In some buildings, humidification is obviously necessary. For museums, an appropriate humidity level is required to preserve rare artifacts, and in industrial settings, humidification is needed to protect high-tech equipment. Even in homes, humidity helps to prevent infections and illness, protects furniture from warping, and eliminates static electricity.

But when it comes to commercial structures, primarily office buildings, more often than not, a humidification system will not be found. This is surprising, since studies prove the importance of humidity, not just for equipment, but also for people.

ASHRAE has published statistics provided by Theodore D. Sterling & Associates that claim humidity levels affect health. When humidity drops below the optimum level of 50%, employees are more susceptible to respiratory infections, not to mention viruses and bacteria.

Also, indoor air quality (IAQ) investigations have found a connection between employee illness and humidity levels. When the relative humidity drops below 40%, more employees become sick and miss work.

One Example

The Bona Building & Manage-ment Co., in Ottawa, ON, Canada, initially installed electronic humid-ifiers in the three towers that make up the office and retail buildings known as Place Vanier.

The three towers have had several types of humidification systems over the last seven years, and according to Franco Torlone, Bona’s facilities manager, the results have been very positive.

“I’ve been here for eight to 10 years,” Torlone said. “And if it’s too dry, people will have symptoms where they can’t tell what it is.”

Torlone also added that employees would complain about itchy eyes, dry skin, and head-aches, which he said all point to low humidity.

Since the towers have installed humidification, Torlone has seen an improvement.

“The humidification has reduced complaints by 95%,” he said.

Gordon Arnott, technical manager for the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), says that commercial humidification should be taken more seriously.

“It’s a health and safety issue,” Arnott said. “That is the main component of indoor air quality.”

Arnott confirmed that the optimum humidity zone is between 40% and 50%. Deviating from this range can create allergens and chemical reactions.

The Bottom Line

In Canada, air quality and office ventilation seem to be taken more seriously than in the United States. The Canadian government has made strict rules on how to treat buildings that have been built too tightly.

Although manufacturers and engineers say that the U.S. is beginning to learn more about humidification, many still believe that humidifiers are based on desire more than need.

One manufacturer that supplies commercial and industrial humidification products is Dri-Steem. Steve Wagner, director of sales for the company, says that commercial humidification is on the rise.

Currently, however, the company supplies products for less that 5% of office buildings.

“The trend has been that hum-idification is a luxury,” Wagner said.

He said that new developments in humidification are making it possible to install a system that is not as expensive.

At the heart of the problem, said Wagner, is lack of education on humidification, and not being able to justify the cost.

Rebecca Ellis, principle owner of the engineering consulting firm Sebesta Blomberg & Assoc-iates, Inc., backs up Wagner on the cost issue.

“People have a hard time putting a dollar value on air quality,” she said.

Ellis says that her company always offers to design a humidification system into the plans for clients’ buildings, but more often than not it is turned down. Also, most building owners cannot see how much money they will save from damaged equipment or absent workers by spending money on a system.

Dave Phelps, in sales for Trion, says there are more options for humidification systems that could make them more accessible for older buildings.

Steam humidification is one inexpensive way for an office building to have a humidifier.

Publication date: 09/04/2000