How to Maintain a Furnace-Mounted Whole-House Humidifier

Whole house furnace humidifier

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In many parts of the country, excessively dry indoor air is an ongoing problem, especially in the winter when the air tends to be naturally dry. Maintaining proper humidity levels in your home through the use of a humidifier is essential for human comfort as well as the protection of wood furniture and wood flooring. According to the Mayo Clinic, proper humidity levels ease skin problems as well as symptoms associated with asthma, allergies, and other breathing problems. However, humidifiers can make you sick if they are not properly maintained, or if your home’s humidity level is set too high. A humidifier is often a necessary accessory, but it is critical to make sure it works correctly and is properly maintained.

Increasing indoor humidity can be accomplished with portable humidifiers, or with a central furnace-mounted humidifier—a special piece of HVAC equipment fixed to the furnace that adds water vapor to the air discharged from your furnace. These humidifiers are used primarily in the winter heating season when humidity levels are low—dry winter air is what causes frequent static electricity discharge, dry skin, and nosebleeds. Newer tightly constructed homes have much less air infiltration than older homes. As a result, humidity levels are more easily maintained in these newer homes, reducing the need for a humidifier. 

Types of Furnace-Mounted Humidifiers

There are three main types of central humidifiers you may find in the home: 

  • Reservoir humidifiers use a rotating drum-styled foam pad or similar media that picks up water for evaporation from a float-controlled reservoir. These types are the most prone to mold problems, due to the reservoir that is constantly full of standing water. 
  • Flow-through drip-style humidifiers use a specially coated metal or plastic screen that has a small amount of water constantly dripping across it while the furnace is running. The water supply is flowing constantly with these, so there is a lower likelihood of mold problems. 
  • Steam humidifiers contain self-generating steam heaters and are the most expensive, lowest maintenance, and most efficient design. They are also the least prone to mold problems since there is no standing water supply—the steam is injected directly into the airflow. These humidifiers require that water has a certain range of hardness and quality. Some homes may require special filtration of the water in order to be suitable for a central steam humidifier.

Reservoir/ Drum Style Humidifiers

The drum style humidifier uses a float-controlled reservoir pan filled with water that saturates a rotating foam-covered evaporator drum pad. This style humidifier provides air flow through the rotating evaporator pad, which in turn adds humidity to the air. The unit may have humidity controlled with a humidistat.

Drum style humidifier
Drum style humidifiers like this Skuttle® Model 190 use a rotating foam evaporator pad and a water filled reservoir. © Skuttle 2012
What We Like
  • Usually the least expensive style

What We Don't Like
    • Least reliable humidifier style
    • If not properly maintained and cleaned often, the water reservoir may house stagnant water that can become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, and may cause sickness.
    • Requires monthly cleaning and annual replacement of the foam evaporator pad
    • Foam pad may quickly become hardened from sediment and minerals and lose its absorptiveness and effectiveness

      How to Maintain a Drum-Style Humidifier

        Equipment/ Tools   Materials
       Adjustable wrench  New evaporator pad (if needed)
       Screwdrivers  Household vinegar or Lime-Away

      Perform the following maintenance routine each month:

      1. Turn Off Power and Water

        Turn off power to the furnace. This can be done with the electrical switch mounted on the furnace, or by turning off the circuit breaker that controls the furnace. Next, turn off the water supply tap valve to the humidifier. This is often a small saddle valve mounted on a cold water pipe near the furnace, or it may be a standard fixture shutoff valve.

      2. Remove the Humidifier Cover

        Depending on your humidifier’s design, loosen and remove the nuts, or remove the clips securing the humidifier cover. Remove the humidifier cover and set it aside.

      3. Remove the Drum

        Remove the humidifier drum and check the pad. If it is hardened from mineral deposits, try to clean it using the approach described below. If that does not work, then the evaporator pad must be replaced.

      4. Clean the Pad

        Remove the foam pad from the drum shaft by removing the clips or other fastening mechanisms on the center shaft and pulling the two halves of the drum shaft apart.

        Clean the foam pad by using a 1:3 solution of water to vinegar, or use a commercial calcium-removing fluid such as Lime Away. Soak the foam pad until the deposits dissolve. Rinse the pad with clean water and repeat if necessary. If the pad is ripped or does not come fully clean, replace the foam pad.

      5. Reassemble the Drum

        Replace the cleaned or new pad onto the drum, then reinstall the drum into the humidifier housing. Check the owner’s manual for the proper depth if the unit does not have a marking in the reservoir showing the position for the drum. Turn on the water supply to the humidifier and allow the reservoir to fill until the water supply is turned off by the float assembly.

      6. Check the Water Level

        If the drum dips into the water reservoir and is fully wetted when you rotate the drum, the water level is correct. If necessary, you can raise or lower the water level by adjusting the float arm. There is usually an adjusting screw that attaches the float to the float lever arm. Loosen the screw and raise the float to raise the water level, or lower the float to reduce the water level.

      7. Test the Operation

        Turn the power back on to the furnace. Wait one hour to allow the humidifier to run, then check the water level again and adjust as required. Check to make sure the water supply hose fitting is tight and does not leak; tighten with an adjustable wrench if required.

