One would think that there would be clear and defined differentiations between room humidifiers and air purifiers. In reality, it is far more difficult to tell apart a room humidifier from an air purifier as technical advancements in both have blurred the lines between the two contraptions. However, there are some tell tale attributes between the two which can be explored.
Historically, the first iterations of humidifiers saw large bottles of specially distilled water being transported on carts for therapists and technicians to manually refill the humidifier available at that time, unfortunately this practice made bacterial cross-contamination more common than the medical community would like. Things began to change when the first patent for a gas humidifier device was granted in 1934 to a F. A. Blashfield, a full two years after he first applied in 1932. Since then there have been steady improvements in the design and application of the humidifier which have improved upon the original idea behind its construction. In the 40s, refillable humidifiers were created by a threaded metal top and metal reservoir, making it, unfortunately, impossible for those put in positions to monitor the oxygen level to see where the water was in the reservoir. Afterwards, more patents were granted to companies who aimed to fix that particular problem. Humidifiers like the Walton Cold Steam hospital humidifier which was described, at the time, as a centrifugal atomizer that provided high humidity in oxygen tents or hospital rooms. A true game changer as afterwards, all unheated hospital room humidifiers were referred to as cold steamers. Now remember the problem of not being able to observe where the water was in the reservoir that changed in the 50s when oxygen humidifiers with refillable glass reservoirs were introduced. Humidifiers began to be recommended as supportive treatment for croup, bronchial asthma, poliomyelitis, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders so more cool vapor humidifiers found their way at the hospital bedside of those suffering from those ailments and needed a bit of help breathing. In the 70s as many hospitals switched over to single patient use, pre-filled, disposable humidifier reservoirs were introduced for convenience and an attempt at a reduction in cross-contamination. The MistO2Gen equipment company in 1978, trademarked the Humidilizer, a room humidifier which is seen as the precursor to the humidifiers currently on the market.
Similarly, to humidifiers, air purifiers have been around for some time. From as early as 1848 when Lewis P. Haslett patented the very first official air purifier – a makeshift mask – which used moist wool and featured a one-way clapper valve to filter dust from the air. Unsurprisingly, it took World War II for true advancements to be made with the process of air purification. High Efficiency Particulate Absorption (HEPA) filters were invented to protect against radioactive chemicals used in warfare staged in World War II. These HEPA filters were originally classified as top-secret and developed by the US Atomic Energy Commission. It wasn’t until sometime after World War II when the filters were allowed to be used commercially and residentially. Once standardized HEPA filters were said to be responsible for the removal of at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns at 85 litres per minute. Quite impressive. This was in addition to the filtering out of highly hazardous aerosols, toxic carcinogens, radioactive particles, and hazardous air borne contamination. This only happened after some changes were made to the makeup of the original design of the filters. Most HEPA filters originally contained asbestos – carcinogen
fibers that are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity. Eventually, asbestos-containing filters were abandoned for the modern alternatives: thin glass fibers and activated carbon-based materials. In no time, HEPA air filters became popular in the decades that followed (70s and 80s) as more consumers became concerned about air pollution. The first HEPA air purifiers were known to be bulky and difficult to operate, with a history of only being used only in hospital and pharmaceutical settings and among computer chip manufacturers. However, as businesses began to take notice of indoor air quality concerns among residential consumers. Dozens of products featuring HEPA filters, inspired new and exciting ways to control allergies and asthma began to hit the consumer marketplace, finally became widely available for private use.
So, that was a brief history on the two seperate, but important, devices. With those two timelines being as they are it is a wonder how a humidifier and an air purifier were ever mischaracterized as the other. Interestingly it is those differences that might have gotten the majority of people confused over the years.
What Are The Differences Between Humidifiers And Air Purifiers?
- The first difference is how they operate, as in how they function. As was alluded to previously in this piece, humidifiers make the air wetter when it’s too dry while air purifiers clean the air. More technically, humidifiers are designed to improve indoor air quality by increasing the relative humidity levels when they are too low and air purifiers are designed to improve indoor air quality by removing dangerous air pollutants. The humidifier attempts to fix the problem of the air in the home, or workplace, being too dry, probably irritating eyes and drying out skin. The leather or wooden furniture indoors suffer from the air being too dry as well. If the air is too dry, these materials dry out, causing them to shrink or crack, for example. With a humidifier, the humidity can be regulated to the ideal levels. While air filters are tasked with actively removing impurities from the air such as dust, pollen, smoke, odors, mold, mildew and even certain viruses. Air purifiers sometimes add an ionization process to the overall filtration system and might have extra filters made from carbon to aid in the removal of smoke and odors that the standard HEPA filters are effective against.
- Because humidifiers just add wetness to dry air there is no need for them to have any filtration apparatus nor system attached. How humidifiers work is by using electricity to boil water and create mist or have a transducer that creates ultrasonic These waves help detect water molecules from the water surface. Air purifiers operate with a bit more complexity. Air purifiers often have a fan to suck in the air surrounding it, that air is then put through a series of filters that either capture or destroy the pollutants present and then expels the significantly cleaner air into the room.
- Because of its function, humidifiers are seen as apparatuses that should be employed during certain seasons namely during the winter. As there are quite frequently dry indoor air problems in the winter. Because air pollutants are continually being accumulated indoors, regardless of the season, there is always a need for air purifiers.
- Humidifiers as noted above were created for medical reasons. However, much was not said about how exactly a humidifier helps the ailing. Apart from helping to prevent dry chapped lips and eye irritation, humidifiers help to soothe irritated respiratory tracts due to the dry atmospheric air or environment. Increased humidity in the environment has also been shown to help people who have asthma or allergies with their breathing, no matter their ages. Humidity also helps when someone is suffering from the common cold. The humidity has to be regulated though as too high of a humidity level can cause the growth of mold and spores which in turn could cause allergic reactions. Air purifiers, on the other hand, help people medically by creating an environment that is free of air pollutants that might disturb an otherwise healthy pair of lungs or respiratory system. Once that environment is created, one free of allergens and pollutants, then people can literally breathe easy as they have considerably lessened their chances of becoming sick being in a controlled indoor setting.
- Surprisingly, despite having not so dissimilar effect in an indoor setting there happens to be quite the difference in the price point of a regular room humidifier and a standard air purifier. A good room humidifier has been known to retail for $100 USD or less, quite a bit less than the $500 USD and up that the best air purifier goes for. What should be factored in as well is the continuous cost of replacement filters. HEPA filters and activated carbon filters need to be replaced several times per year; these costs could easily rise above $100 USD per year. Could be a truly expensive purchase to maintain.
As we close it is important to remember that both the humidifier and air purifier have significant roles to play as the weather gets more adverse. It is also possible now to get both combined in an all in one device, this might add to the confusion in separating the two, but in order to get both properly regulated air moisture and uncontaminated air in one setting. Maybe that is the investment that needs to be made.