Archive for the ‘humidifcation’ Category

Central vs. Portable Humidification Systems

November 14, 2010

In previous posts, I discussed how humidification systems work and how effective a central humidification system might be.  In that post, I hinted at differences between central (whole house) humidification systems and portable (local) humidification systems.  In this post, I want to discuss more about the differences between the two systems.

If you have not realized yet from previous posts, I am biased–I am not a fan of central humidification systems.  I see them often in the homes I inspect; but I suspect that most do not work as intended.  Yet, there they are.  I have to wonder if the installation company actually analyzed the need for a humidification system or was just selling a product that is quite profitable for the company.  Simply asking the homeowner whether he and/or she wanted a humidification system is not the analysis about which I am talking, by the way.

Following are the reasons that I believe a PHS is better than a central humidification system.  For simplification, CHS is used for central humidification system, while PHS is used for PHS.

First is the big picture.  Why try to humidify a whole home when all of the home occupants are not in all of the home’s areas at once?  Let me put is bluntly, injecting a gallon of water into a room is going to be more effective at raising the humidity than injecting a gallon of water into the whole home.

Second is effectiveness.  I believe that a portable humidification system providing spot moisture would likely work better than a CHS.  With a PHS, moisture from a judicially placed unit can be directed into the air around a person’s head (the area that industrial hygienist types call the breathing zone or when they really want to be cool—the BZ).  Even if the PHS cannot be aimed to direct moisture into the occupant’s breathing zone, it can be located close enough to elevate the moisture in the air people are breathing.  If the room can be closed up, such as a bedroom, humidification will likely be more successful than trying to humidify an entire home.  In fact, in the previous blog where I discussed virus and humidification, a portable humidifier was used in that research.  As my previous blog post showed,, CHSs are probably not effective at significantly elevating humidity levels in some homes, particularly air leaky homes.

Home leakiness leads to the third reason portable is better than CHSs—losses.  Moisture in the air is in the form of water vapor, which behaves like the other gases in air.  As such, if the amount of airborne moisture in one area is greater than in another area, moisture in the first area will travel to the second area as long as the two areas are connected.  On cold winter days, the amount of moisture in the outdoor air is usually lower than the amount in indoor air (a subject for another post).  In air leaky homes, indoor moisture will likely move outdoors, even if outdoor air is moving in the opposite direction.  So, most of the water a CHS is putting into the air could be traveling directly outdoors, barely elevating the indoor humidity levels.  Over an entire home, the total area of the air leaks is less than those in a single room.  Therefore, the amount of moisture being lost from one area will be less than throughout all areas.  If a PHS is supplying more moisture to a given area than the central system is supplying to the entire home area, moisture levels in the area with the PHS will be greater.  Even if the moisture from the PHS is also traveling outdoors, it has a better chance of being effective as it travels through people’s breathing zones on it trip outdoors.

A fourth reason is condensation areas.  Most homes have cold surfaces in the winter where condensation can occur.  The chances that condensation surfaces are in the same room with a PHS are less than the chances of moisture from a CHS seeing a condensation surface.

A fifth reason is better humidity control.  Some PHSs now come with their own humidistats.  Basically, the portable unit is sensing the humidity right in the space where the person is.  CHS humidistats are installed in the return air duct in an effort to sense the “average” humidity in the home.  What happens if the return air system is pulling more air from some areas of the home than others, meaning that it is not sensing the true average humidity levels?  That issue is more common than you might think.  Some central system humidistats are placed on a wall in the home; but those also have the same issues as far as sensing the “average” humidity levels.

A sixth reason is operation.  CHSs, if they are working right, only humidify air when the air handling system is working.  During the rest of the time, the CHS is at the mercy of the thermostat.  The central humidification control system has to wait until the thermostat calls for heat before it can work.  Just in case someone is thinking that the CHS can be set to operate without the furnace, remember that the CHS needs air moving through it to work.  Someone is likely also thinking that the thermostat can be set to ON so that the fan is operating all the time.  Then, if the humidistat calls for humidification, air will be flowing through the CHS.  It could; but, the reason air downstream of the furnace is passed through the CHS is because heated air can hold more moisture than cooler air. So, more water will be lost with the CHS if unheated air is passed through it than heated air.  With PHSs, the unit is always injecting moisture into the air without the need for moving air to transport the moisture.

