Portable humidifiers

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As summer fades into fall, the air in our homes gets drier and drier. With the windows caulked and the heating on, it can get stifling! Not a healthy way to pass the winter. A humidifier or two will fix that!

Keeping the humidity in your home at a comfortable level is far from being a frill. When the air is dry, our nasal and bronchial airways dry out too, leaving them susceptible to irritation. Viruses can then invade more easily, thus increasing our risk of catching a cold, the flu and other respiratory infections. Not only that, dry air draws moisture out from wherever it can, including the floors and wooden furniture, causing them to crack – and plants to wither.

A humidifier adds more moisture to the air and, as a result, helps prevent the problems associated with dryness. It is also useful during a respiratory infection. By increasing the level of humidity, the secretions blocking our lungs and sinuses dissolve, which helps us get rid of them. To find out if you need a humidifier, measure the amount of moisture in your apartment or house using a hygrometer. The recommended level of humidity indoors is 50 % in summer and 30 % in winter (lower in winter to avoid condensation).

Warm mist, cool mist and ultrasound
There are many kinds of portable humidifiers on the market. They are grouped into three kinds: warm mist, cool mist and ultrasound. Each one has its pros and cons.

The warm-mist humidifier has a heating element that humidifies the air by emitting a jet of hot water vapour. With this kind of humidifier you can add medical solutions – aimed at fighting a cold, for example ? to be vaporized into the air. But beware: these solutions contain ingredients that can sometimes irritate the respiratory system of vulnerable persons. An advantage of warm-mist humidifiers is that they require less maintenance than the other models. Their main disadvantage is the risk of burns. Because the jet of water vapour emitted is hot, you must be careful not to get too close; and you will want to keep one out of the reach children.

It goes without saying that cool-mist humidifiers are safer. They are also the simplest to use, as well as the most popular. A water-soaked filter humidifies the air that passes through it. The only drawback is that these humidifiers require meticulous maintenance. They need to be cleaned regularly to avoid the growth of bacteria and their expulsion into the air.

Unlike the first two types, ultrasound humidifiers do not produce vapour; rather, they emit a fine drizzle as water passes through an ultrasonic nebulizer (high-frequency oscillator). Like warm- and cool-mist humidifers, these machines need scrupulous maintenance. They humidify a room quickly and more quietly, but are generally the most expensive. Their advantage is that they propel into the air minute particles of white dust made up of the minerals found in water – the same substance that causes a build-up of scale in a kettle. People with respiratory problems are at risk. To avoid this problem, manufacturers have added a filter (some even demineralize) that captures a large portion of these particles. And because some models can release these whitish particles in higher concentration when refilled from the tap, it is often recommended that distilled water be used.

That said, almost all portable humidifiers now come with a filter that retains some of these particles and impunities. Obviously, the cleaner a filter is the more efficiently the humidifier can do its job. A filter-replacement indicator is practical, especially for ultrasound humidifiers. Same for an indicator that lets you know when the tank is empty. According to Stéphane Gagnon, the manager of Rona l’Entrepôt in Saint-Bruno, an adjustable humidistat is another must, as it allows you to maintain the level of desired humidity once it’s been reached. Also useful is a control for setting the speed of the fan. “The higher the setting,” explains Mr Gagnon, “the faster evaporation can occur and in a large area. This is good when you want to humidify the air in a large room, for example. And at night people usually like to lower the speed to make it quieter.”

Whatever the type of humidifier you choose, keep in mind these criteria: your needs (do you want to humidify the air in one room or several?); the capacity of the humidifier in relation to your needs; ease of use and maintenance; and the quality of its construction.

The importance of good maintenance
To prevent health problems related to the use of a humidifier, it must be well maintained.

According to Health Canada, cool-mist humidifiers are a greater health risk if water is left in the device when not in use. This is because, if the water is not all evaporated, neither is any bacteria that may reside within. More bacteria can accumulate and multiply in the stagnant water ? an environment very favourable for the development of micro-organisms that will eventually be expelled into the air you breathe. Persons suffering form asthma, serious allergies and other respiratory problems risk having their condition aggravated.

Therefore, in addition to emptying the residual water after each use, it is strongly recommended that you clean and disinfect the tank regularly ? according to manufacturers’ instructions ? to remove slime from its walls and to prevent mould and micro-organisms from forming. Also check and clean the filter often, or replace it if necessary; otherwise, the coating of particles deposited on the surface of the filter will significantly reduce the efficiency of the humidifier. Finally, do not refill the tank until you are ready to use it.

By Jacqueline Simoneau
Translated by John Woolfrey