How do you plan to keep your family healthy this winter? Is what you know about humidifiers an important part of that question?
Of course, there’s the known and proven tricks of bundling up, eating well, and washing your hands.
But how much thought have you given to the humidity levels of the air you’re breathing in your own home?
The fact is, if you live anywhere with a dry, desert climate and your winter defense plan doesn’t include maintaining the right indoor humidity levels, keeping your home healthy may be a losing battle this cold and flu season. Here’s how you can effectively shore up your defenses before the sniffles start.
Dry air harbors germs. At first glance, that sentence may seem wrong. Doesn’t it feel like common sense to assume that humid air is more hospitable to the germs we’re trying to kill? Ironically, it’s just the opposite, and it’s only been in the last decade that scientists have learned why.
The changing of the leaves heralds more than the arrival of fall. It ushers in the cold too, and with it the season of sniffles.
Scientists have long hypothesized why a drop in temperature should immediately lead to outbreaks of illness, and it’s a question that begs urgently for an answer. Every year, the flu season affects millions of people worldwide, proving fatal for at least a quarter of a million of society’s most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and those of us with already weakened immune systems.
It’s an illness that keeps us on our toes as the virus adapts yearly to resist past antibodies, and scientists are working hard to understand what puts us most at risk for infection.
Today, the three recognized culprits are:
Cold temperatures put us in closer contact with other germ-carrying people, whether indoors or on public transit, and many of them may not be too diligent in containing their sneezes. Additionally, between 20 to 30% may not even know they’re contagious or carrying the germ as they don’t feel any symptoms.
During the winter, the days are shorter and the lack of sunlight has been known to contribute to vitamin D deficiency in some people, weakening their natural defense against illness. Then there’s what happens to the blood vessels in our noses when we breathe cold air. In an attempt to conserve heat, the blood vessels constrict, preventing the flow of germ-fighting white blood cells to the site of infection as we breathe in contaminants.
Before scientists zeroed in on the environmental reasons—humidity (or the lack of)—as a real player in the transmission of winter illness, behavioral and physiological reasons arising from winter’s chill were the go-to explanations. But they don’t provide a full picture, which includes the fact that in arid climates, cold air is especially dry, and dry air harbors germs.
In recent years, many studies have sought a correlation between air humidity and the outbreak of illness, and the findings have been replicated across the board. For example, a study conducted by scientists at Columbia University compared 30 years’ worth of climate and health records and found, amazingly, that outbreaks of the flu almost always came directly on the heels of a drop in air humidity.
But how does the cold affect humidity?
As you look outside, don’t let the rain and snow fool you—the air out there is bone dry thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Cold air is able to carry less water vapor before it precipitates, which means that the moisture you can see in the form sleet and snow is generally all the moisture there is, leaving nothing left to humidify the air. And in a desert climate, there wasn’t much there to begin with. Cue the flourishing of germs, and here’s why:
Simply put, humidifiers force moisture back into the air for the purposes of comfort, health, and protecting the longevity of your belongings and investments.
The ideal relative humidity (RH) level for indoor air quality within the average home falls between 30 and 50%, which is the sweet spot that protects against the many negative side effects of dry air.
Dry air doesn’t only harbor germs. It’s a menace to furniture, artwork, and floorboards, causing shrinkage, warpage, and cracking. Even your electronics aren’t safe.
As humidity levels drop, static electricity builds, and anyone who’s ever shuffled up to a loved one for a kiss and received a shock to the mouth instead can tell you how fun that is. And that isn’t the worst of it.
For example, data centers actively ensure a RH level of 45 to 55% in their facilities to prevent those same shocks from causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to equipment.
Low humidity occurs naturally in desert climate, but air also dries out in artificially heated spaces indoors. If you already live in a desert climates, you can guess what this means for your home in the winter.
When cold outside air enters your home, it’s already parched, and your furnace dries it out even more. While anything below 30% RH is considered low, your indoor humidity can fall as low as 20 to 10% this winter, putting everyone in the family at greater risk of falling ill.
Breathing dry air over long periods of time wreaks havoc on the sensitive mucous membranes lining the nose and throat, leading to or worsening respiratory conditions and making you more susceptible to infection.
Externally, the skin will start to show symptoms of dehydration as well, such as chapped lips, knees, elbows, flaky skin, and the worsening of skin conditions like eczema.
Humidifiers are especially important for babies since their tiny nasal passages are more susceptible to congestion and the diseases that follow, such as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Their new skin is also more at risk of developing dry patches. For the rest of us, putting humidity back into the air will soothe and treat countless health conditions as well, including:
Word to the Wise
Never forget that it too much humidity in an enclosed space will lead to health problems as well, as mold and fungus thrive in overly moist conditions. Measuring your home’s humidity levels with a portable or fixed humidity meter will help you reach and maintain safe and effective RH levels in your home.
Industrial humidifiers are used by very large commercial or multi-residential properties (such as data centers, as mentioned above) to maintain a universal and specific RH level for the protection of material goods as well as the health and comfort of personnel and residents. But for our purposes, we’ll focus on your options for the home:
These can be small enough to rest on a bedside or nursery table, or large enough to be mounted to the floor in a specific room, but their primary feature or appeal is that they can be moved to problem locations throughout the house.
Generally, their water tanks are also filled manually and need to be cleaned regularly to prevent the buildup of hard water deposits (if distilled water isn’t used) and toxic microbes that can be released into the air. This process can get annoying, so some portable humidifiers are advertised as germ free and use UV light technologies to supposedly keep the water and unit clean for longer.
Studies have found, however, that germ free technologies are no replacement for regular cleaning, and that, in general, evaporative portable humidifiers (as opposed to ultrasonic or vaporizing) are the best at keep bacteria out of the water it disperses throughout the room.
Pros of Portable Humidifiers:
Another benefit of maintaining a healthy RH level in your home—especially in the winter—is the fact that humid air feels hotter at lower temperatures than dry air does, resulting in lower energy costs for the frugal homeowner.
The three main types of whole house or furnace-mounted humidifiers are:
Installed to the cold air return line, this humidifier uses a motor and belt to lift cold water from a drum and into the air using evaporation.
The flow through model can be installed to a return or supply line. Fresh water flows through a filter through which the air passes, adding humidity to the air through evaporation as well.
This model injects hot or cold steam directly to your supply line through an electrically controlled valve or atomizer, which forces the moisture into the air in tiny particles.
In terms of cost, high-end portable humidifiers will generally run around $650 to $700, while high-end whole house humidifiers can be found at $700 and up.
Depending on the size of your home, the necessity of purchasing and maintaining multiple, reliable portable humidifiers will immediately prove a burden during the year’s driest season.
Whole house humidifiers offer permanent relief to households in desert climates without the fuss or maintenance of equipping each room with a portable unit. Contact an HRC rep today to find the best option for your situation and keep the season of sniffles out of your home.
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