A seventh reason is maintenance.  If a valve on the CHS sticks open, water will be dumped right down the drain when air is not moving through it.  In some cases, the CHS drain is plugged up, and water is dumped into the air handler and then ultimately onto the floor outside the unit.  If that water travels to nearby furnished areas, moisture-related damage can occur.  Sometimes, the damage is extensive, such as shown in the photos below.  The fact is that CHSs are usually not inspected very often and problems may not found until a serious malfunction occurs.  If a PHS malfunctions, it is usually right in the same room with the home’s occupants, who can then see that a problem is occurring.  Maintenance of a PHS is usually so easy that the home owner can do it.  For most homeowners, a HVAC technician is needed to service the CHS.  Remember too, that the more debris that collects on the media inside a CHS, the less air can get through the CHS and the less effective it will be.  The PHS, on the other hand, can be kept clean of debris.

 

Water damage caused by a malfunctioning CHS

 

 

An eighth is bioaerosols.  One of the more well-known cases with PHSs is humidifier fever caused by a PHS that was not properly cleaned and reservoir water was allowed to sit in the unit and grow yuck.  When the unit was operated, the yuck was injected into the air that people were breathing.  But, CHSs are not without the same problems.  In fact, they are essentially operating as a back-up filter to air handler filter.  The debris collected on the media inside the CHS stays there until the media is replaced and that debris contains bioaerosols that may find the conditions inside the CHS a very nice place to grow.  Nowadays, most PHSs are made so that the owner can readily clean the unit and all of them recommend using fresh water every time the unit is operated.

A ninth reason is cost.  A homeowner can buy a lot of PHSs for the cost of one CHS.  For sure, the initial cost of a CHS is much more than a PHS.  But, consider also that if you are not happy with the operation of the humidification system, replacing a PHS is a lot cheaper than replacing a CHS.  I have found cases where homes had unused or disabled CHSs along with PHSs that were being used.

A tenth and final reason is choice.  For residences, homeowners are mainly stuck with one option—the wetted media CHS.  Although residential steam injection CHSs are available, they are even more expensive than the wetted media CHSs.  With PHSs, the owner has not only choice of the method of humidification, as explained in a previous post, a number of manufacturers produce the various types of PHSs.  Having a range of options also means more competition with PHSs than with CHSs, which further means price and feature competition.  I have seen several CHSs and they appear to be amazingly similar, while I have seen a range of PHS designs and those designs continue to evolve.

I guess I could be faulted in this post for not finding more advantages of CHSs over PHSs.  The truth is, none comes to my mind other than the fact that water is supplied to the CHS, while the owner has to carry water to the PHS.  Even though that difference could be considered an advantage of a CHS over a PHS, I think it can also be considered a disadvantage because when changing water, the owner actually is inspecting the PHS and likely keeping it clean.

If you have another opinion, let me know.

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How effective are central humidification systems?

October 19, 2010

I am currently working on a post discussing central versus portable humidification systems.  In the midst of it, I realized that I was discussing a lot of issues that might be too much to take in one post.  In other words, it was getting kinda long.  So, I decided to break out part of it for this post.  Well, that and the fact I am beginning to get brain fog in composing the post.

So, for this post, I am going to discuss just how effective a central humidification system might be.  Warning to those who glaze at the use of calculations, they are in here.  If you cannot dig through it, just go to the conclusions.

So, you have a central humidification system that is dumping moisture into the air.  Just how effective is that humidification system at raising the humidity level of the air flowing through the air handler?  Consider this point—to raise the humidity 1% will require about 0.00004 gallons of water for every cubic foot of air (assuming I did my psychrometrics right).  That doesn’t seem like a lot, right?  But, a typical air handler fan pushes around 1200 cubic feet of air per minute.  That means 0.046 gallons (or about 0.7 pints) of water is needed every minute just to raise the humidity in the air flowing through a typical furnace 1%.  Want to try to raise that humidity from 10 to 50%?  That would be nearly 2 gallons of water per minute.  Do you think your humidifier can do that?

