What’s Wrong With The Honeywell Humidifier?

Wirecutter is obsessed with the humidifier that untold numbers of purchasers despise

Photo courtesy of Louise Matsakis

I have a group chat with two friends that is heavily dedicated to our hatred of the Honeywell HCM350W Germ Free Cool Mist Humidifier. Our discovery of our mutual distaste for this appliance was accompanied by the realization that we are not the only people who are this upset about it. The Honeywell humidifier is such a common and discarded appliance, it’s a common sight on Brooklyn sidewalks, where people leave items because they want to give them away or because they are literal garbage.

Photo courtesy of Adrianne Jeffries

Despite its nightmarish qualities, the Honeywell continues to be popular, probably because Wirecutter has recommended it for several years now with the claim that it is “simple, quiet, effective, and easier to clean than any other option.” None of these claims are true, in my experience. I hear the roar of this thing in my goddamn dreams. Cleaning it is one of my most hated chores because it’s difficult, time consuming, and never gets entirely clean. I wouldn’t call it effective because it’s often hard to say that it’s actually doing anything, and it is only simple in the sense that a loaded gun is simple. I understand how it works, that doesn’t mean I want one in my apartment.

“I don’t think [my humidifier] made any noticeable noise,” my friend Rebecca Rosenberg told me when I asked her about her humidifier, a tower-shaped misting humidifier that she used in her D.C. apartment. “Maybe like a really, really slight noise of the motor but really soft, and I think it helps that because it’s so tall, the motor is on the ground,” as opposed to one that rattles on a table, she says.

Rebecca was lucky she didn’t end up like me and countless others, tormented by the loudly humming, messy, impossible to clean monstrosity that is the Honeywell. The comments on the Wirecutter story that recommends the abomination brim with horror stories about the Honeywell, and whenever I see anyone online talking about humidifiers, it’s bound to be because someone got a nose bleed, since their Honeywell — it’s always the Honeywell — doesn’t actually seem to work.

The problems are as follows:

It’s impossible to clean

The Honeywell is “easier to clean than any other humidifier we’ve tested.” Sure. Say that to the dust that has collected on the fan that is actually impossible to access without breaking it (which is what I did).

My friend Adrianne Jeffries, who has since disposed of the wretched thing (correction: donated it), says the cleaning issue was her biggest complaint. “It had a hostile design that made it impossible to clean thoroughly and it got really vile,” she says. “I finally tossed it after many attempts to clean it and unscrew every possible screw and use every possible implement to get to the inaccessible areas.”

“The open side of the device’s body where the air is blown out started collecting dust immediately, and there’s no good way to clean it fully. I tried a Dustbuster, I tried Swiffer sheets, everything. The slats are too close to each other and that portion is difficult to disassemble to clean the fan,” says Amanda Mull. Amanda has purchased two Honeywells, convinced the first time that its poor performance was due to user error. “I was using bleach and vinegar and going at the thing with scrub brushes to get into all the nooks and crannies and rinsing thoroughly, and it still felt like it was trying to kill me from inside my respiratory system.”

Wirecutter recommends spraying the fan, through the slats, with a vinegar solution, and then scrubbing at the fan with a bottle brush. I am unsure how clean this could possibly get it, since to properly clean off the dust and dog hair that accumulates on the product’s fan, you’d have to hold it still and wipe it with a sponge or rag. Spraying vinegar haphazardly into the humidifier, then hoping that a bottle brush fitted through the product’s narrow slats will manage to eliminate much dust and dirt is a fool’s errand. At most, the once-dry dust is now wet, and streaked with clean spots where the bottle brush briefly made contact with it.

The humidifier grate isn’t easily removed, so I attempted to pry it off with a butter knife, as at the time I didn’t have pliers. This was a mistake; although I was, temporarily, able to pull off the grate and clean the fan, I also broke it. I successfully fitted the grate back into the humidifier, but I never tried to remove it again, afraid the entire thing would come apart. And no, it wouldn’t make sense to get rid of the grate entirely, as it protects the interior of the humidifier from debris. Mine sits near a plant — I live in a small NYC apartment, it’s not like I have endless open spots waiting to be filled with humidifiers — and leaves will occasionally make their way into the device. Without the grate, it would be even worse, and while it’d be to the benefit of the fan, it would also make the rest of the device below the fan more of a pain in the ass.

In the Wirecutter comments section, one reviewer, named Unhappy Honeywell Owner, points to the product’s deficient cleanliness as one of the worst things about it. “It’s clear that entire side wasn’t designed to be cleaned. However, plenty of dust and mold can and will gather there,” they wrote one year ago. “Considering that humidifiers are supposed to be disinfected with vinegar and bleach to prevent mold, it’s simply unacceptable that this part is inaccessible. You can’t just submerge this part in cleaning solution because that’s where the electronic components are housed.” This defect renders the entire product a health hazard, they say.

