Archive for Sunday, February 9, 2003

More moisture in air provides comfort

February 9, 2003


Just the other day, I opened an e-mail from someone complaining, "I hate winter. My lips are chapped; my skin is dry; I'm light deprived; and my houseplants look like an extension of my pain!"

No kidding. I'm typing on fingers whose skin is cracked by the dry winter weather. It is getting harder to tell the difference between the orchid and the cactus plants sitting on our kitchen windowsill. And, every time I touch my young granddaughter, she tells me, "You sparked me."

Of course, winter does that. The cold outside air is less able to hold moisture than the warm spring or summer air. Besides, the air furnace is circulating warm, dry air and the fireplace is drying out the air, causing the humidity level in our homes to drop dramatically. Home humidity sometimes dips below 10 percent, while most of us would be more comfortable with an indoor humidity level somewhere between 35 percent and 50 percent.

One thing is certain. We really notice when less moisture is present, although we become aware of the decline gradually. Static electricity begins to build when the humidity drops to 30 percent or less, giving us tiny bursts of electric discharge whenever we touch anything. The wood furniture dries out; the doors may not close the same; the floors may "squeak" a bit more; and we get sick with colds and flu-like illnesses more often.

Even though relative humidity inside our homes may drop to uncomfortable and unhealthy levels during the winter, sometimes too much humidity is also a problem. A good way to tell if there is too much humidity is to notice the amount of condensation that collects on windows. Water dripping from the inside of the windows or a thin glazing of ice on interior windowpanes is a telltale sign of excessive moisture. Remember, molds and mildews survive in high humidity, whereas bacteria and viruses can thrive in low humidity.

Adding moisture

If dryness is the problem, correct it by adding moisture to the inside air. Solutions range in price from virtually nothing to several hundred dollars. The no-cost approach is accomplished by placing pans of water throughout the house. When they are located near a heat register, the moisture from the container is picked up as the warm forced air passes over it. Plus, the evaporation of the water into the air adds humidity. Many people cluster pans of water near their houseplants to accomplish a microclimate of high humidity for their plants, which may also be suffering the effects of low moisture during the winter.

Our grandparents may have simmered a large pot of water on the stovetop to add humidity to the air. The major drawback to this technique is that the pot must be monitored carefully to avoid fire should the water completely cook off.

Many types of portable humidifiers are available for relatively low cost. They may hold from one or two gallons of water up to 10 gallons. As little as 4 to 6 pints of water can raise the indoor humidity from 15 percent to 60 percent. You can choose between hot or warm steam humidifiers or cold mist units. The hot and warm steam units may also warm the air, though they use more electricity. Cold mist humidifiers are safer to use around children to avoid burns. Both types of humidifying units must be cleaned regularly as recommended by the manufacturer to reduce the likelihood of microorganisms growing in the water and to keep the units running smoothly.

Whole house humidifiers

Whole house humidifiers are another option. They work well but are the most costly. These units are installed in the ductwork of your furnace to add a controlled amount of moisture while the furnace circulates the air. Various models work differently. Some spray a fine mist into the air stream; some rotate a water wheel through the heated furnace air; and others use a moist pad to moisten the air that pulls through it. The amount of water that is circulated into the air varies from under 2 gallons to 18 gallons daily.

Whole house humidifiers are easily added when a new furnace is installed. To add one to an existing furnace requires basic sheet metal, plumbing and electrical know-how. Of course, reading the manufacturer's instructions and following all safety precautions are mandatory.

Meanwhile, have a stock of lotion handy until April showers bring us needed moisture.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and home and garden writer for the Journal-World.

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