Friday, January 20, 2012

The Humidity of it all

I am wondering how folks keep humidity in their homes during the winter months.

Increased humidity during the cold season can be beneficial. It helps with dry skin and stops static shock and static cling in clothes. Additionally, wood, leather, and other textiles benefit from having a little moisture in the air. If things become too dry, your woodwork and leather can crack or the paint might peel.

Mostly, though, humidity helps your sinuses. My husband and I both have sinus troubles, and regular readers know I also have asthma. Both conditions benefit from increased moisture in the air.

A hydrometer, available at any hardware store, will measure the humidity in the air. Humidity below 40 percent is considered low, but humidity above 50 percent is too high.

If the humidity is too high, you run the risk of mold growth, particularly if you keep the house heated at 70 degrees or more.

You can increase the humidity in many ways, and I think we have tried most of them. Low tech methods include leaving pots of water sitting around and letting that evaporate into the air. Wet towels will do the same thing, though I think you run the risk of mildew doing that. You can put a pot of water on the stove and let it boil, or place a kettle on the fireplace or woodstove and listen to it whistle.

Controlling humidity has been a battle for us for several years. When we built our home in 1987, we installed a whole-house warm steam humidifier. It worked rather like the toilet bowl in that it had a ball valve that lowered as the water in a little tank lowered. We had a humidistat on the wall and would set it for 40 percent and viola, we had humidity throughout the house.

The only thing we had to replace on this humidifier was the heating element. We cleaned it regularly because we have hard water, but after a few years it would corrode and we'd need another.

You can guess what happened. Eventually we could no longer find the heating element. Without that crucial part, the whole-house humidifier became useless.

Several years ago we replaced it with the newer version of the same thing. Alas, it was no longer the excellent product it was initially. It had a computer chip in it. It wouldn't work with the old humidistat on the wall, and it never seemed to regulate with the humidstat that it came with. We would set the humidity for 40 percent and the thing wouldn't turn on. We would set it higher and it would come on and saturate the house with water, which of course was not desirable at all.

We sent it back to the company several times for repair and work, but it never worked properly. I didn't trust it and would not go off and leave it running for fear I'd come home and find water oozing out of the heating duct work.

We looked at other whole-house warm mist humidifiers but decided that, in light of the fact that the new models all have been "improved" to the point of uselessness, that we would go with portable units in the house.

I bought an expensive warm mist humidifier for the bedroom, which we used successfully for two years, along with occasional use of the whole-house humidifier to subsidize it. Then the portable unit started leaking.

So I bought another portable unit for the bedroom, a different kind because of course the one I had purchased before was no longer available. This was a cranky appliance; it used mineral pads to keep down mineral deposits and if they were not situated exactly so on its little spot, it wouldn't run. It also required distilled water, and we were using over 10 gallons a week. I was glad when its water holder developed a leak, too.

Meanwhile, the whole-house unit became so unreliable that using it at all became out of the question. So we turned it off forever.

Two years ago, we bought a large cool mist humidifier. We put that in the hallway, and used a small, cheap warm mist humidifier in the bedroom. That worked well and we were able to control the humidity levels.

Cool mist is evaporative humidity, but the humidifier uses a fan to force the moisture into the air. Warm mist creates a steam. Warm mist is actually better for sinus conditions, but it heats the water.

All of these units require daily cleaning and a weekly maintenance routine. I'm not going to say I did it every day, but I think I was as diligent about cleaning the machines as most people would be. Maybe more so because, with my allergies and asthma, I really needed for the machines to stay in proper working order.

This year we again used the large cool mist humidifier. The weather here has been tricky, and it's been dry and warmer than normal. I've had a difficult time keeping the humidity at a good level. We switched to a small cool mist humidifier in the bedroom, too, mostly because it would use tap water and not distilled water.

In both of these, we used a humidifier cleaner product to keep down bacteria and mold.

