Get Misty for Me

Humidifiers to help you through the winter.

Boy, did I heart Chicago when I moved here on a dazzling afternoon last July. What a great town! Why hadn’t we settled here years before? Just you wait, naysayers warned: You won’t survive a single winter in that climate. Even those unaware of my warm-weather proclivities spoke balefully of the cutting winds that whipped off the lake, the endless days without sunlight, the bruising spills on icy cement …

All that, and nary a word about the punishing indoor air. As it turned out, the shores of Lake Michigan were a cakewalk compared to the corridors of my climate-controlled high-rise. By November, I was waking several times a night with cracked, bleeding lips. The water on my bedside table evaporated by morning.

In previous residences, I could control the indoor temperature with a touch of the thermostat. Adding moisture was also a cinch: I’d throw open the windows and pad around in three layers of wool. Here, shutting off the heat isn’t an option. And because we live above an elevated train, neither is opening the windows for more than a few minutes a day. Somehow, I had to save my lips—and prove all those skeptics wrong. Only with a good humidifier could I glide through my first Midwestern winter without complaint.

I tested three popular types of portable humidifiers: warm mist, evaporative cool mist, and ultrasonic. The conventional wisdom on how these types differ runs thusly:

Warm-mist humidifiers tend to be the cheapest of the three. Because the water is boiled before being released, warm-mist models consume a bit more electricity. They also pose more of a fire risk and aren’t recommended for use around kids.

Evaporative cool-mist humidifiers use a fan to blow air through a porous absorbent pad (called a wick, or filter). While these wicks start looking manky fast, replacing them every couple of months isn’t prohibitively expensive or overly complicated. Cool-mist humidifiers are considered louder than either warm-mist or ultrasonic models.

Ultrasonic humidifiers, which use sound waves to transform water into a cool cloudy mist, are by far the best-looking—and the most expensive—of the bunch. They are also virtually silent to run. The drawbacks: The dry-ice-like vapor released, while a definite crowd-pleaser, can humidify not just the air, but all linens in its orbit. Another issue noted by the EPA, though still not proved: Ultrasonic and less common impeller humidifiers might disperse “materials, such as micro-organisms and minerals, from their water tanks into indoor air.”

The seven humidifiers I tested were medium-size models, designed for spaces averaging 800 square feet. They ranged in price from $59.99 to $179.99. After running each humidifier for five separate 24-hour cycles, I evaluated them on these criteria:

Performance (10 possible points)
I used a Honeywell Thermo-Hygrometer to monitor the outdoor and indoor temperature in relation to the humidity level of my 750-square-foot apartment. (Though several humidifiers tested gave similar readings on LCD or digital screens, I went by this third-party device for consistency.) On an average just-below-freezing day, the indoor humidity level at my home hovers around an arid 20 percent. How quickly could these machines bring that to the norm—a comfortable 50 percent? 

Other considerations: How flexible are the settings? Can you preprogram your desired level of humidity, and if so, does the humidifier automatically maintain that level? I also took into account more subjective factors: How does the room feel? Were my lips chapped? (Unfortunately, since these humidifiers have been in my possession for only a couple of months, I haven’t been able to judge their long-term durability.)

Maintenance (10 possible points)
Humidifier maintenance isn’t optional: preventing the growth of bacteria and other gunk in the water tank requires serious vigilance. But when does cleaning and sanitizing become too much of a hassle? Are there filters to change, and how much do they cost? How does the humidifier-initiate know when a thorough scrubbing (as opposed to a cursory rinsing) is necessary? How often must the water tank be refilled? Can I haul the filled tank from room to room without back spasms?

Feng Shui Factor (5 possible points)
An apartment as small as mine can only house so many ungainly appliances, so appearance matters. How much floor space does it take up for its capacity? Does it have attractive extras (a built-in humidistat, say, or a de-germing UV light), and do these extras have any bearing on performance? Another crucial component: noise. While few humidifiers are silent, several sounded like B-52 jets landing in my living room. A good humidifier and a good night’s sleep should go hand in hand.

Here are the results, from lousy to lifesaving:

Bionaire BWM2600-UC Filter Free Warm Mist Humidifier, $59.99 (purchased on sale for $49.99) This Bionaire is a basic, no-frills warm-mist humidifier: no built-in humidistat of any sort; only two power options, high and low; no automatic shut-off function (except when the tank is empty). The “filter free” feature turned out to be a false selling point, since it meant more frequent manual cleanings. This humidifier also completely flunked the silence test. Its periodic squelching sounded disconcertingly like my cat vomiting and jolted me awake several times a night. And for my final quibble: The water tank of such a small humidifier should easily fit into the kitchen sink. This one didn’t. A little more money will buy a vastly superior machine.

On a more general note, I wasn’t much of a fan of these warm-mist models. Dwellers of underinsulated, forever-freezing spaces might welcome the extra warmth they generate, but in the forced-air swelter of this apartment, the rainforest mugginess was too much.

Performance: 4 (out of 10)
Maintenance: 5 (out of 10)
Feng Shui factor: 3 (out of 5)
Total: 12 (out of 25)

Honeywell HCM-300T QuietCare 3-Gallon UV Tower Humidifier, $79.99 For a few weeks, this sleek tower was in hot contention for the top spot. Its vertical shape offers obvious advantages: It’s easier to fit into tight corners. And though not exactly silent, its steady air-conditioning hum was more soothing than irritating. I also liked the promise of additional antibacterial protection provided by the blue UV light. I did wish for a higher-tech control panel. This one had no digital screen that let me quantify my desired humidity level, just twin dials with fan and raindrop graphics. Still, sensors did keep the humidity level at my preferred number of raindrops.

