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The Ins And Outs Of Humidifiers

The colder it grows outside, the drier the air begins to feel inside. Most people know the benefits of a humidifier, but there are several different types out there and a dizzying array of features. What's right for you?

Even with new technologies, humidifiers grow and spread bacteria and mold. Mary Giles, senior associate editor of Parenting magazine, visits The Saturday Early Show to help sort it all out.

The ideal humidity in a home or office is 30 to 50 percent. However, in the winter, this number can slip down to a mere 5 percent. When the air is so moisture-deprived, it quickly saps any moisture from our skin, leaving it unpleasantly dry. This rapid loss of moisture also leads to a loss of body heat. Even a thermostat set at 72 degrees may not feel warm enough.

Dry air also impairs the body's natural defenses against viruses by drying out the throat and nasal passages.

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In addition to lowering heating costs and fighting illness, a humidifier can help prevent cracking wood and paint.

However, a home can be too humid. This leads to the growth of mold and mildew on walls or under rugs and, more importantly, in the air itself. Even humidifiers that are set to an appropriate level can release nasty microorganisms into the air if they are not properly maintained.

There is limited information available on the growth and dispersal of these microorganisms, but the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission agree that they can irritate lungs, particularly in people with allergies or asthma, and possibly lead to serious infection.

Evaporative (cool-mist) Humidifier
The most common humidifier is the cool-mist model that uses evaporation to release water into a room. It is energy efficient and water is blown through a filter which prevents minerals and other bacteria from being sprayed into the air.

In the model shown on The Saturday Early Show (Hunter Care-Free Humidifier Plus 33350), the filter only has to be changed once a season. This tabletop size can humidify one or two rooms; it costs $99.95. It also includes a few features that are nice to have on all humidifiers: a humidistat to measure a room's humidity, automatic shutoff to stop the machine from running with a dry reservoir, and adjustable speed.

Console humidifier
If you want to reach a whole apartment or house, check out the console humidifier. Most of these are about the size of a laundry hamper and use the cool-mist/evaporation method. Because they hold so much water, look for a model that has two or three removable reservoirs; this makes cleaning and refilling much easier.

The model shown on The Saturday Early Show (Bemis Console Evaporative Humidifier 696-400) costs $130 and covers up to 2,300 square feet.

Furnace attachment
If even the console model isn't big enough, you can buy a humidifier that attaches to your furnace. Other benefits include not having to refill the humidifier (because it's aso attached to your plumbing), and not having to find room in your home for the machine.

The model shown on The Saturday Early Show (Honeywell Whole House Disk Humidifier HE160A) costs $228.88 and requires professional installation.

Warm mist humidifier
The other type of humidifier receiving a thumbs-up from consumer groups and the Allergy Buyers Club is a warm-mist model. It boils water and disperses steam mixed with some cool air.

This is similar to the vaporizers that many of us grew up with in our bedrooms. The important difference is that vaporizers do not mix cool air with the steam.

The warm-mist humidifiers also can disperse inhalant medications into the air with the steam. For this reason, many pediatricians recommend a warm-mist model for use in children's rooms. The boiling water in the humidifier kills any accumulated bacteria.

The model shown on The Saturday Early Show (Slant/Fin GF-350) also has an ultra-violet light to kill bacteria, mineral pads to absorb minerals/white dust, and a stainless steel reservoir. On the downside, the light and pads will need to be replaced, it takes more energy to run, and the boiling water can scald. It costs $140.

Less expensive drug store models
Of course, you don't have to spend this kind of money on a humidifier. You can pick one up at the corner drugstore for around $30. Most inexpensive humidifiers are cool-mist models that use a fan-like mechanism in the water reservoir to throw out tiny water droplets.

However, you get what you pay for. These models lack most anti-bacterial functions that appear on more expensive humidifiers. In addition, they tend to release the minerals that naturally occur in water into the air in the form of a white dust. This white-dust problem can be avoided by using distilled water instead of tap water.

You also sacrifice features like an automatic shut-off. The model shown on The Saturday Early Show (Vicks Cool Mist Humidifier - $31.99) has to be cleaned at least once a week. The reservoir must be scrubbed with white vinegar to remove any tap water residue. The base should be cleaned with diluted bleach, and the filter needs to be changed when it starts to look brown.

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