Humidify Your Home the Cheap and Easy Way!

Our house has forced-air heat: The furnace blows warm air through the ducts and out through vents in most of the rooms.  Our vents are in the baseboards, so they push out the air horizontally at floor level.  This tip also would work with a wall vent that is just above a shelf or table, and would probably work with floor vents or a floor furnace as well.  (If you have ceiling vents or another type of heat, such as radiators, and have a humidifying tip, I’d love to hear it!  Please post a comment.)

The trouble with forced-air heat is that the air coming out of the ducts is very dry.  Most winters this has bothered me a bit, but this year it’s really getting to me!  Maybe I’m more delicate because I’m pregnant.  I have awakened at least once almost every night with my mouth completely dried out, and I often have a slight nosebleed in the morning.  Our whole family had viral bronchitis in January, and the dry air was making our coughing worse.  We needed more moisture!

We tried an electric humidifier.  I could see mist coming out of its spout some of the time, so I knew it was doing something, and it did seem to make the air slightly gentler.  But there were several things about it that bothered me: It took at least 3 days to use up a quart of water, even when I was sick and running it almost all day long–so it wasn’t making all that much humidity.  After 3 days, or even 2, the remaining water contained a lot of black specks that worried me (what are they??), and the bottom of the tank was coated with pinkish-orange slime, which didn’t seem like a healthy substance to vaporize into our air.  The slime was very difficult to remove because of the shape of the tank and the small size of its opening made it difficult for me to reach all the edges, and the rough edge of its opening hurt my arm, and then it was impossible to rinse completely because there was no angle at which the thing could be held that would allow all the water to get out the opening!  The humidifier also made a noticeable noise while we were trying to sleep.  Its power light is orange (our least favorite color) and about 3 inches across; it lit up that whole side of our room, and we couldn’t block it without blocking the mist.  All this inconvenience was brought to us by power consumption equivalent to a 3-bulb light fixture.

We knew from past experience that better models of humidifier exist.  I happened to pick a real dud when I bought this one a few years ago.  But they all use electricity, they all need frequent cleaning, and past experience had also taught us that a determined humidifier can damage walls or furniture.  Anyway, we were too sick to go shopping, so I thought of a better method!

I simply place a shallow pan of water in front of the heat vent.  As the hot, dry air blows across the surface of the water, it evaporates into this air which then moves across the room toward the bed.  On a cold night when the furnace runs frequently, this method can put 3 cups of water into my bedroom air.  It’s a big improvement!

My pan is a metal pie pan (probably enameled aluminum) that originally contained a supermarket-bakery pie; it’s one of several I brought home after people brought pies to church events.  We use them to bake things in our kitchen, but because they were free, I don’t feel that I need to clean this one well enough to return it to kitchen use in the spring.  It’s much sturdier than a “disposable” foil pan, which I wouldn’t want to use here because it could spring a leak.

It’s easier to fill the pan by setting it in front of the vent and then pouring water into it from a cup, than by filling it in the bathroom and trying to carry it full.

There are no black floating specks, no orange slime, and no evidence of any other moldy-type stuff in the water.  After about two weeks, a white residue became visible on the pan–minerals from our tap water.  These are minerals one can take in supplements (calcium, magnesium) so they’re probably harmless, especially in the tiny quantities that are evaporating rather than sticking to the pan.  I can get the residue off the pan by wiping with a rag soaked in white vinegar; this also kills any germs.  When we had a warmer spell, so that my water wasn’t all evaporated by the following evening when I added more, I began to see dust floating on the water that had fallen in from the air; this was easily removed by dumping the water into a potted plant and rinsing the pan.

Adding humidity to my air at almost zero cost, without using electricity, works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more money-saving tips!

UPDATE: The day after posting this article, I received my electric bill for January.  It’s $15 higher than usual!  Not all of that is the humidifier–we also used the television a lot more while we were sick, and although our furnace burns natural gas it uses electricity for the blower and was blowing a lot more in the very cold weather–but surely the humidifier contributed to that extra electricity consumption.

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

11 Responses to Humidify Your Home the Cheap and Easy Way!

  1. It’s worth mentioning that some houses have whole-house dehumidifiers installed just downwind from the furnace. This was a popular practice for a decade or two and is still being done in spite of the health and safety concerns that arise when the furnace shuts off and the humidity condenses inside the ducts. Your system is much safer and more efficient.

    An even more efficient system is to put a laundry rack in front of the heat register and dry your laundry in the room you want to humidify!

    • 'Becca says:

      It’s good to know my system is safer! It’s certainly cheaper than a whole-house humidifier must be.

      I thought about drying the laundry in the bedroom, but the rack would really be in the way (especially if I put it right in front of the vent, I’d have to move it every time I want to open the closet door) and also we don’t have a load of wet laundry every night.

  2. Er, obviously I meant to say whole-house humidifiers above, not dehumidifiers, though some houses have those, too!

  3. Jody says:

    We have radiator heat. Not the kind that sits in the floor. (This you can put a pan of water on) we have the ones that are in the walls. Some of the things we do to raise the humidity are: After showering instead of using the exhaust fan, we keep the bathroom door open and let the steam escape into the house. I’ll boil water on the stove and let it simmer for a while. We have a wood burning stove and will put a pot of water on top of it. We bring clothes upstairs to dry on racks.

    • 'Becca says:

      We’ve been holding onto our shower steam during the winter, too. Another advantage to it is that the exhaust fan (especially because it’s on the ceiling of our top floor, and heat rises) sucks out some of the warmest air in the house, which we paid to heat!

      In a previous house, we had bathroom mildew problems and did not have a built-in fan, so after showering we placed a box fan in the bathroom blowing out. That helped to distribute the humidity, without losing heat from the house in winter.

  4. Years ago I bought three or four humidifier systems and they were all pretty bad (in terms of expense, grossness, and surprisingly low mechanical longevity).

    Right next door, we figured out what you figured out, with an extension: since we use portable oil-filled radiators to supplement the central heating, we have some ceramic bowls that we fill with water about twice a day to place on top of the radiators. No more dry throat, itchy skin, static shocks!

    • 'Becca says:

      I thought the short lifespan of the two previous humidifiers was caused by my failure to maintain them perfectly (because it was so difficult–I chose this dud one because it seemed mechanically simpler) but maybe humidifiers just don’t last more than a few years!

  5. My bedroom (currently being shared with two small children) is extremely dry from the forced air vents at each side of the room. We’ve been using a Vicks Vaporizer and I noticed the black specs and orange film also! It’s so strange and I don’t understand what that is about. Your idea is brilliant and so wonderfully green that I must try it out. I need to figure out just how much water is needed so it will evaporate before the boys roll out of bed and splash through the pans. :) :D

    • 'Becca says:

      I assume the orange film is a mold or mildew similar to what grows in the shower grout. :-p

      You can try to figure out the perfect amount of water to evaporate overnight, but it’s so variable (depending on how much the furnace runs, and how dry the air is) that you’ll probably want to put a towel under the pan to protect the floor in case of toddler exploration! Of course, don’t make the water deep enough that they could drown–but a pie pan is not that deep anyway.

      • I’m going to try with a cookie sheet so it will give more spacial coverage- the room is long and narrow and our vents run wall to wall. I have high hopes and will be putting the vaporizer in the yard sale pile. :)

  6. Neat tip! Our bill for January was much higher, too, but I’m pretty sure that it’s been the constant sub-zero temperatures and the fact that I can really only comfortably wear three pairs of socks at a time, and that doesn’t seem to be enough ;) Thanks for sharing this on Waste Not Want Not Wednesday!

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