De-Mystify My Humidifier!
October 2, 2009 6:01 PM   Subscribe

Home humidifier? I needed one; I now have one. How does this thing work? Specifically: what's the medicine cup, what goes in it and why? (And a couple other add-on questions.)

I grew up in hot, humid Florida. It wasn't until I moved North to New Jersey that I learned that folks use humidifiers to *add* water to the air. Initially, it mystified me: Why would anyone want to add water to the air? ugh. I left Florida to escape from heat and humidity!

Now, nine years later, I get it. Dry skin, bloody noses and post-nasal drip - all from too-dry air. Who'dathunk? I bought my first humidifier last night (a Sunbeam Warm Mist Filter Free Humidifier). I took it apart and washed the innards before putting it all together and running it during the night. (My nose feels so much better than it did yesterday!)

There's a notation in the product insert/pamphlet about a "medicine cup" that gets put in where the water goes. The insert isn't very helpful on this point (or, really, on anything else). What is this medicine cup for? What medicine works there? When medicine is put in there, does it actually do any good or is it a placebo effect? Will there be a problem if I put essential oils in the cup or in the water?

Where's the best place to put this in my bedroom? Should it be right next to the head of my bed or do I risk making myself sick by putting it there? Will this cause my room to be warmer or colder while it's running?
posted by LOLAttorney2009 to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Its for the Vicks Vaporub. Though you might not ...
posted by R. Mutt at 6:19 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: I used* to keep one near the head of my bed without any ill health effects, however, one thing I didn't like about letting it run all night was I would wake up to steamy dripping windows, which eventually lead to a bad case of moldy windowsills and white scale deposits on the glass (from very hard local water). Also along those lines, cool misting humidifiers can grow and distribute bacteria around the room if not kept scrupulously clean.

It made the room feel warmer to me although a thermometer didn't register any change. My hard tap water killed the humidifier after several months, if I got one again I'd use distilled instead.

Also, putting Vicks in the medicine cup will leave a gross oily residue that resists all efforts to clean away.

*I added a bunch of houseplants to my bedroom, which brought up the humidity to a nice level without fogging my windows.
posted by jamaro at 6:30 PM on October 2, 2009

Response by poster: Meh. I have neither kids nor ferrets, R.Mutt, so I'm not too worried about whether Vicks would cause their lungs to be inflamed. But good to know that Vicks Vaporub is the sort of thing I'd put in this little machine.

floam, I'm quite aware that not everyone uses humidifiers. It does, though, seem to be a Northern thing. You know, as opposed to a Floridian thing (since adding water to the air is rather pointless in Florida). It's particularly popular around these Northern parts during the winter, when radiators tend to bake the humidity out of offices and apartments/homes. Perhaps in Oregon, the regionally-typical heating methods are less likely to do this.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 6:32 PM on October 2, 2009

Your room will probably feel warmer, as the air is denser. Don't put the humidifier right next to the bed, but maybe on the other side of the nightstand.

Floam -- we used to live in DaYoop, where it gets cold and dry outside in the winter. When the dew(frost) point is in the single digits, it's really dry. Even here in TrollLand, it still gets pretty dry in the house without a humidifier. Forced air heat is the worst at sucking moisture out of the air, but the simple act of heating air from 20F to 65F is going to dry it out. Most people around here don't use warm mist humidifiers, though. They use ones like this or whole house humidifiers like this to keep the static electricity down and the furniture from splitting. We found that using a humidifer allowed us to turn down the thermostat as we were comfortable at lower temperatures.
posted by jlkr at 6:49 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: You don't want to use VapoRub, but a product specifically for putting in a humidifier or vaporizer. I'm pretty sure it's also a Vicks product, just not the rubby stuff. Look in the cold relief section of your local drugstore. It's a small bottle of clear liquid, maybe a few ounces. But you don't really need it unless you have a congestion. Just the regular humidifier will do wonders for the dry sinuses. But regularly run some vinegar through it and/or take it apart and clean with bleach.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:56 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

On preview, we also use a whole-house humidifier like jlkr links to. Works even better, plus you don't have to worry about accidentally tripping over the humidifier during a midnight potty run...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:57 PM on October 2, 2009

Seconding SuperSquirrel and adding this: During my last respiratory infection, I used the made-for-humidifiers stuff and boosted it with a few drops of essential oil, usually menthol. Nothing bad happened. In my machine, the medicine-cup stuff gets heated slowly by the steam and has only a subtle effect.
posted by PatoPata at 8:58 PM on October 2, 2009

Best answer: Your room feels warmer largely because the humidifier reduces your heat loss by evaporation. Our bodies constantly evaporate water vapor through our skin pores. By adding humidity to a room you reduce the water vapor gradient between your body and the surrounding air, so the heat loss from your body is reduced.

All relative humidities are not created equal! Relative humidity is the ratio of actual water vapor in the air to the maximum amount of water vapor that can be present. The max amount is solely dependent on the air temperature and increases exponentially as the temperature increases. For example, air with an RH of 50% has approximately 10 times more water vapor in it at 80 degrees than at 18 degrees. When you bring cold air, which contains very little water vapor, inside and heat it up, the actual amount of water vapor doesn't change but the relative humidity will plummet. Heat that 18 degree air up to 80 without changing the water content and the indoor RH will be only 5%.

The warm mist humidifier will not work with distilled water. This means you've got to clean the system fairly often or the electrodes will become covered with crud and not work anymore.

I've always assumed the medicine cup is largely a marketing gimmick. Maybe the inhalant works, maybe it doesn't. Either way it doesn't cost Sunbeam much to include the cup and they can charge an extra few bucks for the added feature.
posted by plastic_animals at 9:22 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

^ Why won't the humidifier work with distilled water?
posted by autodidact at 2:07 AM on October 3, 2009

We used to just put a bowl of water under the heater. Yes, that was my humidifier.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:03 AM on October 3, 2009

^ Why won't the humidifier work with distilled water?

It appears that I was wrong about using distilled water. Sorry! I use NYC tap water, to which I often have to add baking soda in order for it to produce sufficient steam.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:04 AM on October 3, 2009

Slightly OT:
Plastic: "Your room will probably feel warmer, as the air is denser."

Common misconception - wet air is actually lighter than dry air, all other things being equal. The density of the gas in the room isn't going to change because you put in a humidifier - unless the room happens to be sealed pressure-tight.

The reason more humid air feels hotter (or colder) has to do with the specific heat of the gas - water vapor has a higher specific heat than just plain old diatomic nitrogen and oxygen.
posted by TravellingDen at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2009

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