Please help me understand the world of humidifiers
March 29, 2011 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Last week, I got a "Cool Mist" humidifier for our bedroom. We've been using it for a few days, yet we're still waking up with dry sinuses. We also have a steam humidifier, would that be better? More details inside.

The humidifier is something to lessen some of my wife's pregnancy-related discomforts (previously asked). We got this cute guy because 1) it's cool mist and therefore not a danger with present cats/future baby, and 2) it's cute.

We received it a few days ago and have been using it since we first got it. It's easy to set up, and it appears to be emitting a cool mist (we can see it). But when my wife wakes up, she doesn't feel any less dry in the head, and I woke up a bit parched today, too.

* We run the humidifier from around 9 or 10 PM to 6 AM at medium output because there is no auto-off, and the manual warns that the unit could be damaged by working without water.
* The humidifier is aimed towards us, maybe 3' away from my wife, and further from me.
* Our bedroom is decently large (maybe 12' x 12'), and pretty tall (maybe 10' high?), and we keep the hallway and bathroom doors open because our cats scratch at the carpet by closed doors, potentially ruining the carpet.
* I'm not sure how wet or dry the air is in our house, but Weather Underground says the humidity is 52% in our area, and we haven't been running the heater for a while.

* Should we be running the cool mist humidifier for a longer period or at an increased output level? Every morning, there is plenty of water in the reserve basin.
* Would a steam humidifier be any different?
* Or does it take a while for the effects of a humidifier to show?

posted by filthy light thief to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You may be better off with a vaporizer rather than a humidifier. A vaporizer seems to have more....balls.

I also have humidity-related sinus issues in winter, and this works like a charm.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on March 29, 2011

My solution to this was to buy a cheap fan and put it near the humidifier, to better circulate the moist air. Also, use filtered (or distilled) water, to prevent that white powder buildup, which also contributes to a dry feeling.
posted by adipocere at 9:53 AM on March 29, 2011

We have a warm-mist humidifier that we're happy with. I've never been really happy with the cool mist ones, although I understand that's the kind you're supposed to have for babies (?).
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2011

If there's lots of water still in the basin, then that's water not getting into your air.

I like the ultrasonic humidifiers myself.

What's the humidity reading in your room ?
posted by k5.user at 10:01 AM on March 29, 2011

We have the same humidifier. His name is Glug and he works nights.

Glug is our best friend in the winter as both my partner and I have problems with dry air; he gets sinus issues and I get throat issues since I can't breathe through my nose. This humidifier solves most of our problems, consistently. So consistently that I can always tell in the morning if Glug ran out of juice in the middle of the night just by the vague scratch in my throat. Our room is the same size as your, though we sleep with the bedroom door closed, so that might make a big difference.

I'd give it a little more time and keep the humidifier on as high a setting as you can sleep through.
posted by lydhre at 10:03 AM on March 29, 2011

If keeping the bedroom door open is the problem, you might be able to hang a sheet in the doorway that the cats will be able to walk under, but which would keep in the humid air? (Depends on whether your cats are Death to All Fabrics)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 AM on March 29, 2011

Get a hygrometer You're going to target around 40% relative humidity.

I had a similar humidifier to what you had, except it was the frog one (it was cheap). The problem with the cool mist ones is that you need filtration and cleaning, or else you get "white dust" mineral deposits everywhere.

We're using a warm mist one now. The trick for those is that you need filtration and cleaning, also, but at least all the mineral deposits wind up inside the unit. The warm mist one seemed more appropriate for winter use (it's warm), and also because it has a little medicine cup on it, so you can vaporize Vicks VapoSteam stuff with it.
posted by chengjih at 10:11 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to have an ultrasonic humidifier (because I can't stand fan noise) and I found that it worked best if placed on top of a high shelf. I guess because the vapor is cool it tends to drop fairly quickly. When I had it at floor level or bed level it seemed to mostly create localized moist carpet within a 3 or 4 foot radius. Moving it up top on a shelf near the head end of the bed seemed to help with moistening the air rather than the carpet.
If you can stand having fan noise at night having a fan will probably also help with this.

I suspect having a humidifier that creates warm/hot steam would also cause the vapor to sink to the floor less quickly. But that's not an option for me since I live in LA and it's too warm at night already.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:13 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to own that humidifier. It was adorable and a bunch of my friends had them too so we actually got four of them together in one room and had a great big "penguin party." It was amazing; no joke.

Unfortunately, while it's great at looking awesome, I didn't find it to very good at humidifying, which is, after all, the whole point. In a decently large room with multiple doors open, it might just not be doing a lot of good. I had it in a small dorm room with the door closed and it still didn't do much to combat that dried out feeling in the morning. I'd definitely give the steam humidifier a try and see if that makes a difference.

Pro tip: I've read that good and careful cleaning is essential with the cool mist humidifiers, as they don't boil the water like a steam humidifier, so anything growing in the tank apparently gets shot out with the water. Since standing water is a decent breading ground for bacteria, a dirty cool mist humidifier is a fairly efficient system to grow and spray bacteria directly at your head. It's not just me saying this; the Government of Canada seems to agree! Not to scare you though, people seem to say you're fine as long as you clean the thing according to the manufacturer's directions.
posted by zachlipton at 10:13 AM on March 29, 2011

Those little animals are cute but useless. I have this one - filterless, ultrasonic, and $10 less at Target - and it is productive, lasts 24 hours at least, and fairly easy to fill if you have a sink sprayer (otherwise go for something shorter and wider - I've bought several at Walgreen's for smaller rooms).

