When most of us think about our air conditioning system, we consider how it’s used to cool the air in our homes. Broadly speaking, this is correct, but the system doesn’t cool; it actually removes the heat, which makes our homes cooler. Many of us are unaware that our air conditioners serve a secondary function because they remove humidity along with the heat. This helps to create a more comfortable indoor environment, but it’s extremely difficult to remove all the humidity in our homes. In this article, we will explore the issue of humidity in more detail, outline the possible health effects, and consider ways to deal with the problem.
How Do Humidity Levels Affect Us?
Humidity is the concentration of water vapor that you might find in any given volume of air. A high humidity environment can be characterized by moist, damp, and wet conditions. Having moisture in the air is not a bad thing. If the air is too dry, it can irritate our eyes, nose, and throat. Low humidity conditions can lead to breathing issues, dry skin, nose bleeds, and you may notice other weird phenomena such as cracks forming in your wooden furniture. But, high humidity is also bad because it can lead to mold growth, heat exhaustion, and problems with pests in your home. In an ideal world, the humidity level would be kept at a comfortable level for optimal health and to protect our homes.
What is a Healthy Humidity Level?
This may differ for people because, to a large extent, comfort is variable. One person’s ideal level of humidity may differ from someone else, but there is a comfortable range. Experts have found that the ideal indoor humidity should be in the 25-60% range. If the humidity creeps higher than 60%, the home has optimal conditions for the growth of mold and the spread of mildew. If the humidity dips below 25%, you start to experience a severe lack of moisture in the air that can be irritating to sensitive membrane tissue in the body. It’s also worth mentioning that scientists have identified a potential link between the spread of Covid-19 and low humidity.
What Are the EPA Recommendations?
According to research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the optimal humidity level should be a more narrow range of 30-50%. This gives the homeowner a 20% variance to handle individual comfort levels and find a happy compromise if multiple people live in the home. At this level of humidity, you don’t get the problems associated with extreme levels of low or high humidity. The best way to check if your home is within this healthy humidity range is to purchase a hygrometer. A hygrometer is an indoor humidity measuring device that shows the humidity level as a percentage. A hygrometer is readily available at most local drug stores, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
What is the Link Between Covid-19 and Humidity?
We briefly mentioned above that there is a potential link between coronaviruses, including Covid-19, and humidity. Back in 2009, the University of Oregon found that the survival rate of a flu virus was linked to the humidity of the environment. If there was less moisture present in the air, the flu virus could survive for far longer. This was equally true if the virus was present on a surface or even if it was in the droplet of moisture in the air. As you might imagine, a virus that survives for longer increases the risks of contracting the disease, which in this case would have been influenza.
Over the past year, these findings from over a decade ago have come back into focus as scientists have been in search of a potential link between humidity and Covid-19. To date, studies have revealed that coronaviruses do struggle in a more humid and warm environment. In fact, Covid-19 actually thrives when the humidity is lower, and the temperatures turn colder. Following this line of thinking to a logical conclusion, it would seem to make sense that Covid-19 efficacy can be reduced if the home is more humid. In fact, even the CDC has confirmed that during this global pandemic, a bout of seasonal flu and having Covid-19 at the same time will heighten the severity of the illness.
Although it may be tempting to simply turn the humidity up to combat Covid-19 and influenza this winter, consider your actions carefully. After all, there are other health related issues that are clearly linked to the humidity level in your home. The primary concern is that higher humidity inhibits your ability to regulate your temperature by perspiring. When there is more moisture in the air, you cannot evaporate heat away from the body, and this can lead to heat exhaustion. Of course, this is a problem that you would expect to see in hotter equatorial areas, but it can happen indoors if you increase the humidity too far.
Another key risk with higher humidity is the aforementioned increase in mold and mildew growth. All fungi and mold require plenty of moisture to grow, and when they spread, they release spores into the air. Mold spores and mildew growth have a dramatic effect on the indoor air quality (IAQ) of your home. The first people to notice will be those with asthma, allergies, and pre-existing respiratory illnesses. But, even if you have no history of these types of medical problems, you can still experience respiratory distress. In extreme cases, unchecked mold growth can even undermine the structural integrity of your home!
What Can I Do?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, your HVAC system acts as a dehumidifier. But, it’s not as efficient as a dedicated unit, and if you suffer from very high or low levels of humidity, you may need to add some extra equipment. If you have low humidity, you can increase the moisture in your air with a humidifier unit. If your humidity is too high, you can remove more moisture with a dehumidifier. Portable units can be effective in one smaller room, but adding a unit to your HVAC system makes better sense. In this way, you can affect the humidity levels in the entire home more efficiently.
If you want to know more about making your home more comfortable, contact your local HVAC specialist today.