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Who Should Consider a Whole House Humidifier — and Who Should Not?

Do you suffer from common airborne allergies — like a pollen, dust mite, or pet dander allergy? The discomfort can get so bad that your allergy symptoms do not only affect your mood, but also your ability to carry out your daily responsibilities.

You may sneeze frequently, have a runny or congested nose, and be plagued by watery, itchy, red, and swollen eyes that only seem to get worse as you inevitably rub them. Your throat may be sore and irritated, and you’re likely to have to deal with repeated episodes of coughing. In addition, allergies may cause localized skin rashes or whole-body hives that are red, incredibly itchy, raised, and even blistery. Some people who suffer from allergies will constantly be fatigued, suffer from debilitating headaches, and find it extremely hard to concentrate.

If someone were to suggest a seemingly fairly straightforward solution that promises to offer significant relief from all these allergy symptoms, you would, of course, jump at the chance! Humidifiers have steadily risen in popularity as people crave cleaner and healthier air and seek to reduce the severity of allergy symptoms. These devices can indeed play a role in alleviating allergy symptoms in some cases. Because there are important caveats, however, it is important to investigate the pros and cons before you do invest in a whole house humidifier.

What Is a Humidifier?

Humidifiers increase the relative humidity — meaning the concentration of water vapor — in a space by releasing water vapor or steam into the air. These devices can be classified into two broad types. Portable humidifiers are relatively small as well as affordable. They can be moved from one room to another with little effort, but are not powerful enough to increase humidity levels in larger spaces. Whole house humidifiers, which are also called central humidifiers, offer a more potent option. Connected to your home’s HVAC system, whole house humidifiers are able to raise the relative humidity across your entire home.

Both of types of humidifiers can again be divided into sub-categories. Portable humidifiers can, for instance, be steam vapor humidifiers, cool or warm mist humidifiers, air washer humidifiers, or ultrasonic humidifiers.

If you are considering installing a whole house humidifier, you may already be familiar with portable humidifiers, but want to upgrade to a more powerful humidifier. You may also simply want to skip the less effective portable versions and immediately get the best possible humidifying system.

Central humidifiers also come in multiple different types, each releasing water vapor into your HVAC system (and therewith your entire home) in unique ways. Your options are:

  • Steam whole house humidifiers, which use electricity to heat water that evaporates to create steam that is subsequently released into your home. These systems are connected to your power supply as well as your water.
  • Drum whole house humidifiers, which use a rotating drum to introduce more humidity to your home. These humidifiers also connect to your power and water supply, and tend to use less water while still performing effectively.
  • Flow-through whole house humidifiers, which have the benefit of not relying on electricity and thus leading to savings on your utility bill. These models use a moistened pad in combination with warm air from your HVAC system to release water into your air.

What Are the Ideal Relative Humidity Levels in a Home?

Excessively dry air and extremely moist air both create their own sets of problems within your home. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that the relative humidity in residential and commercial properties alike should fall between 30 and 50 percent. This is the ideal range for health and comfort. However, many other experts suggest that a relative humidity level of up to 60 percent is also acceptable.

Either way, this means that humidity levels below 30 percent are too low. Dry air in your home:

  • May exacerbate the symptoms of preexisting chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma and allergic rhinitis. It can also worsen the symptoms of short-term respiratory infections like common colds.
  • Can cause similar symptoms even in people who have neither an acute nor a chronic respiratory condition. An uncomfortably dry throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and coughing are all possibilities.
  • Can lead to dry skin, dry and irritated eyes, worsen preexisting eczema, and increase the risk of nosebleeds.
  • Contributes to dehydration.
  • Makes you more vulnerable to infections caused by pathogens such as cold viruses.

That is bad news. Excessively high humidity levels can also, on the other hand, lead to similarly undesirable outcomes.

When the humidity levels in your home exceed 50 or 60 percent, very hospitable conditions are created for two common household allergens — dust mites and mold. If you were trying to combat allergy symptoms by using a humidifier, because you heard that this can be an effective strategy, you could instead by triggering symptoms caused by different allergens. Specific mold species have additionally been found to be able to cause infections as well as, potentially, even cancer. Mold and dust mites are joined by bacteria and viruses when your indoor air is far too humid.

You want the relative humidity in your home to fall into healthy and recommended levels, then. You never want them to drop below 30 percent, but you most definitely want them to rise above 60 percent either. For this reason, it is not smart to purchase any kind of humidifier for your home without first finding out what your humidity levels are like.

Humidity meters can be purchased inexpensively from almost any home improvement store, and should be on your shopping list before you even consider installing a portable or central humidifier. If your humidity levels are already within the healthy range, or even above it, you do not need a humidifier. In fact, you may even benefit from its polar opposite — a dehumidifier. To increase the general air quality within your home, meanwhile, a true HEPA air purifier is a safe solution across the board.

Who Should Consider Having a Central Humidifier Installed?

You may reasonably consider purchasing a whole house humidifier if your home consistently has excessively low humidity levels, because you live in a dry and cold climate and your heating is only exacerbating the problem in the winter, and you or someone else in your home are suffering from significant discomfort as a result. A whole house humidifier can be an asset if it is used and installed correctly, and you are willing to carry out the maintenance required to keep it working optimally and safely.

Any humidifier you install should have a humidistat, a “humidity thermostat” that causes the device to shut off whenever the humidity levels in your home already ideal fall into the ideal range. This prevents the humidity levels from becoming too high in your property.

You should, however, consider trying a portable humidifier before taking the step of purchasing a whole house system.

What Should You Know Before Purchasing a Whole House Humidifier?

Excessively high humidity levels are a prime cause of mold growth, as well as high concentrations of dust mites. Both of these organic allergens to trigger the same allergy symptoms as seasonal allergies in people who are sensitized, and prolonged exposure can cause allergies to develop in people who did not previously suffer from them. Mold can cause uncomfortable respiratory symptoms even in those who are not allergic, as well.

Numerous people across the country are hard at work trying to fight humidity in their homes — and before you purchase a device that purposely adds it across your whole home, you should consider if you truly need it. Humidifiers need to be cleaned and maintained regularly for them not to pose a health risk, and that is easier to achieve with portable humidifiers. In addition, even if the humidity in your living room or bedroom is low, other rooms — like your kitchen, bathroom, and basement — may be quite humid already. This is another reason why portable humidifiers may be a better option.

Even if a central humidifier is being used as instructed, know that mold can build up within your HVAC system and in localized areas that become too humid as a result of your humidifier. If you have concerns about this, it is prudent to have a mold inspection carried out in your home. A mold infestation is not always visible, and if mold accumulates in tricky places like your HVAC system, you may not even be able to smell it. Especially if you have known allergies already, it is crucial to take prompt action.

MI&T can, as a nationwide mold inspection only company, perform a full visual mold inspection, including of your HVAC system and any central humidifier you may have installed. The air samples we subsequently take and send off for lab analysis will tell you whether your indoor air is polluted with mold spores, and to what extent.