A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dried-out air. In addition to these health benefits, a humidifier can also reduce static electricity, peeling wallpaper, and cracks in paint and furniture.
Scratchy throats and itchy eyes from dry winter air help put humidifiers on roughly 10 million shopping lists each year. Our top picks start at just $30 and include penguin shapes and other flights of fancy.
Ideally, indoor humidity should be 30 to 50 percent. But without humidification, that level can drop to 10 percent in winter, because cold air holds less moisture and dries even more as it's heated. But our tests show that some models do little humidifying and could soak you with added costs. Here's what you need to know:
Put substance over style. Models resembling a radio, or sporting art deco or space age accents can liven the decor but if their output is too low for the space you need to humidify then they aren't right for your home. Some models with a touch of whimsy, however, also delivered on performance.
Don't assume that pricier is better. Two reasonably priced models topped our list of consoles, which can humidify an average-sized house, beating out more expensive models.
Remember to clean. To keep germs at bay, many manufacturers recommend rinsing the tank and changing the water daily, plus disinfecting the tank each week following maintenance instructions. Some makers claim that their models help by resisting bacteria and mold buildup in their tanks. Several models in our tests proved to be effective at slowing bacteria growth.
Check the features. A humidistat--if it's accurate--can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.
Factor in added costs. Evaporative humidifiers use a filter that requires periodic replacing, while some ultrasonic models have a demineralization cartridge. Antimicrobial cartridges are another option on all types. Replacing those parts usually costs around $50 a year.
Check our hard-water scores. Minerals in hard water can lower a humidifier's performance by causing scale buildup. Some models resisted it far better than others.
Think about noise. Console models are the loudest overall--about as noisy as a room air conditioner. But some tabletop models come close so you wouldn't want to use them in a bedroom.
If you're not ready to commit to regular maintenance and if your home has forced-air heat, consider an in-duct humidifier that's plumbed into the water supply and drain pipes. Such units don't need refilling, and their easy-change filter requires service only once or twice a year.