        Flow-Through/ Drip Style Humidifiers

        The flow-through drip-style humidifier uses water dripping onto a specially coated rectangular metal or plastic evaporator pad to add humidity to the air. These units control humidity with a humidistat.

        Humidifier Components
        © 2006
        What We Like
          • Competitively priced with the drum-style humidifier
          • Stays cleaner than drum style humidifiers and is not prone to mold and bacteria growth
          • Less maintenance than drum-style humidifiers
          • Reliable operation

        What We Don't Like
          • Consumes more water than other humidifier styles
          • Evaporative screen pads must be replaced annually

        How to Maintain a Flow-through/ Drip-Style Humidifier

          Equipment/ Tools  Materials
         Screwdrivers  Household vinegar or Lime-Away
         Adjustable wrench  New evaporator pad (if needed)
         Chisel (if needed)  Multimeter or voltmeter

        Perform the following maintenance routine each month:

      8. Turn Off Power and Water

        Turn off power to the furnace. This can be done with the electrical switch mounted on the furnace, or by turning off the circuit breaker that controls the furnace. Next, turn off the water supply tap valve to the humidifier. This is often a small saddle valve mounted on a cold water pipe near the furnace; or it may be a standard fixture shutoff valve.

      9. Remove the Manifold

        Pop open the clips that hold the inlet feed tube and distribution manifold in place at the top of the humidifier. The water inlet feed tube will now separate from the distribution manifold; then remove the manifold from the evaporative screen pad and the manifold housing

      10. Clean the Parts

        The water distribution manifold may be plastic or metal, depending on your style of humidifier. If metal, you may have to clean mineral deposits away with a chisel or flat-blade screwdriver.

        Check the evaporator screen pad. If it has a scale, clean it using a 1:3 solution of water to vinegar, or use a commercial calcium-removing fluid such as Lime Away. Soak the pad until the deposits dissolve. Rinse the pad with clean water and repeat if necessary.

        If the evaporative pad has not had monthly maintenance, it may have significant mineral deposits that flake off as the pad is bumped or twisted. If that is the case, then replace the evaporator pad with a new drip pad. Replace the evaporator pad annually.

      11. Test the Humidistat

        Check to make sure that the humidistat is calling for humidity when the furnace is running. Using the inlet fill tube located over the humidifier housing, open the water supply to the humidifier and turn the power on to the furnace. When the furnace begins running, the humidistat should call for humidity, the solenoid valve should open, and water should come out of the water inlet tube and drain into the humidifier drain.

        If water does not flow, check the humidistat with a multimeter or voltmeter, checking for 24 volts across the fill valve/ solenoid terminals/ wires. If there is no voltage, the humidistat is bad. You can also do a “workaround” if you do not have a voltmeter. Turn the humidistat up to 80 percent. If the solenoid valve does not open and allows water to flow, turn the humidistat dial setting down to 20 percent, and then back up to 80 percent. You should hear a “click” sound coming from the solenoid valve. If you hear the clicking sound, the humidistat is working correctly.

        If the humidistat is working properly and there is no water flow from the solenoid valve, then the valve needs to be replaced. This is probably a job for a service technician.

      12. Reassemble the Humidifier

        Once all components have been confirmed as working, reassemble the humidifier with a cleaned or new evaporator pad.

        Steam-Style Humidifier Maintenance

        A steam-style humidifier adds humidity to the air by heating water electrically until it boils to create humidity in the form of steam, even if the furnace isn’t on. The steam is picked up by the system blower then pushed throughout the home vents. 

        While annual maintenance tasks are similar for all brands of the humidifier, the exact maintenance routines vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. 

        What We Like
          • No standing water to breed bacteria or mold
          • Can add moisture to air even when the furnace isn't running
          • Can control humidity with greater precision than other types
          • Works well with heat-pump heating systems
          • Generally requires less maintenance than other types of humidifiers

        What We Don't Like
          • The most expensive type of central humidifier

        How to Maintain a Steam-Style Humidifier

          Equipment/ Tools   Materials
         Screwdrivers  Household vinegar or Lime-Away
         Adjustable wrench  New water Filter (if necessary)

        Annually, follow this maintenance procedure to check for scale buildup and eliminate it: 

      13. Turn Off the Humidifier

        Turn down the humidistat to make sure the system does not enter a heat cycle while you are servicing it. 

        Drain the system of water, following the instructions of your particular humidifier model. With some types, this involves shutting the power off then turning it back on while the humidistat is set to a low setting.

      14. Remove the Overflow Pan

        Wait for the unit to cool fully, then remove the lid on the humidifier, following manufacturer's directions. Remove the overflow pan from the unit, loosening the mounting screw if necessary.

      15. Check the Drain Tube

        Remove the main drain tube and check to make sure that it is clean with no deposits clogging it. 

      16. Clean the Parts

        Remove the overflow tank (there may be a small amount of water in it) and clean any lime deposits you find, using a 1:3 solution of water to vinegar or a commercial calcium-removing fluid such as Lime Away. Also, clean the scale from the metal water discharge and water supply tubes.

      17. Reassemble the Humidifier

        Reassemble the tank, taking care to install any O-rings correctly. If the service interval calls for it, replace the water filter, as per the manufacturer's instructions. 

        When finished, turn the power back on and reset the humidistat to the desired level.