After about three weeks of testing, though, the water tank leaked all over my floor. After several mop-ups, I called the manufacturer to request a replacement. Somewhat astonishingly, the guy agreed immediately, no questions asked—all part of the warranty, apparently. So what should I conclude from this truly memorable customer-service experience? A) Honeywell has the friendliest employees ever? Or b) these humidifiers break all too regularly? The customer-service representative I spoke with said that my complaint was unprecedented, but several online reviews (“great for watering the floor“) suggest otherwise.

Performance: 2 
Maintenance: 6
Feng Shui Factor: 4.5
Total: 12.5  

Vornado Model 40 Home Humidifier, $79.99 This evaporative cool-mist humidifier looks straight out of a Soviet hospital. If you can get past its grim appearance and flimsy-seeming construction, though, you’ll find much to admire in this manual-dial unit. It quickly increased the humidity of my apartment, and cleaning was a breeze. I wouldn’t have minded a digital screen to control fan speed and moisture outlet, or an automatic shut-off function, or some indicator that the water tanks have emptied, but none of these deficiencies were deal-breakers. What I couldn’t get past was the bad design. The two water tanks flanking the sides of the appliance are tricky to fill, and their narrow spouts made refilling more arduous than usual.

Performance: 7
Maintenance: 7
Feng Shui factor: 0
Total: 14  

Air-O-Swiss AOS 7142, $179.99 Hands-down the handsomest machine I tested, this cool silver and black ultrasonic humidifier looks more like a high-end stereo than a drab household appliance. The control panel features a timer, a digital humidistat, a mist-output regulator, an automatic shut-off/sleep feature, and flashing indicators when it’s time to refill or clean the machine. This almost-silent humidifier also has a cool two-part rotating spout that shoots the mist in multiple directions, for an excellent Laser Floyd effect. The vertical shape is also convenient.

But for all its fancy flourishes, the Air-O-Swiss did have its problems. Assembly was a little arduous. Like the other ultrasonic model I tested, the mist left sheets damp, and even on high, it didn’t increase the room’s humidity as quickly as other models. And while I admire the manufacturer’s eagerness to tackle the microdust issue, maintaining this humidifier seems quite the costly enterprise. Owners are encouraged to clean the base with EZCal, a proprietary de-scaling agent ($9.99 for three packets), and to replace the demineralization cartridge ($14.99) every two or three months, and the Ionic Silver Stick ($29.99) once a year.

Performance: 6
Maintenance: 6
Feng Shui factor: 5
Total: 17

Germ Guardian Manual Ultrasonic Humidifier, $149.99 The Germ Guardian has winning graphics on the control panel: a snowflake for cool mist, a fire for warm (though “warm” was a major overstatement—I couldn’t distinguish this mist from the cool), a moon for sleep, and a water droplet for humidity control. This machine is extremely compact, and the water tank lasts longer than 24 hours at normal operation. Its cleaning instructions are suspiciously straightforward, too, with no hidden costs. And I saw no evidence of the scary “microdust” that these ultrasonic models have been reputed to spew. The main problem with this machine is its range. While perfect in my cozy bedroom, it made little impact on the humidity level of my larger living room.

Performance: 5
Maintenance: 9
Feng Shui factor: 3
Total: 17

Honeywell HWM450 Quick Steam Warm Moisture Humidifier, $79.99 (on sale for $50.34) I still hold the same general reservations about these vaporizing models—the fire hazard, the mugginess—but this model trounced the other warm-mist humidifier I tested. It’s commendably quiet and compact, with the same smart vertical design that made the other Honeywell humidifier stand out. This humidifier comes equipped with “mineral absorption pads” that make a daily scouring unnecessary. Its digital operating screen offers plenty of choices: three moisture levels, an auto-regulating humidistat (beware the wildly inaccurate readings), and a refill/clean indicator. Unlike my experience with the other Honeywell, I’ve experienced zero leakage problems to date, and for extra credit, the water tank fit nicely in my kitchen sink.

Performance: 7
Maintenance: 7
Feng Shui factor: 3.5
Total: 17.5

Kenmore 8 Gallon Humidifier, $99.99 (on sale for $89.99) This evaporative cool-mist humidifier is an unbelievable value. No, it’s not the foxiest unit, but it’s not hideous, either. And it certainly does work. The “double-fill” water tank is brilliant: The first time you fill the 1.2-gallon tank, the water empties into the machine. You then immediately refill it, and the water remains there until the first batch has evaporated—a neat trick that cuts in half the number of times you have to stop life to schlep back and forth from the bathtub. Other features reflect this emphasis on efficiency. Next to the super-basic digital screen—which offered the most accurate numerical readings of any humidifier I tested—are just three buttons: off/on, fan speed, and desired humidity level.

Further benefits: It shuts off when the room has reached the target humidity level; it tells you when to refill the tank and when to change the filter. In addition to the three fan speeds, an automatic function brings the air to the desired humidity level as quickly as possible, if you’re willing to put up with an occasionally jarring soundtrack. On the Sears Web site, customers’ main complaints about this humidifier involve the perpetual unavailability of replacement filters. While Sears does have a real problem stocking these filters, I found several off-brand versions online.

Perhaps most important of all: This humidifier did the best job of making my Sahara-like apartment livable again. With its help, I’m sleeping soundly—and sansChapStick for a change.

Performance: 9
Maintenance: 8
Feng Shui factor: 3
Total: 20