The dry, colder months in northern climates can really do a number on your skin and respiratory system, and many people are looking for ways to add extra humidity to their homes in the late fall and throughout the winter. (Or if you live in a hot, dry climate like the American Southwest, you may want a humidifier year-round.) But with so many choices available—from whole-house humidifiers to single-room steam vaporizers to cool-mist humidifiers—it can be hard to know which type to purchase.
Never fear. We've done the initial research for you. Here are four steps to follow when choosing a humidifier.
1. Determine your needs.
Do your house's humidity levels resemble a desert? Is your skin peeling off? Is the finish on your furniture cracking and splitting? Are you just looking to make your bedroom more comfortable at night? Are you suffering from respiratory problems? Do you have young children or pets? All of these factors should be at play when choosing a humidifier.
If you have young children—especially newborns or toddlers with stuffy noses or other respiratory problems—you should get a portable cool mist humidifier, says Sara Connolly, MD, a pediatrician based in Palm Beach Gardens, FL and a medical content contributor for Bundoo.com, a physician-driven website for parents. "As I take care of small children, I always recommend cool mist humidifiers [because] they do not require the heating of water, and therefore do not pose burn risks to curious children," Connolly says. (Cool mist humidifiers generally use ultrasonic technology instead of heat to convert cold water to mist droplets.)
"I often see families purchase a humidifier for each infant's room for use when their child is having an upper respiratory infection such as a cold or croup," Connolly goes on.
If your household doesn't have any small children or pets who could be harmed by a hot water spill, a steam vaporizer is a good choice for a single room or two. These tend to be a little cheaper than cool mist humidifiers, and are helpful for adults or teens who have allergies, asthma, or the common cold, in addition to just adding more moisture to the air.
A warm mist vaporizer is a hybrid of the steam vaporizer and the cool mist humidifier, and provides relief for respiratory ailments with less risk of burns—though they're still not recommended for use around small children. Both warm mist and steam units can also come with pads medicated with menthol (like Vicks VapoPads®), which is said to add therapeutic benefits to the mist.
"While cool mist [and other] humidifiers are not a substitute for asthma treatment medications, they can help by gently moisturizing the air passages, making a person more comfortable when the humidity inside the home is very low," Connolly explains.
2. Understand your home's existing heating and cooling system.
If your forced-air furnace is drying out your home's air in the fall and winter, then you might want a whole-house humidifier, says Sam Stein, a home comfort expert with All Temp Heating & Air Conditioning in Wauconda, IL. "These units attach to the furnace and add water vapor to the air being blown through your ducts," Stein explains.
There are three main types of whole-house humidifiers—drum, flow-through, and mist/steam. Drum humidifiers use a furnace-driven belt and pad (drum) soaked in water that comes from your home's plumbing system to capture moisture as air flows through your furnace's cold air return line. The cheapest option, it carries some risk of developing mold because it involves standing water. Drum units must be cleaned often to prevent mold growth.
A flow-through unit is similar to a drum unit, but it can be attached to the air return or supply ducts, and uses a filter attached to a water line. It's the middle-of-the-road option in terms of cost.
A steam/mist unit is the most expensive option for whole-house units, but also gives the homeowner the most control over the level of humidity. These units have hot steam and cold mist options, and rely on electricity as well as a water line. "Humidifier season is basically wintertime. You turn them on in the fall and turn them off in the spring," Stein explains.
Common brands for all whole-house humidifier types include Aprilaire, Honeywell and EssickAir.
You can only install a whole-house humidifier if you own your home and have a forced-air furnace. "They're not an option if you have electric baseboard heat or radiators," Stein explains, or if you're in an apartment building with central heat that you don't control. Also, many homes in the desert Southwest don't have furnaces—so they're often not an option there, either. In these cases, you'd have to go with small, portable units like steam vaporizers or cool mist humidifiers for each room.
3. Know your budget.
Humidifiers can range in price from $25 to $1,000 or more, depending on type and style, so your budget can affect which kind is right for you.
For cool mist humidifiers, Connolly recommends small, single-room units from brands like Crane that sell for $50 or less that, with proper care, "will last for years," she says. Connolly also advises against purchasing used units "to ensure there is no mold or bacteria growth." To keep your unit in good working order, she recommends changing the water once a day, and cleaning it once a week with a water and white vinegar solution. "Household cleaners are too harsh," she explains.
For steam and warm mist humidifier options, Crane, Vicks, and Honeywell all make similarly priced units that range from $25 to $50, plus the cost of medicated pads if you choose to use them. (You can clean and maintain them just like you would cool mist humidifiers.)
Whole-house humidifiers can be pricey, with drum and flow-through units ranging from $325 to $550 for the equipment and installation, and steam/mist units can cost $900 or more, according to Stein. All of these units require annual maintenance by a heating and cooling professional, and drum unit owners must also purchase replacement belts regularly, so include these ongoing costs in your budget.
4. Try before you buy.
Many hardware stores and some drugstores and discount stores have a sample humidifier unit set up and running in the store for you to test, since most humidifiers can’t be returned to the store once they are removed from their original packaging. If you're considering a whole-house humidifier, try finding friends or family members who have units already installed in their homes and can tell you about how well they work (or don't) before you invest in one of your own.