For better or worse, signs of overly low humidity in a house — for example, levels below 30 percent for prolonged periods — eventually become hard to miss.
Santa Fe Air Conditioning & Heating, owned by Duane Wood and located in Gardner, Kansas, offers a few telltale signs in an article posted online regarding when or if to use a whole-home humidification system.
Cracked or splitting wood, separation developing in drywall or wallpaper, static electricity that can wreak expensive havoc on electronics … not good. But that just covers the house itself.
Itchy skin and symptoms like nosebleeds can become a recurring part of winter for occupants in chronically dry indoor environments.
As the medical community reports, exceptionally dry surroundings (and the humans in those spaces) facilitate the spread of viruses more easily. In winter, that means increased risk when the weather often compels people to spend more time closer together.
Moreover, as pointed out by Mike Rimrodt, Aprilaire’s vice president of marketing, even new homes, with tighter building envelopes and materials that off-gas moisture, quickly dry out and require humidification. What’s a family to do?
Often, someone purchases a portable humidifier for a bedroom or a common area.
“Stand-alone humidifiers may not be sufficient for larger homes,” warned Ed Blittschau, vice president of marketing, White-Rodgers, Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions.
Those units also may not be built for long-term use year after year. On the other hand, some whole-home humidification systems can cover over 6,000 square feet, and many are designed for reliable performance over several years to a decade, according to Santa Fe Air.
Left to their own devices and knowledge, consumers frequently tend toward the cheaper, narrowly focused, immediate-gratification solution, even if the whole-home approach may prove less costly over the long haul.
For consumers who do arrive at a whole-home decision on their own or, more likely, with some professional input, the savings likely do not stop there, either.
“People don’t feel temperature, they feel humidity,” is a saying from many HVAC professionals that bears some truth. If the moisture level in the air is adequate, people will feel more comfortable in turning down the thermostat. Sources vary, but estimates indicate that homeowners can save 3 to 4 percent on their heating bills for each degree they decrease their heating set point in winter.
NO CUSTOMER REQUIRED
As with dehumidification systems, contractors and customers looking into a whole-home approach still face a few choices and some homework.
“Contractors know to determine the size of the home, what type of HVAC system is used, and what space constraints there may be in order to recommend an evaporative bypass, evaporative power, ducted steam, or a stand-alone steam unit,” said Rimrodt. (His company provides detailed application guidance along these lines at www.aprilairepartners.com.)
Just as collective homeowner awareness is increasing regarding the risks posed by too much moisture in homes or in certain regions, manufacturers see similarly improved attitudes regarding overly dry environments. Some of this is the result of a better-informed public in general, but Rimrodt also sees contractors doing a better job of educating homeowners on the health benefits of controlling dry air.
“As a result,” he said, “we’re finding that many contractors in humidifier markets are installing a humidifier on every system.”
With a system and technology decision made, the discussion often turns to controls and a familiar theme.
“There has been an increased demand to monitor and control the humidity within the home from their thermostat or mobile app,” noted Blittschau, who said contractors have also been requesting this sort of capability.
His company’s Sensi thermostats will be equipped with new capabilities to control humidification and dehumidification within the home, starting in May.
Aprilaire has continued to center its efforts around a mantra of “Engineered Simplicity,” manifesting itself these days in what Rimrodt describes as a “robust control strategy, which links the functionality of our entire suite of healthy air products with the smart, Wi-Fi controls consumers interact with every day.”
While manufacturers work to deliver the convenience and wireless capabilities that are the hallmark of these times, that may be more for making a good impression than for essential daily interactions or performance. As either manufacturer would point out, on most systems, the equipment itself includes sensors and controls that can continuously maintain a proper humidity level for the space without the need for fine-tuning by the customer.
Rimrodt described delivering too much moisture as “strictly a function of improper maintenance or faulty controls.” Pivoting to the chance for contractors to build on existing customer relationships, he suggested sending a get-your-humidifier-cleaned reminder a couple of times a year to customers who don’t subscribe to an ongoing service agreement.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
If a system is overlooked for a truly extended period, or, as Santa Fe Air pointed out, if a lower-quality whole-home unit is installed, then that does raise the chance of mold developing in ductwork or elsewhere inside the residence.
In addition, a quality system still requires a quality installation to deliver for the homeowner, and installations in existing homes usually have at least one curveball waiting.
“Contractors are the ultimate handymen,” Rimrodt said. “They know that retrofits are never a cookie-cutter proposition. Space constraints, weird existing wiring, faulty installations of plumbing or previous HVAC … ”
Rimrodt cited Neil Voss from Voss Heating and AC in Murphysboro, Illinois, who shared some insights with him recently for a ProTalk blog entry. While a successful contractor has to have that array of HVAC and HVAC-adjacent technical knowledge, Voss emphasized that techs also need to be able to think on their feet and oftentimes just figure it out when it comes to whatever a home’s particular challenges may be.
The economic and comfort-related case for a whole-home system may be solid in many circumstances, but one other caveat remains, back at the very beginning of this process: Exceptionally low relative humidity may be the symptom of a bigger problem.
As Santa Fe Air reminds customers, humidification can address the symptoms of significant air leakage somewhere in the home, but it won’t solve the root problem.
They advise that a tech first conduct a preliminary check across areas like (but not limited to) the attic, ceiling joists, ductwork, recessed lighting, fans, windows, and fireplaces.
If something major turns up, then the contractor has served the customer well, strengthened the trust in that relationship, and avoided a mistaken equipment purchase. If no obvious leakage problem reveals itself, then the discussion can turn toward humidification options with the confidence that the right investment will be money well spent.
Publication date: 4/22/2019