The only time I like a warm mist vaporizer is when it is really cold out and I don't need any little thing dropping the room temp a few degrees. Because we have dogs and I am clumsy as hell, though, I'm really not comfortable with them.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:17 AM on March 29, 2011

Oh, yes, and like Hairy Lobster said, you want to put it up as high as you can. If you can put it on top of a bookshelf or dresser (protect the immediate vicinity of any furniture with a tray and a towel), that's the best, but even table-height on a TV tray or something will improve circulation. When I have been very very raw-throat sick, I've put it on a stool next to my bed blowing directly into my breathing space, but that's pretty inconvenient.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:20 AM on March 29, 2011

there is no auto-off

That's a shame, I have the frog and it has an auto-off. I agree with the other posters -- measure the humidity level to see if it's really working. Keep it up off the ground -- ours is on a nightstand near the bed.
posted by statolith at 10:25 AM on March 29, 2011

The penguin should have auto-off. We have one. When the water runs out the light goes from green to amber, and the fan stops.
posted by zsazsa at 10:37 AM on March 29, 2011

I bought a whole bunch of little humidor hygrometers to measure the humidity in various spots all over my house last winter, and I can attest that opening a door changes it up a lot. For example, the humidity in my tiny bathroom during a shower until I open the door is about 60%. As soon as I open the door, the humidity drops by 10-15% in a matter of minutes, and matches the rest of the house in maybe 30-40 minutes. Since I would wager a hot steam shower generates a lot more humidity in the first place than the little tiny penguin can hope to do, I don't think the penguin has a chance if you keep the door open. But you won't know until you measure, so I'd get some cheap hygrometers and see what the humidity actually is in your bedroom, both without and with the penguin running, and with and without the door closed.
posted by wending my way at 11:11 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing - the AC and heater blowing (well, not the blowing itself, but the air intake to the central system and or the refrigerant in the AC) both lower my humidity substantially in a surprisingly short amount of time. Setting the temperature either lower or higher (so it won't come on as much, depending on the season) might help just as much as small humidifier. It does for me, at any rate, and I have been obsessively measuring now for a year.
posted by wending my way at 11:14 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I tried the cool mist humidifier and found it did practically nothing for me. I need the steam!
posted by hermitosis at 12:42 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

We got a new humidifier this year. Even though it is a "warm mist," it still took over a week for us (or, more properly, our sinuses) to notice any difference. So, you know, give it some time.
posted by oohisay at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2011

I've found fiddling with humidifiers to never quite be worth the payoff. I moved a houseplant into the bedroom this winter and I think it has noticeably decreased the dryness of the air in there. Might be worth a shot especially if you have one elsewhere in the house you could just relocate.
posted by yarrow at 1:16 PM on March 29, 2011

You have pretty much the same setup as we do, in about the same sized room. I play with the settings so that the humidifier is just about to run out of water by the time I get up in the morning (and I'm first up). I also put the humidifier much closer to the bed, like, maybe a foot away. After running it like this for a night or so, we find our sinuses much improved.
posted by LN at 1:18 PM on March 29, 2011

I had pretty much the same issues with my little penguin. Cute as a button, fairly useless for actually humidifying the air.

But I am a boiling water on the stove all day kind of winter humidity freak, so I'd need about 10 of them to be happy.
posted by gjc at 5:06 PM on March 29, 2011

I'm a humidifier connoisseur. I've bought probably 20 of the damn things.

There are three basic categories of humidifier:

- Cool mist, like your penguin. Uses ultrasonic vibrations to pulverize water into tiny particles, not technically steam. As others have said, if you put it up high or near a heat vent or fan, the water has a better chance of evaporating. Expect to have to fiddle with filters or with bottled water if you don't want mysterious white powder all over the room. Low humidity output.

- Air blowers with wet filters, like the Venta Airwasher. These work better and don't have the white powder problem or the wet carpet problem. They are LOUD. Even the quiet ones. It's white noise, though, which you and your wife might find comforting. I myself find it intensely annoying. Medium to high humidty output.

- Vaporizers like the $10 Vicks Model available at your local drugstore. These are fiddly to use, you'll have to figure out the right amount of salt to combine with your particular water to make it work correctly. After every 20 or so gallons of water output you'll have to do a complicated cleaning process, or a simpler cleaning that involves tossing it in the recycle bin and picking a new one up with the groceries. These have the highest humidity output for their size, so high they can empty themselves in 3-4 hours if you get the salt levels right.

There are also whole-house humidifiers that attach to your furnace, which cost about $500. That's probably what I'll get next time... For now I just put up with the dryness.
posted by mmoncur at 8:18 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just one more data point that the "cool mist" humidifiers don't do anything.

Steam humidifiers (the $20 drugstore ones) will put about a gallon of water into the air in a night. In a normal size closed bedroom this will make the things quite tropical. I love mine and won't go to bed without it when I have a sore throat or even just in the winter when the air is dry from having had the central heating on. Everything feels better in the morning - skin, mucus membranes, eyes, etc. The effect should be obvious.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:59 PM on March 29, 2011

I have a Vicks Vaporizer for my kids' room, and it does a fantastic job when they have colds or coughs. In the morning I have to wipe down the windows, as they will be covered in water droplets. The room is about 12x16 feet, and I keep the door closed. It does noticeably increase the room temperature by about 5 degrees. I use it with vapo-steam if they have a cough, and with just plain tap water if they have runny noses. Never heard of putting salt in it though, what's that about?
posted by Joh at 10:00 PM on March 29, 2011

Joh: the Vicks unit heats the water by running electricity through it, and how well that works depends on the mineral content of your tap water. (Distilled water wouldn't work at all). In some areas you don't need the salt, but here we add a teaspoon every 4-5 times we fill them. Too much salt leads to crackling noises and weird black smoke, so start with a tiny pinch.

If you really want a humid atmosphere nothing beats the vaporizers.
posted by mmoncur at 10:35 PM on March 30, 2011

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