Q. My humidifier broke and I'm looking for a new one. Should I get a warm- or cold-mist machine?
A.If you're one of those people whose lips chap and sinuses crack at the mere mention of electric heating, winter can be pretty painful. Cold air holds less moisture than the warm winds of summer, and baseboard, central and, hell, really any form of heating can make matters worse. The result? A spike in humidifier sales come winter.
Okay, maybe that's obvious, but betcha didn't know that a humidifier can help you cut back on energy consumption. Moisture from a humidifier can actually boost what the U.S. Department of Energy calls the "heat index," making a room that's kept at 20°C feel like 24°C.
But while these misters may be your key to a comfortable night's sleep, you could introduce a whole new set of problems into your home if you're not careful.
You might feel comfortable with moisture levels above 50 per cent, but you may as well put out a welcome mat for mould, bacteria and dust mites. Avoid this scenario by getting a humidifier with a programmable humidistat that turns the machine off whenever moisture levels go above, say, 40 per cent. It's also a good tool to help you cut back on energy wastage, especially useful if your living companion is the type who forgets to turn the machine off. Ahem. But I digress.
The trouble is many humidistats aren't that reliable, causing the humidifier to put out too much or too little moisture. Get yourself a hygrometer from your local hardware store to measure the indoor humidity of all areas of your apartment. Levels of 30 to 40 per cent are considered mould-discouraging. Beyond that, how do you know which humidifier is right for you? Well, not ultrasonic types. These old-school high-frequency vibrating humidifiers were "hot," as Paris would say, back in the day, but the weird white "dust" they emitted (mostly minerals from hard water and microorganisms) started freaking people out, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says you can minimize white dust if you're vigilant about only using distilled water and demineralization cartridges, if available. Cleaning it really often is also key.
There are two types of cool mist units: evaporative and impeller. Popular evaporative models actually use a fan to blow water across a wick filter that traps bacteria, minerals and pollutants. They rely on - you guessed it - evaporation to disperse water into the air and tend to be among the most energy-efficient . You can get programmable ones for about $60. If you're not into supporting the defence sector, however, you might consider avoiding those made by Honeywell. Impeller types are basically the same thing but without the filter. Some say they don't have the same white dust problem that ultrasonic machines have because the droplets produced are larger, but the EPA disagrees.
Others put warm vapour into the air the same way kettles do, by boiling water. While boiling prevents bacterial buildup, eliminating the need for a filter, it also requires way more energy than the cold-mist process. But some people swear that the steamy moisture makes the room feel warmer (as opposed to cool mists, which can make you feel clammy), so you can set your thermostat down a notch.
Some steamers not only boil water but have an ultraviolet light (for extra bacteria-fighting power) and mineral -absorbing pads. The pads have to be changed every week unless you use distilled water, plus the machines are a pain in the ass to clean.
Other than that, your considerations are mostly about size. Tabletop types are good for single rooms. Console models suitable for multiple rooms have larger tanks that don't have to be filled so often, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Bacteria can breed in reservoirs if water is sitting there for more than a day or two.
Regardless of size, the EPA says tanks should be emptied, wiped dry and refilled every day. That's right, every day . Then every third day you're supposed to scrub the tank with a brush and clean all surfaces with hydrogen peroxide. Damn, that sounds like way more work than I've ever done on any humidifier. Oops.
Another upkeep tip: change your filter regularly (yes, more regularly than you do now). Damp filters can really attract bacteria. Check your instruction booklet for scheduling tips.
These days, many models come with antibacterial filters that seem perfect for lazy people, but you gotta wonder what chemical they use.
If you've got forced air, whole- house humidifiers that attach to your furnace ducts are quiet and efficient but cost more up front. Plus maintenance chores tend to get neglected since the device is tucked away in your furnace room. Desert Spring makes a good low-maintenance one.
Thinking of getting an air purifier/humidifier combo? Well, Allergy Consumer Review pans two-in-ones, saying they offer "the worst of both worlds," although the org does say Bemis makes a decent one.
For super-tight budgets, there's always the old pan-of-water technique. Just hope your pet doesn't lap it up before the air does.
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