The Best Humidifiers to Soothe Our Dried-Out Schnozzes
Dear Reader: Ah, autumn -- when our eyes delight in falling golden leaves, the air turns crisp, and our noses become cracked, dried up bloody messes. As apartment dwellers who have no control over the thermostat and suffer through nights of Saharan dryness, we feel your good lady's pain. We also have a rescue plan for you.
Humidifiers have come a long way from the versions many of us grew up with, which were basically hot pots that boiled water and sent out jets of scorching steam. (Ed. Note: We grew up with the "Chicago Special," a pot of water on the heater, so it would quietly evaporate. Didn't work so well.) They were unsophisticated, used relatively large amounts of energy, and, since they ran until you unplugged them, could actually make interiors too humid and cause potentially dangerous mold and mildew issues (not to mention the occasional steam burn). For a few years, pediatricians and allergy specialists considered them machina non grata in a lot of households. Thankfully, innovators have since, um, innovated, and now the technologies are far more user-friendly. But, as it turns out, several core problems with humidifiers remain.
There are three main types of tabletop humidifiers: vaporizing, evaporative and ultrasonic. (There are also whole-home HVAC versions, but we'll refer you to the good men of 'This Old House' for that.) Vaporizing models are akin to the old-school ones, because they produce hot steam from boiled water. Evaporative humidifiers rely on a fan that blows air against a water-soaked fabric wick, causing the water to, obviously, evaporate. And ultrasonic models use ultra-high frequency vibrations to break water into tiny droplets that become a mist. Each of these have their strengths and weaknesses, but we tend to prefer the library-quiet functioning and energy efficiency of ultrasonic models.
There are, however, a few overarching concerns when using any humidifier. The first is the aforementioned concern of too much humidity; you'll want to keep your indoor humidity between 30- and 55-percent or so; anything above 60-percent will promote mold and mildew, as well as the growth of dust mites. Ew. As such, you'll want a humidifier that has a built-in, accurate humidistat, which works like a thermostat for humidity. At the very least, don't leave them running constantly. (You can also buy hand-held hygrometers that measure air dampness, if you're really into this whole humidity thing.)
Humidifiers also require frequent cleanings -- as in every few days -- or the stagnant water in the tank will basically turn into a pool of bacteria, mold and mildew that will then be sprayed all over your abode; it's actually a serious health risk. (Have a read about humidifier lung if you don't believe us.) So, take into consideration how easy each humidifier is to clean, and whether it has mineral filters or anti-bacterial and -microbial technology. Some humidifiers may also spread micro-particles of minerals like calcium that end up as a fine white dust all over your house, or worse, into your lungs. Using distilled water helps, and evaporative humidifiers are immune to this issue. Still, the wicks absorb minerals, and eventually get clogged (as well as moldy or mildew-laden), requiring regular cleanings or replacement.
And finally, tabletop humidifiers have to be placed about three feet above the ground (say, on a table top) in order to function properly; otherwise, they'll humidify your floor and nearby furniture instead of circulating humidity throughout your home. So, on to our preferred models!
We particularly like the 7144's hygienic features. To prevent the build-up of microbes, mold, mildew, minerals and other airborne menaces, it boasts a four-stage sanitation system: a replaceable demineralization cartridge coated in silver; an ionic silver stick that prevents microbe growth in the water tank; an optional water-preheating system that cooks the water to 176 degrees to kill most bacteria; and, finally, the ultrasonic system itself, which Air-O-Swiss claims will kill most microbes.
The 1.5-gallon tank holds enough water to last overnight, though the 7144 can pump out as many as three gallons per day -- so running it full time requires a couple water changes. Changing water is almost universally a pain, and in this case requires popping out the 1.5-gallon tank, flipping it over, unscrewing the filter, and filling it in a kitchen sink (or using a spray hose). This results in some spillage, but is relatively worry-free.
The major downside to the 7144 is having to buy a new silver stick each year and new filters every few months (depending on your water). We've read a significant number of user complaints, too, about fine white dust covering the house (even with the 7144's mineral filter). We suspect those users probably have particularly hard or mineral-filled water, but, just the same, you may have to use pre-filtered and/or distilled water.
HoMedics Ultrasonic Humidifier CM50
The mist volume is adjustable by a simple dial, and the nozzle can be set to oscillate. In theory, the oscillation would spread the water in a wider area, but we're not sure that it would have much real-world benefit unless set to full power. Like the 7144, the CM50 has a replaceable demineralization cartridge, and may also suffer from phantom white dust issues if you have particularly hard water. Filling up the water is a slight chore, involving some flipping and unscrewing. Overall, though, the CM50 does what it's supposed to do well, and is nicely featured for the price.