When I was young, we had a piano in the dining room which slowly, over the course of a few years, refused to be tuned. By the end of its short life, it was sounding less like a classic upright and more like a honky-tonk piano from a saloon bar. Sadly, we didn’t realise the cause of its rapid demise until it was too late. It was all to do with humidity. Few of us realise how important humidity is in the home and how it can affect our health. It’s not just a rogue piano-destroying force; overly damp air and overly dry air can pose their own unique problems, both to our surroundings and to our health.
Why is Indoor Humidity Important?
Humidity, or more accurately, relative humidity in indoor environments can have a huge impact on our wellbeing. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘relative humidity’ describes how much water vapour is in the air compared to how much it could hold if the air was saturated. Ideally, our indoor spaces should have a relative humidity of around 50% but how many of us actually have a hygrometer handy to keep tabs on the fluctuation of our air quality? Not many, I imagine. Nevertheless, our ignorance on the subject as a nation means that many households are putting up with general health complaints that could be easily remedied by having a better understanding of how humidity can affect our interior spaces.
Problems with High Humidity
High humidity is a common issue in the UK as our increasingly insulated homes trap more and more moisture indoors, leading to the build up of condensation and mould on our walls and windows. Our lack of regularly warm weather also means we tend to dry our clothes indoors and open our windows less, which again contributes to an excess of moisture inside.
All living things need moisture and warmth to live, which is why highly humid interiors can create the perfect breeding ground for mould and dust mites. The proliferation of mould and bacteria in these conditions can have serious consequences, especially for those with respiratory conditions or allergies, as the number of airborne spores will increase significantly. Dust mites and funguses can’t survive if indoor humidity is less than 50%, so if you find yourself frequently suffering from coughs and colds or even frequent allergy attacks, it’s worth investigating the relative humidity in your home.
Problems with Low Humidity
Though high humidity is something many UK homes suffer with, low humidity can also pose a problem in winter and can even be exacerbated by certain types of heating system. Common sense dictates that we turn up the heating during the colder months but this can lead to a sensation of ‘dry air’ in the evenings once the house has warmed up. Symptoms can include cracked, taught and itchy skin, as well as irritated eyes and nasal passages. The reason this happens is partly to do with the outdoor temperature and partly to do with our heating systems. During the cooler months, outdoor temperatures are much lower and this colder air holds less moisture. Once it enters our home, we run our heating systems to combat the chill, but as we do, this already dry air gets heated up and the relative humidity indoors drops. This makes the air around us feel dry and uncomfortable, and in extreme cases, it can even lead to nosebleeds and an increase in static electricity.
If the air around us is warm and dry, moisture evaporates more easily from our bodies and we lose a vital layer of protection we need to fend off bacteria. The mucus and moisture in our noses provides the essential function of pre-filtering the air as we breathe it in, removing any allergens and unwanted bacteria before it has a chance to have a detrimental effect on our bodies. When this protective layer is missing, our respiratory tracts are more prone to infection as bacteria isn’t caught by the mucus as we inhale. If you’ve ever found you tend to catch colds more easily in an environment with an air conditioning unit, low humidity is likely to be the cause. Studies also indicate that viruses such as influenza thrive in environments with low humidity.
How to Deal with Low Humidity
Low humidity can be exacerbated by certain types of heating system which primarily use convection to create warmth. As they solely use warm air to transmit heat, the relative humidity indoors is lowered, often leaving users with a sore throat and dry eyes. These are common complaints from users of storage heaters and panel heaters because these appliances can create a sensation of dry air during the colder months. If these symptoms sound familiar, here are some simple ways to deal with low humidity caused by convection-only systems.
Create Your Own Diffuser
One age-old method is to place a bowl of water near your heater, which will gradually evaporate as the room heats up, helping to keep the room space more humid. This was actually the method used to keep piano no.2 in working order – we kept a small bowl of water inside the base which humidified the inner workings, topping it up every few weeks as if we were keeping an oversized household pet. Placing bowls around the house isn’t ideal but it is an easy and cost-effective way of dealing with low humidity. You can even add essential oils to the water to create your own aromatherapy scent diffuser.
Houseplants are a great way of humidifying a space because they add moisture to the air and purify it at the same time. The water-releasing transpiration process of plants makes them an effective way of keeping drier interiors more comfortable and they also have the additional benefit of bringing colour and life to any room space.
Purchase a Humidifier
Room humidifiers are fairly inexpensive and can be an effective way of humidifying particularly dry spaces around the home. Some even come with built-in humidistats to help regulate the water vapour in the air. However, it does pay to do your research beforehand – many cheaper humidifiers are difficult to clean, which can encourage the growth of bacteria. This can be avoided with regular, thorough cleaning of the appliance.
Consider Updating Your Heating
We associate low humidity with convection-based heaters because as indoor air is warmed, relative humidity decreases. However, air temperature is only part of how we achieve thermal comfort within the home. Radiant heat is another key ingredient and a vital part of comfortable home heating – something convection-only heaters are unable to provide. What’s more, as radiant heat travels through the air rather than warming it directly, heaters that use this form of warmth will have less of an effect on room humidity.
People exchange radiant heat with their environment constantly, which is why it’s such an important factor for room heating. We emit radiant warmth, which is in turn absorbed and re-emitted by the surfaces of our rooms. Even if air temperature is high, it doesn’t always guarantee warmth – cold surfaces in our homes can still make us feel chilly by absorbing the radiant heat from our bodies, giving little radiant heat in return. This means if you’re primarily using convection heaters for warmth, you may have to increase their output to compensate, further reducing the relative humidity in your room space. Radiant heat can also help with high humidity issues by preventing the formation of condensation, which can occur when warm air comes into contact with a cold surface. Appliances that use radiation discourage moisture from condensing because surfaces are kept warm, so any water vapour in the air is kept in the air, rather than gathering on walls and windows.
When a space is adequately heated with radiant warmth, people will often feel comfortably heated even if the air temperature is comparably low. As most electric radiators give off a third of their warmth in the form of radiation, users can turn their thermostats down and still feel warm, helping to improve the relative humidity in their rooms at the same time. If you’re tired of having itchy, irritated skin and a dry cough over winter, it could be worth updating your heating system to one that offers a more balanced form of warmth. We highly recommend our Technotherm KS range of high heat retention electric radiators, which use ceramic plates to emit a greater amount of radiant heat compared to other models. They are, in fact, able to create 50% of their heat in the form of radiation for complete comfort, making them a superb fit for homes that suffer from low humidity. Their heat-retentive ceramic also makes them exceptionally efficient to boot so they're a great choice for any household looking for a heating system designed to keep running costs to a minimum.
Humidity & Health
The symptoms above shouldn’t be taken lightly and managing the humidity in your home can go a long way toward improving your health. High humidity may be known for encouraging bacterial growth but low humidity can be just as troublesome by making us more prone to infection. Don’t put up with dry eyes and a scratchy throat just because they’re seen as an unavoidable symptom of winter. There are lots of simple ways to deal with low humidity, many of which will help you breathe easy in your own home.