After the new year, my asthma kicked in. It seemed I could breathe better outside and away from home. I couldn't find the problem. Something in the house was bothering me. I looked everywhere for mold or dust. I watched my diet to see if I was eating something I shouldn't.

Finally, earlier this week, I took a flashlight and peered into the motor of the large cool mist humidifier. Along the ridges of the underside of the fan, down inside where I couldn't reach to clean, and where you couldn't see without turning things upside down and taking things apart with a screwdriver, I saw a bit of mold.

I am highly allergic to mold.

I threw the humidifier outside immediately, and set to work spraying Lysol and checking to be sure there was no mold growth in the area where the humidifier had been sitting.

Whether or not this was the problem with my asthma, I don't know, but it seems likely. This morning, for the first time this month, my peak flow meter numbers (used to monitor your breathing) are out of the "caution you're in trouble" range.

It also is very apparent to us that in order to humidify the house, we may have to purchase new appliances every year. I will not have something that has mold in it in the house, and obviously there is no way to clean every part to guarantee that there is no mold. Purchasing a new item annually seems to be the only way to ensure no mold. But that will get expensive.

So I am curious. Do other people have this problem? And if so, how do you deal with it? Any recommendations?

7 comments:

  1. No... we have never had this problem, but neither of us have breathing issues. Must be driving you crazy.

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  2. We've never had a problem with the air in our house being too dry. Since the house is small, moisture from showers and cooking keep the humidity high enough. We do have a problem with it being too humid in the summer.

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  3. Anita, we have a steam humidifier for bedroom, hoping there is no mold. Another thing my sister did is to incorporate some of the nice looking garden style fountains with pumps into her house--doesn't have to be fancy or big, just allows you to see all the surfaces and or clean them as needed. I have seen one that looks like a waterfall down the face of a vertical "rock"...I do like the passive methods you mentioned esp if you have a wood stove---put the kettle on top or even and open pot. Esp since you have no kitties to jump into it like ours would do.

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  4. I have a lack of humidity problem with my apartment. I'd love a humidifier, but can't afford it so have been doing the pot-on-the-stove trick a few times a week to help combat it.

    Though I have the thermostat set between 75 and 85, it is never actually that warm due to a number of reasons. You can actually feel the temp drop walking from living room to bath/back bedroom.

    In addition to being really dry, I also believe there is a mold issue in my apartment. I was flooded by the apt above 4-1/2 yrs ago. They sopped up some of the water in my hallway, but not enough, and it was 3 or 4 weeks before the carpet and walls were completely dry.

    Then when they tightened the connections upstairs, they didn't do something right, because there was a leak in my wall, which I reported regularly for more than two yrs before they finally fixed it. Naturally, in both instances no one ever returned to my apartment to assess damages, even though I told them it was damaging my bathroom wall and ceiling.

    So between the walls, doorframes, and hall carpet I do believe there is mold, especially under the carpet/padding. Just one of many reasons why I really need to find a new place to live.

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  5. Humidity was something that no one in Louisiana would ever think about making! Winter or summer!
    But I've been shocking the daylights out of myself here in the rental house in VA! Hate to think what it's doing to my furniture. I'd love to hear what you figure out.

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  6. i just hate how drying it is on my skin....winter where i'm from is not so dry!

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  7. Hi, I dropped in for a visit from Sweet Virginia Breeze, and after reading your blog found some coincidences. We also currently live in VA, on the eastern shore, and humidity is one thing we have plenty of in warm months, especially summer. But in cooler months, our old (1920s) home is very dry and so the walls often show cracks then as they are the old wet plaster construction. Basically, we just live with these conditions, but Grenville is susceptible to nasal problems, so we know it's not a food situation. We knew of some of the home remedies mentioned, but have not tried any and it seems that it's not possible to find reliable equipment as you have found out. By the way, Grenville was also a professional firefighter in our native NJ and also for 27 years and we've in VA full time since 2005' but planning to relocate to NE. Stop in for a visit anytime, we also like and read comments and meeting folks!

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