humidity changes, the relationship between the humidifier and your indoor reading never changes. The number span always remains the same.

For instance, right now my humidifier readout stands at 42, while the indoor humidity away from the humidifier is a comfortable 54.

Finally, the filters can and do become laden with airborne dirt and dust. The instructions recommend emptying the humidifier weekly and allowing the filters to dry so that you can clean them. But the directions don’t explain how to clean them and in fact, they cannot be cleaned to any degree of satisfaction. I did find, however, that turning the filters upside down before replacing them in their holders added an extra week or so of life.

Also, dumping a humidifier full of water is a real nuisance. I like to do it outside, but when the temperature hovers around zero, that isn’t a good idea. But the longer that water remains in the humidifier the quicker it becomes algae-laden, the same as an untended goldfish bowl.

I clean my humidifier every two weeks instead of every week. And if I don’t want to run to town for new filters, I’ll just upend them, as suggested above.

Although it requires time and effort to properly maintain a humidifier, it’s all worth it. No more do I wake up with cracked lips and scratchy throat. My instruments stay in fine shape and even keep in tune from one day to the next. And my wooden furniture no longer falls apart.

Weekly tip

Running a humidifier has other benefits, too. Houseplants thrive in a more humid environment. For people who raise humidity-loving tropical plants, a home humidifier is a must.

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