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One thing that makes winter uncomfortable for humans, even inside a nice warm building, is low humidity. People need a certain level of humidity to be comfortable. In the winter, indoor humidity can be extremely low and the lack of humidity can dry out your skin and mucous membranes. Low humidity also makes the air feel colder than it actually is. Dry air can also dry out the wood in the walls and floors of our houses. As the drying wood shrinks, it can cause creaks in floors and cracks in drywall and plaster. Relative Humidity
The relative humidity of the air affects how comfortable we feel. But what is humidity, and what is "relative humidity" relative to?
Humidity is defined as the amount of moisture in the air. If you are standing in the bathroom after a hot shower and can see the steam hanging in the air, or if you are outside after a heavy rain, then you are in an area of high humidity. If you are standing in the middle of a desert that has not seen rainfall for two months, or if you are breathing air out of a SCUBA tank, then you are experiencing low humidity.
Air contains a certain amount of water vapor. The amount of water vapor any mass of air can contain depends on the temperature of that air: The warmer the air is, the more water it can hold. A low relative humidity means that the air is dry and could hold a lot more moisture at that temperature.
For example, at 20 degrees C (68 degrees F), a cubic meter of air can hold a maximum of 18 grams of water. At 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), it can hold 22 grams of water. If the temperature is 25 degrees C and a cubic meter of air contains 22 grams of water, then the relative humidity is 100 percent. If it contains 11 grams of water, the relative humidity is 50 percent. If it contains zero grams of water, relative humidity is zero percent.
The relative humidity plays a large role in determining our comfort level. If the relative humidity is 100 percent, it means that water will not evaporate -- the air is already saturated with moisture. Our bodies rely on the evaporation of moisture from our skin for cooling. The lower the relative humidity, the easier it is for moisture to evaporate from our skin and the cooler we feel.
You may have heard of the heat index. The chart below lists how hot a given temperature will feel to us in various relative-humidity levels.
If the relative humidity is 100 percent, we feel much hotter than the actual temperature indicates because our sweat does not evaporate at all. If the relative humidity is low, we feel cooler than the actual temperature because our sweat evaporates easily; we can also feel extremely dry.
Low humidity has at least three effects on human beings:
It dries out your skin and mucous membranes. If your home has low humidity, you will notice things like chapped lips, dry and itchy skin, and a dry sore throat when you wake up in the morning. (Low humidity also dries out plants and furniture.)
It increases static electricity, and most people dislike getting sparked every time they touch something metallic.
It makes it seem colder than it actually is. In the summer, high humidity makes it seem warmer than it is because sweat cannot evaporate from your body. In the winter, low humidity has the opposite effect. If you take a look at the chart above, you'll see that if it is 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) inside your home and the humidity is 10 percent, it feels like it is 65 degrees F (18 degrees C). Simply by bringing the humidity up to 70 percent, you can make it feel 5 degrees F (3 degrees C) warmer in your home.
Since it costs a lot less to humidify the air than to heat it, a humidifier can save you a lot of money!
For best indoor comfort and health, a relative humidity of about 45 percent is ideal. At temperatures typically found indoors, this humidity level makes the air feels approximately what the temperature indicates, and your skin and lungs do not dry out and become irritated.
Most buildings can not maintain this level of humidity without help. In the winter, relative humidity is often much lower than 45 percent, and in the summer it is sometimes higher. Let's see why this is.
Weather and Humidity
Here's what happens in winter to make it feel so dry in our houses. Let's say that the outdoor temperature is 0 degrees C, or 32 degrees F. The maximum amount of water that a cubic meter of air can hold at this temperature is 5 grams. Now you bring this cubic meter of air inside and heat it to 25 degrees C or 77 degrees F. The relative humidity is only 23 percent:
5 grams of water in the air / 22 grams possible
= 23 percent relative humidity
It gets worse as the temperature outside falls lower. This is why the air inside any heated building in the winter feels so dry. Any time the temperature outside is below freezing, relative humidity inside will be below 20 percent unless you do something to increase the humidity. Inside a Humidifier
The most common type of humidifier is called an evaporative humidifier. This type of humidifier is actually quite simple and, for the most part, self-regulating. A reservoir holds cold water and dispenses it into a basin. A wicking filter absorbs the water from the basin. A fan then blows air through the moistened filter.
As the air passes through the filter, it evaporates some of the water there. The higher the relative humidity, the harder it is to evaporate water from the filter, which is why a humidifier is self-regulating -- as humidity increases, the humidifier's water-vapor output naturally decreases.
Sometimes an evaporative humidifier will be hooked up to the heating and cooling system of a house or building. These systems work in a similar way: A metal mesh or screen is located in the duct coming from the furnace and/or air conditioner; water from the building's pipes flows down the screen; as air coming from the duct blows across the screen, it picks up moisture
How Humidifiers Work