“Getting it 100% pristine will definitely depend on your patience, tools, skill, water quality, and the age of the humidifier,” wrote Wirecutter in response. Okay. I have a life. For Christ’s sake, I have a dog, multiple carpets, and a cast iron skillet, all of which need to be babied (I do not have babies, but what if I did? Forget it!). I simply cannot devote patience, tools, skill, and high quality water to the tedious task of cleaning this thing every two weeks.

Moving on…

It’s messy

This one is pretty straightforward. Water gets everywhere when carrying the refilled tank back to the humidifier. Solutions include unplugging the humidifier unit, carting the entire heavy ass horror show to the kitchen, refilling and replacing the tank there, and then carrying the now several-pounds-heavier appliance back to the bedroom. I guess you could also transport the tank around in its own bag. Both are ridiculous. Instead, I end up stepping in little puddles of water and getting my socks wet every night before going to sleep. I either change my socks or get in bed with damp socks. Misery.

The wick (aka filter) is also disgusting. It yellows quickly, regardless of whether you treat it right, and it’s a demanding brat in that department. It needs to be flipped regularly, ideally daily, and must dry out between uses. It also needs to be damp when you turn the humidifier back on, for some reason.

And if, god forbid, you forget to take a look at the filter for a week or two? May the lord have mercy on your soul, because that thing takes on the appearance of a diseased lung of someone who has been smoking for 90 years. It gets foul, quick.

I just don’t think a humidifier deserves to be treated with almost the same care as an infant. There must be another way! And to be clear, I’m not sure the filter issue is specific to just the Honeywell; I think it’s probably a problem with many evaporative humidifiers that use filters.

There are some things God doesn’t want you to know, but you learn anyway. I imagine neglected humidifier filters are one of those things.

Study for “The Dream — Paolo and Francesca”, Umberto Boccioni, 1910. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It doesn’t work

Every evening, I undergo the ordeal of refilling the humidifier, only to wake up at 2am with a dry throat and watering eyes. My hair is a wreck. I am slathering my face in oil morning, noon, and night to stave off the inevitable cracks and flakes caused by the dry air. I have always been very sensitive to dry air — Northern California summers, with their relatively low humidity, have given me headaches since I was a little kid (thank god for swampy NYC summers, I’ll at least say that). The east coast’s dry winter air, parched further by the radiators that can barely keep up with the chill, causes great discomfort to me and millions (I’m estimating) of others from the mid-Atlantic to Maine. By April, we will be desiccated husks that once resembled humans.

In theory, the humidifier is supposed to combat this. The Honeywell does not.

My friend Rachel Pick bought the Honeywell on Wirecutter’s recommendation, to treat the dry skin, eczema, and sore throat caused by winter’s dryness.

“After buying and running the Honeywell it didn’t seem to ameliorate anything, so on a hunch I bought a hygrometer off Amazon (hygrometers measure humidity),” she says. “Even placed directly above that goddamn thing it would read, like, 15%, and a comfortable humidity level is supposed to be anywhere from say 30%-60%.”

Others have gone to similar lengths after their Honeywell purchase failed to actually humidify their air. My humidifier is currently running right now, with a tank that’s 2/3 of the way full. The radiator hasn’t been hissing for about an hour, and the space heater is off. My stinging eyes are still watering from the dryness. Perhaps this is psychosomatic? I don’t have a hygrometer myself, and the Honeywell’s lack of visible mist means it’s hard to tell when it’s really working. Still, I’m unhappy.

Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866, Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of Public Domain Review

So what’s the solution?

For Adrianne, it’s a Dutch oven filled with water placed on her radiator. For Amanda, it’s the Miro. For me, today at least, it was a pot of boiling water on the stove. It made my kitchen and living room steamy and wonderful; I haven’t breathed so well in months.

I can’t do that all night, however.

“I’m also an expert on humidifiers seeing that I’ve been using them for over 50 years. I’ve tried every different type, multiple models, treating the water, using expensive distilled water, and they all have problems,” wrote Robert Jensen, a Wirecutter commenter. “Over the past 15 years that I’ve been using these inexpensive steam humidifiers in California and now in Utah I’ve turned quite a few people onto them who’ve had the same positive results I’ve experienced.” He uses the Vicks Warm Steam Vaporizer, which is currently $20 on Target.com.

Both the Miro and the Vicks Vaporizer seem like decent ways to decrease my winter misery, but if you, dear reader, have any suggestions, I’m desperately listening.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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