Now, consider this point.  Most central humidification systems work by evaporating water into the air passing through the humidification system.  That evaporation process is not 100%.  If you want proof and have one of these systems, check for water coming out of the overfill tube when the system is operating.  Now, the water flowing through the humidification system is not pure–it contains minerals.  As the water evaporates, it leaves those minerals behind to coat the media, as shown in the photo below.  As the media becomes coating, it is less able to absorb the moisture and the surface area of the media that is available for evaporation decreases.  Water that is not evaporated into the air passes through the humidification system to the overfill tube and is wasted.  Whether the water goes into the air or down the drain, you are paying for it.

 

Mineral encrustation on a wetable media inside a central humidification system.

Mineral encrustations on the humidification system as shown in the photo can also channel water down through only part of the media.  That further decreases the wetted area of the media from which moisture can evaporate.  Less areas from which water can evaporate means lower efficiency.

One more issue I would like to mention.  As the temperature of the water being supplied to the humidification system drops, less water evaporates into the air.  Basically, some of the water flowing over the media is absorbing heat without evaporating into the air.  That means that less water is entering the air.  I don’t know about your water system, but mine sure seems colder in the winter than the summer.  Per my previous post, the water valve supplying water to the humidification system only allows one flow rate.  During the winter, if you water supply temperature is colder, not only is water potentially being wasted, it could also be carrying some of the heat you are supplying to the air down the drain.

In my next (or maybe the one after that or after that or . . . ) post, I am going to get more into central versus portable humidification systems.  I promise.  Stay tuned.

What is the purpose of humidifying air?

October 11, 2010

In the last post, I said my next post would be to compare central to portable humidification systems.  Well, I got well into writing that post–which will be more than one post, as I found out–when the thought came to me that maybe I should explain some of the reason I have heard for humidifying our homes.  That last post indicated one reason based on more recent research and that is to control virus. We shall see if future research supports the findings.

Another common reason I heard is to protect the wood in a home.  I am not so convinced, at least for more modern homes that use a lot of manufactured wood products rather than the real McCoy (do people still use that phrase?).  All wood expands and contracts as the wood’s moisture content changes, and the content does change with the amount of moisture in the air.  Cracks form in the wood when it is constrained from moving either by the way it is installed or by its own natural structure.

 

Based on a little research (and note I said a LITTLE research) I believe that most wood in homes expands less than 1/4″ and more likely the amount is around 1/8″.  In a short article published on-line (http://www.forestry.uga.edu/outreach/pubs/pdf/FOR93-034.pdf), The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agency published results of a little study on the amount of moisture in wood in 20 homes or offices for oak and maple.  The authors found that the average maple moisture content 7.9 to 10.3% and for oak the average was 6.3 to 8.1%.  In another article published on-line  (http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/2010/09/03/moisture-content-wood-movement/), Mr. Carl Hagstrom gives this rule of thumb:  for every 4% increase in wood moisture content, the wood expands 1% (for “flat gain material”).  (Mr. Hagstrom also very nicely provides a link to an on-line shrinkage calculator at http://www.woodweb.com/cgi-bin/calculators/calc.pl?calculator=shrinkage.)  Putting these two bits of information together, wood inside homes will likely expand about 1% during a typical change in winter conditions.

Mr. Hagstrom further states that wider boards expand more than narrower boards, as you would expect based on his rule of thumb.  However, not a lot of wider boards are used in new construction.  Not that many old big trees are still around these days, and those that are usually are used for veneers.   But, craftsman builders know how to account for wood expansion–both back then and now.   Having inspected a large number of older homes, I have not seen a lot of cracks in finish wood.  I have seen plenty in structural wood, although not many I would consider bad enough to be structural issues.  At that, I have to wonder if the cracks were not caused by the wood not being adequately dried or being exposed to the more extreme variations in moisture and temperature of outdoor air.

I also do not hear many homeowners saying that they humidify because of concerns about the wood.  Instead, the issues are usually that pesky static shocks from walking across carpets in dry environments and physiological issues such as stuffy head and dry skin.  WikiHow has a list of things a homeowner can do to reduce static shock (http://www.wikihow.com/Remove-Static-Electricity).  Apparently, some carpets are also now manufactured to reduce shock.

