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Humidifiers

Humidifier buying guide

Last updated: August 2013

Getting started

A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dried-out air. In addition to these health benefits, a humidifier can also reduce static electricity, peeling wallpaper, and cracks in paint and furniture.

Scratchy throats and itchy eyes from dry winter air help put humidifiers on roughly 10 million shopping lists each year. Our top picks start at just $40 and include penguin shapes and other flights of fancy.

Ideally, indoor humidity should be 30 to 50 percent. But without humidification, that level can drop to 10 percent in winter, because cold air holds less moisture and dries even more as it's heated. But our tests show that some models do little humidifying and could soak you with added costs. Here's what you need to know:

Put substance over style. Models resembling a radio, or sporting art deco or space age accents can liven the decor but if their output is too low for the space you need to humidify then they aren't right for your home. Some models with a touch of whimsy, however, also delivered on performance.

Don't assume that pricier is better. Two reasonably priced models topped our list of consoles, which can humidify an average-sized house, beating out more expensive models.

Remember to clean. To keep germs at bay, many manufacturers recommend rinsing the tank and changing the water daily, plus disinfecting the tank each week following maintenance instructions. Some makers claim that their models help by resisting bacteria and mold buildup in their tanks. Several models in our tests proved to be effective at slowing bacteria growth.

Check the features. A humidistat--if it's accurate--can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.

Factor in added costs. Evaporative humidifiers use a filter that requires periodic replacing, while some ultrasonic models have a demineralization cartridge. Antimicrobial cartridges are another option on all types. Replacing those parts usually costs around $50 a year; the Ratings show which models require replacement parts.

Check our hard-water scores. Minerals in hard water can lower a humidifier's performance by causing scale buildup. Some models resisted it far better than others.

Think about noise. Console models are the loudest overall--about as noisy as a room air conditioner. But some tabletop models come close so you wouldn't want to use them in a bedroom.

If you're not ready to commit to regular maintenance and if your home has forced-air heat, consider an in-duct humidifier that's plumbed into the water supply and drain pipes. Such units don't need refilling, and their easy-change filter requires service only once or twice a year.

Types

Choosing among the three major types of humidifiers--tabletop, console, and in duct--involves trade-offs in efficiency, noise, and convenience. Primary considerations include the size of the space you need to humidify and how much you're willing to spend.

Tabletop humidifiers


These portable models cost the least and are fine for humidifying a single room, but their small tank requires frequent refills. Ultrasonic humidifiers use a vibrating nebulizer to emit water. Evaporative tabletops use a fan to blow air over a wet wick. Warm-mist models use a heating unit to boil water before cooling the steam. Impeller models produce mist using a rotating disk. Performance varies widely by type.

Console humidifiers


Although console models are larger than tabletops, they can still be moved from room to room. Whether evaporative or ultrasonic, console humidifiers generate lots of moist air. Since a console can humidify more than one room, it allows more options for unobtrusive placement wherever an electric outlet is available. A console's larger tank needs less frequent refills, but it's more cumbersome to handle. Evaporative models are louder than ultrasonic ones, so you may want to run this type of console for several hours until bedtime and then turn it off.

In-duct humidifiers


These humidifiers are the ideal choice if you have a forced-air heating system and want to humidify the whole house. They tap into the air ducts and are plumbed into the water supply. Most are evaporative-bypass units, which blow air over a wet wick. Some emit a warm mist. Others are nebulizers, which use a spray technology and which may produce deposits of white dust from minerals in the water. In-duct humidifiers are quiet and require minimal maintenance. They're also the least expensive to run: about $30 or so per year, compared with as much as $350 or more for four tabletop models. But they generally require professional installation.

Features


Choosing a humidifier involves trade-offs among efficiency, cost, noise, and convenience. Our tests also show that you can't tell how well a humidifier will work based on claims. Here are the humidifier features to consider.

Ease of use

A tabletop or console humidifier should be easy to move and clean. The tank should fit easily beneath your bathroom faucet. (Some consoles have no tank. You need to fill them directly.) On evaporative models, the wick should be easy to replace. Look for user-friendly digital controls and displays of humidity level and settings.

Humidistat


Some humidifiers have a dial or digital humidistat that shuts off the unit when it reaches a preset humidity level. Models without a humidistat can raise the humidity enough to cause condensation on windows. Also, too much humidification can promote growth of mold, bacteria, and dust mites. If the humidifier doesn't have a humidistat, we recommend you buy a separate hygrometer that can monitor humidity levels in a space. Be aware that most humidifiers won't let you set the humidity below 30 percent, a level that can cause window condensation when outside temperatures drop below 20° F. That means you might not be able to use the humidifier when the weather turns very cold.

Noise

Ultrasonic humidifiers are quiet because they trade the usual fan for a vibrating nebulizer. Some warm-mist tabletop models make little or no noise beyond mild boiling and hissing sounds. Comparably sized evaporative models we tested emitted 45 to 50 decibels on their low setting and even more on their high setting. For large areas, consider buying a quiet ultrasonic console model. Alternatively, buy an evaporative model and place it away from sleeping areas. You'll spend less than you would on several warm-mist tabletop models, and the water vapor will travel quickly enough to benefit remote bedrooms if doors remain open.

Timer


You can program some tabletop and console models to turn on at a set time so that your room is at the right humidity when you get home. But this convenience might pose a problem: Water that sits in the tank for hours can breed microbes if you don't dry the humidifier thoroughly between uses.

Brands

Crane arrow  |  Essick arrow  |  Holmes arrow  |  Honeywell arrow  |  Hunter arrow  |  Vicks arrow

Use these profiles to compare humidifiers by brand.

Crane

Crane has brought an element of design to humidifiers. Offered in a rainbow of colors and playful shapes, they can be found at baby, home goods, and mass-market retailers. Prices range from $40 to $100.

Essick

Essick specializes in whole-house or console humidifiers. Most are made in the U.S. and are evaporative type. Styles include credenza, pedestal, and more utilitarian looking humidifiers. Prices for the consoles range from $100 to $200.

Holmes

Holmes is part of the Jarden group. Products are available at a wide variety of retailers, including Walmart, Target, and Kmart, and through Holmes' Web site. Prices range from $25 to $75.

Honeywell

Honeywell is part of the Helen of Troy group. Humidifiers are available in a wide variety of mass-market and home-center stores. It offers whole-house and tabletop models. Prices range from $40 to $75.

Hunter

Hunter is a brand usually associated with fans. Hunter also offers a line of utilitarian humidifier models that are available nationwide through home and hardware retailers. Prices range from $40 to $80.

Vicks

Vicks is part of the Helen of Troy group. Vicks offers a broad range of humidifiers, which can be found in mass-market and drug stores. Prices range from $40 to $90.

   

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