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Maybe you need a humidifier; if your family room is a desert, your cacti are drying, and your Mexican hairless is beginning to shed, it's time to consider adding moisture to your home.


Humidifier manufacturers are telling the truth when they say your home can become a desert. When outside temperatures fall and your furnace runs continually, dry air is the inevitable result. The problem comes from heating the air, which loses humidity as it expands. To make up for the loss, air sucks the moisture out of all surrounding surfaces, even your body. The more your furnace runs, the more you're going to suffer.

For comfort, home humidity should stay at 30 to 50 percent. If the humidity drops below 20 percent, skin becomes dry, clothes crackle, furniture warps, wood floors squeak, plants wilt, computers lose data, and throats get sore. Books and paintings become victims, too. But a simple home humidifier may come to the rescue, whether it's a $20 table-top vaporizer, a $100 room-size evaporator, or a $250 furnace-fit atomizer to moisten your entire heated living space.

Don't rush out to buy a humidifier, though, until you know how it works. The size of your living space will determine the unit size you need. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which certifies humidifiers according to water output, estimates that a 1,500-square-foot home of average construction needs five to six gallons of water a day to maintain 30 percent relative humidity.

Two other factors come into play when figuring humidification: the outside air temperature and the tightness of your home's construction. During the winter, cold air from the outside circulates through your home naturally to replace heated air that goes up your chimney; in poorly constructed homes and during extremely cold weather, warm air also escapes through walls and ceilings. Thus, your furnace runs longer and the inside humidity drops even further. The proper strategy is to solve insulation problems first by weather-stripping and by installing storm windows, fireplace dampers, and vapor barriers. A tight home holds its heat and its humidity much better than a loose one.

Because constantly changing humidity creates its own set of problems, experts agree that indoor humidity ought to be controlled the same way indoor temperature is. The most efficient way to control indoor humidity is to attach a humidifier directly to your furnace. The desired moisture level is then set and controlled automatically with a humidistat. The cost for such a unit, installed by a contractor, runs $200 and up. Maintenance, depending on water hardness in your area, may amount to changing or cleaning evaporator pads and, if the humidifier has a reservoir tank, regularly cleaning it as well. Humidity will change gradually with minimum effect.

If you live in an apartment, however, and the landlord isn't willing to install a central humidifier, you'll have to settle for a portable unit. Here, the key considerations are noise and the work and messiness you may encounter while filling and cleaning the unit. Four kinds of portable humidifiers are now available; all have benefits and drawbacks.

Evaporative units make no noise but leave hard-water solids on a pad; the pad may become a breeding place for bacteria if not regularly and properly cleaned.

Steam humidifiers are sterile but expensive to operate. Their output is relatively small, and they will clog from mineral-rich water.

Vaporizers, which throw out water droplets by either pressure or impeller force, are very efficient, but they tend to be noisy, and the minerals they distribute along with the water often show up as powder or film on surfaces in the home. They may also leave wet spots on the floor beneath the vapor stream.

The new bacteria-free ultrasonic humidifiers run quietly, but like vaporizers, they send dissolved minerals into the air and have a small water capacity.

A common problem with portable humidifiers is keeping them filled with water. To combat this problem, some manufacturers offer reservoirs that extend the time between fill-ups. Juergen Puetter, president of a Canadian firm that makes ultrasonic units, claims that his company's detachable reservoir is "easier to fill than a five-gallon tank.' However, the firms that make tank-reservoir models say their units don't need filling as frequently. It's strictly a matter of preference.

Fred Henke, a senior engineer for Emerson, a manufacturer that conducted extensive product research in Minneapolis, warns about a potential problem with water reservoirs. Odor, bacteria, and mineral deposits may accumulate in the reservoir. To fight the build-up, various products are on the market. Tablets and powders that reduce the formation of mineral scale are available in hard-water regions of the country. And Sears recently approved a bacteriastat for use in evaporative humidifiers.

Portable units should be cleaned once a month in areas where water is soft and relatively free of contaminants, more often where there are known or suspected problems. In mineral-rich Las Vegas, for example, scale cleaning might be required once a week. But in Salt Lake City, where water comes from mountain streams, the unit could sit for an entire season and require only antibateria maintenance.

How humid should you keep your home? Most experts say home humidity shouldn't be higher than 50 percent. Above that level, you may invite mold, mildew, fungus, and structural damage. House mites also flourish when humidity climbs above 50 percent.

The health benefits of humid versus dry air are debatable, although the humidifier-sales literature would have you believe otherwise with their claims that bacteria and cold germs are less active where humidity is maintained. Studies of humidity's effects on allergy sufferers and asthmatics have been inconclusive. But medical researchers have discovered that severely dry air may contribute to health problems in the general public by interfering with the movement of the cilia, the hairlike projections in the nose and bronchial tubes that carry debris from the lungs. Most experts agree, however, that humid air does not reduce the likelihood of catching colds, as some manufacturers have implied.

Comfort remains the most important benefit humidifiers offer. Humid air is soothing and feels warmer than dry air at the same temperature. This property may be used to your advantage on your fuel bills: By increasing humidity, you can lower your thermostat as much as five degrees while staying just as comfortable and warm in your home.

For more information about humidifiers, write to the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, 1501 Wilson Boulevard, 6th Floor, Arlington, VA 22209. Its booklet, How to Humidify Your Home or Business, is available free with a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Photo: Proper humidity in your home will not only please your potted plants, it may also help lower your heating costs.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hayes, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1986
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