I have my own theories about the physiological effects of dry air.  I believe that the dry air dries out the mucous membranes of the nasal system.   To prevent drying, the the mucous membranes swell to increase humidification of the air going into our lungs.  Swelling of the membranes causes little fissures in the mucous membranes that cause slight bleeding, which some people see when they blow their nose during this time.  The nasal stuffiness causes some people to use decongestant sprays that can also irritate the mucous membranes and some have rebound effects that make the stuffiness worse.  Decongestants , particularly the ones combined with antihistamines, can also cause a drying effect of the membranes.  Moisturizing sprays can help relieve the drying effects; but, the effect, for me at least, is relatively short-term.

I have one other alternative to help reduce the physiological effects of dry air that most people will not find attractive.  That is, reduce the air temperature of the home.  Doing so will effectively increase the relative humidity of the air.  I confess that during the winter, I keep my home at around 65 degrees.  Even though this temperature is noticeably lower than the 75 to 85 degrees most people keep their homes at during the winter.  I have found over the years, that our bodies are amazingly adaptive.  One other lesson I have learned is that I can always put on more clothes and putting a heating pad under my butt during the coldest days can go a far way toward keeping me warm enough.

The basics of humidification systems

October 6, 2010

In a previous post on virus and humidification, I promised to discuss more about humidification systems.  In this post, I am going to discuss the basics of humidification systems.  Humidity is a measure of the moisture in the air.  Technically, the humidity that everyone is usually talking about, including the weather guys is relative humidity.  Every so often, the term absolute humidity sneaks out of the scientific and engineering circles into the public.  This is a different measurement of moisture in the air; but that is a subject for another day when I pretty much run out of other topics—and I do have a list.

Humidification systems are simply devices for putting moisture into the air.  In our area, we only want to put moisture in the air during the winter.  In the summer, we are more concerned with getting out of the air.  The reason that people want to humidify air is that the air in our homes is extremely dry during the winter.  Even though outdoor air during the winter may have what seems like a normal humidity level, when that air comes indoors and is heated, the relative humidity levels drop to levels seen in a desert—somewhere around 10%.

For homes, a homeowner has really two basic choices in humidification systems:  central and portable.  A central humidification system supplies water to the air going into or coming from the air handler.  The humidified air is then distributed to all areas of the home.

Central humidification systems typically are recognized as a plastic box mounted on a return air duct near the air handler as seen in the photo below.  However, I recently saw on system mounted on the supply air duct, which may have been the work of an installation instruction-challenged installer.

A typical central humidification system

Inside the box is a web-like media through which air flows.  The air that flows through this media usually comes from the supply air duct just downstream from the air handler (the duct coming into the side of the humidifier in the above photo).  A humidistat connected to a sensor normally in the return air duct upstream of the humidification system (the little white box above the humidifier in the above photo) operates an electronic water valve that controls the water flowing onto the media (the valve can be seen alongside the humidifier in the photo above).  The humidistat is a control system for sensing moisture in the air similar to the way a thermostat senses temperature.  The water valve is connected to the home’s water supply.

When the humidistat senses that the moisture level of the air is too low, it opens the valve to let water flow over the media.  When the humidistat is satisfied, it closes the valve.  Air flowing through the media is supposed to pick up the moisture through evaporation and carry it into the return air stream.  Water flowing across the media that is not absorbed by the air is supposed to flow into an overflow that has a drain line to a nearby drain (the black tubing below the humidifier in the photo above).  In a few cases, the humidistat is located in a living area of the home, usually next to the thermostat.  Some humidistats are incorporated into the thermostat.

Most people will be more familiar with the portable humidification system, particularly since they are sold pretty much everywhere.  These units are self-contained humidifiers that have a water reservoir and a means for converting the water into a mist.  Some units also have a small fan to power air through the unit.  Portable humidifiers have three methods for turning the water into a mist.

The first method for turning water into a mist is a nebulizer that is simply a vibrating plate onto which the water dribbles.  The vibration breaks the water into a mist that is usually carried into the air by a fan-powered air stream.  These units are pretty simple devices that use the electric current to generate the vibrations in the plate.

