Indoor Humidity and Your Comfort Level

by Paul LaGrange

Indoor Humidity Directly affects the Comfort Level of your Home

Our bodies are comfortable with relative humidity levels between 30 to 60%.  In comparison, our houses need a much narrower margin – 35% – 40% in winter and 40% – 55% in summer – to operate properly.

Even though our outdoor humidity levels remain fairly steady throughout the year, switching from air conditioning to heating makes a huge difference to interior humidity.  Air conditioning involves removing water vapor but heating the air simply adds warmth, so all of that moisture stays put.

Raising the indoor temperature does drop the relative humidity somewhat (and creates that “dry” feeling), but our indoor activities like cooking, bathing, doing laundry and breathing add moisture right back into the air.

Here are some specific “culprits” that contribute to higher humidity:

  • Gas heating – Using propane or natural gas as a heat source actually adds water to the air.  Approximately one ounce of water is released per 1,000 btus burned in one hour of runtime.  A typical gas furnace for our climate uses around 75,000 btus, which produces a little over 2 ¼ quarts of water per hour of runtime.
  • Humidifiers
  • Houseplants
  • Breathing (1/4 cup water/hour)
  • Cooking (cooking for a family of four releases 5 pints of water over 24 hours)
  • Showering (1/2 pint water)
  • Bathing (1/8 pint water)

Adding only 4-6 pints of water raises the relative humidity in a 1,000 square foot house from 15% to 60% at a constant temperature! A typical family of four, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (including heating) will add 16 pints of water to the air.

Use an indoor moisture meter, or hygrometer (available at Radio Shack and pet supply stores in the reptile section), to monitor moisture levels.  Given time, relative humidity balances itself throughout the house, however, certain rooms have temporarily higher humidity.  Kitchens are definitely high on the list, as well as bathrooms.  Also, rooms on the northern side of a house are slower to warm up and will maintain their higher relative humidity for longer, especially if air flow is restricted by closed doors.  Knowing which parts of the house, if any, are more humid will help determine what course of action to take.

Altering some of your habits may bring the indoor humidity level down:

  • Plants – Reduce the number of plants per room, choose plants with low watering needs, water plants outdoors and let them drain thoroughly and use a dense mulch such as pea gravel on top of the potting soil.
  • Kitchen– Using lids on pots and pans, turning on the range hood fan and cooking with a microwave will reduce the moisture load.  Don’t use the air dry setting on the dishwasher – it vents hot, humid air directly into the room.  Instead, wait for the dishwasher cool down and then hand-dry wet dishes.  Check for leaking pipes under the sink.
  • Bathroom – Make sure that exhaust fans have working dampers and truly vent to the outside of the house.  Take shorter showers, if possible, and keep the bathroom door closed and the exhaust fan running while the room is steamy.  Run the exhaust fan for an additional 20 minutes after bathing to help remove residual moisture.  Open the bathroom door back up after the exhaust vent has removed most of the moisture.
  • Heating- If you use gas for heating, consider setting the thermostat lower.
  • Air circulation – Keep interior doors open to discourage moisture buildup in isolated areas.  Install passive return grilles  for rooms that stay closed over long periods.

Depending on how “leaky” your house is, taking the steps above might not lower the humidity to a comfortable range.  In that case, use a dehumidifier to control humidity.

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Julie December 12, 2010 at 10:26 am

Well, I can’t be decisive for each house individually. Houses are unique and your house may be totally leaky while others are not so much. The idea is that you must try and see. Alternatively, you could hire an energy rater to do a more decisive test on your house to determine how much leakage and where. Then you will know if some of these steps would help.

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