The second method for turning water into a mist is a rotating disk that slings water at a comb-like device, which is supposed to break the water up into a mist.  The spinning disk operates both as a kind of pump to pull water up out of the reservoir and a means of slinging the water at the comb and a fan to push the mist out of the unit.  This method tends to generate larger water droplets than the other methods, which can lead to water falling on surfaces around the unit.  But, they are also commonly the cheapest units.

The third method for turning water into a mist is the old tried and true method from many of us boomers child-hoods is steam generation.  These humidifiers have a electrical resistance element that heats up when electricity runs through it, similar to the elements on an electric stove.  Water in contact with the heated element boils and is converted into steam.  The steam literally is forced out of the unit because of the energy it absorbs as it turns to steam.  This method of humidification is also used in most commercial and higher-end home humidification systems.

So, in summary, humidifiers convert water into water vapor through three methods; but all of them ultimately work through evaporation.  Central humidification systems use direct evaporation of the moisture into the air as it passes through a wet media, similar to the way that we evaporate water from our skin.  The other methods generate a mist with the intent to get it into the room air where the water will evaporate into the surrounding air.  For these mist generators, the smaller the size of the droplets in the mist, the better the water evaporates.  That doesn’t mean that central systems are more effective humidifiers than the others.  Steam systems are actually the most effective method, but take more energy to do the humidification.

I will end this part of the discussion there.  In the next post on humidification, I will discuss the pros and cons of central and portable humidification systems.

Humidification and Virus

September 29, 2010

The Environmental Health Journal published an article this past month titled, “Modeling the airborne survival of influenza virus in a residential setting: the impacts of home humidification“.  The results of the research taken from the article are, “The presence of a portable humidifier with an output of 0.16 kg water per hour in the bedroom resulted in an increase in median sleeping hours AH/RH levels of 11 to 19% compared to periods without a humidifier present. The associated percent decrease in influenza virus survival was 17.5 – 31.6%. Distribution of water vapor through a residence was estimated to yield 3 to 12% increases in AH/RH and 7.8-13.9% reductions in influenza virus survival.”

What the article states that a slight rise in relative humidity in the room caused a slight drop in the influenza viruses in the air.  I have a couple of criticisms about the article, though.  The authors derived this conclusion based on limited data using modeling instead of actual sampling of the virus.  The lack of data does not really show how the trend would go for humidity versus virus concentrations.  Without data from actual virus, the question also exists whether the model is realistic or whether the results are repeatable.  I cannot really fault them because sampling for viruses is difficult at its least, particularly infectious viruses and research is expensive.

But, I am still concerned about whether the risks of a humidification system are worth the beneficial effect on virus.  Other studies have shown that hygiene–hand washing and avoiding sick people–are quite effective in preventing or minimizing virus-related illnesses.  Flu shots are also effective in preventing flu for which the sera are developed.  I can personally attest to that fact.  I also tend to believe that flu shots, even past ones, may help minimize the effects of other virus.

I will confess, though, that I am not a big fan of some humidification systems, particularly central humidification systems.  I have observed too many issues with them from basic design to maintenance-related issues.  In future blogs, I am going to go into more detail about humidification systems and their pros and cons, as I see them.  I even got off on that tangent writing about those issues for this blog.  I decided to reign in this post to stick with the topic of humidity and virus.

What can be drawn from this and other research.  I believe that humidity levels could have an effect on virus levels in the air.  I have known for a long time that when those sloppy wet infectious particles that are sneezed into the air, or fomites as the medical gang call them, they have a better chance of drying in low-humidity air.  Drying of the particles means that they become smaller and lighter, which in turn means that they can stay afloat in the air longer.  They can also be breathed deeper into the respiratory system where they can more easily set up shop.  The weird thing is that some virus actually survive better in the dried out state.   (Here are a couple of examples of research pointing to that conclusion:  “Dry air might boost flu transmission” and “Flu Mystery Solved? Why It Flourishes in Winter“.)  Elevated humidity is a good thing.  My dispute is with the way to humidify, and that will be the subject of other posts.


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