A Beginner Guide to Dehumidifiers and How They Work

Josh Mitchell

Written By

Josh Mitchell

Expert Reviewed By

Holly Curell

Last Updated On

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I use dehumidifiers every day to remove excess humidity. There was a time when I didn’t know anything about them and my home was suffering badly from damp and moisture issues.

Over the years, I’ve worked with all kinds of dehumidifiers to solve a wide range of problems, but back then, I had to do research to understand the basics of humidity and how dehumidifiers worked.

I always wished somebody could have explained it to me simply, so I’ve written this article to help other homeowners get to grips with dehumidifiers.

In this guide, I’ll explain:

  • What humidity is and why it’s a problem
  • How different dehumidifiers work and what the benefits are of using them
  • Whether you need one in your home

Key Takeaways

  • Humidity is basically moisture in the air. Humidity levels of higher than 60% allows bacteria, mold, microbes and other diseases to thrive. It can harm your health and belongings.
  • A dehumidifier removes excess moisture from the air and allows you to maintain ideal 40-50% relative humidity.
  • If there is visible condensation, mold infestation, musty smell, creaky wooden floor and furniture, and you are suffering from general breathing difficulties then you need a dehumidifier.

Why Does Humidity Matter In Your Home?

Well, the main reason I use dehumidifiers is to improve the indoor air quality.

If your air is too humid and has too much water vapor then it can lead to the development of harmful bacteria, viruses, mold, dust mites, and other harmful pollutants.

This can lead to some serious health risks if there’s no moisture control in place [1]. High humidity can also damage your home and belongings.

Low humidity can also cause discomfort, triggering some allergies and leaving your throat, nasal passages, and eyes itchy [2].

dehumidifier settings
The optimal relative humidity in your home is around 30-50%.

In my living areas, I aim for 30-40% humidity, but in my basement, I aim for 40-50% humidity because it’s only used for storage.

Removing excess moisture, but not over drying the air is the key to protecting your health, your home, and your comfort.

This is why dehumidifiers and humidifiers are increasingly popular.

TL;DR: Maintaining optimal humidity levels of between 30-50% can help your health and protect your belongings. 


How Does A Dehumidifier Work? (Process Explained)

Compressor Dehumidifiers (Refrigerant Dehumidifiers)

how does a dehumidifier work

Refrigerant dehumidifiers work using refrigerant gas, which moves between a cold coil and a warm coil, changing from gas to liquid and back to gas.

Moist air is drawn in using a fan and comes into contact with the cooled coils.

The water condenses and drops down into a water reservoir, while the air passes through the warm coils and heats back up.

The dry air is then released back into your home.

Refrigerant dehumidifiers are the most common type of dehumidifier and this is the type I use in my home.

They are often used in areas with high humidity because they can extract moisture quickly, and you’ll find portable models and fixed installation models with continuous drainage.

Refrigerant dehumidifiers are usually inexpensive and cheap to run (depending on the energy factor and energy star rating), but they can’t be used in very cold conditions as this can cause the dehumidifier cold coil to freeze over.

This means they aren’t always suitable in cold basements, garages, or cellars.
  1. 1
    A fan, or series of fans, brings in warm air through the sides, back, or bottom. Wall and ceiling-mounted dehumidifiers will have different intake and exhaust points than portable models.
  2. 2
    Warm air containing moisture is directed through a series of cold coils filled with refrigerant gas.
  3. 3
    The fan compressor keeps the pressure of the refrigerant high within the cold coils. This keeps the copper tubing cold.
  4. 4
    The warm air cools as it comes into contact with the cold coils and the moisture condenses on the evaporator fins within the dehumidifier.
  5. 5
    A reheater is used to warm the air back to room temperature, and the dry air is released back into the room.
  6. 6
    The dehumidifier collects the liquid in a water tank or collection tank ready to be emptied. Larger dehumidifiers will be plumbed in for continuous drainage.

TL;DR: Refrigerant dehumidifiers work on the principle of condensation. As hot air passes through cold coils, condensation occurs and the excess water drops into a reservoir. These are the most common type of dehumidifiers.

Desiccant Dehumidifiers

Desiccant models work using water-absorbing material to collect moisture, this is usually absorbent gels, silica beads, or salts.

Humid air is drawn over the material and as the air cools moisture is collected. Dry air is then blown back into the room.

Once the absorbent material is full you will need to either replace the pouches, recharge them, or replace the entire dehumidifier device.

Plug-in models use an electric coil to heat the silica and evaporate the moisture so they can be used again.

Other types can be put in the microwave or oven to heat the silica.

One-time desiccant models are fairly cheap and are great for small areas like inside your kitchen cabinets.

I use them in my car and RV too because they don’t need any electrical power.

This type of dehumidifier will work in cold conditions because there are no cooled coils to freeze over.

  1. 1
    Desiccant models either use a fan to direct air into the device or they are placed somewhere the air flows naturally.
  2. 2
    As the humid air is brought into the fan, the dehumidifier works by directing it over a moisture-absorbent material. Usually, this is silica salt.
  3. 3
    Moisture is extracted from the air as it passes over the material.
  4. 4
    The dry air is then heated and released back into the room
  5. 5
    These dehumidifiers work without a water tank. When the moisture-absorbent material is full then it is either dried out by heating it, or replaced.
  6. 6
    Reusable desiccant dehumidifiers have moisture-absorbent material which can be used for years.

TL;DR: Desiccant dehumidifiers work on the principle of using absorbent material to collect moisture from the air.

Furnace Dehumidifiers - Whole House Dehumidifiers

Whole home dehumidifiers are much larger and used for homes with a constant moisture problem.

These are generally installed in a basement or crawl space and connected to the home’s ventilation system.

As the air goes through the furnace portion of the dehumidifier, the moisture is removed, the air is reheated and as the warm air contracts it’s put back into circulation through the home vent system.

They are usually plumbed in so that there is continuous drainage of the gathered liquid water.

These systems can be expensive and require professional installation but they can remove a lot of moisture from the air.

I’ve never needed dehumidification on this level, but they are ideal for large homes with high humidity, flooding, or foundation seeping issues.

They can also be used for crawl spaces, basements, or even commercial areas that have more moisture and need extra dehumidifying steps.

  1. 1
    Furnace dehumidifiers or whole-home dehumidifiers work like other refrigerant-based dehumidifiers, but on a larger scale.
  2. 2
    The dehumidifier is installed into the HVAC system with input and exhaust vents connected to ducts
  3. 3
    Air is drawn in through the intake line and passed over cold coils
  4. 4
    The dry air is then directed to the air handler to be heated or cooled for distribution around your home
  5. 5
    The moisture collected is drained through fixed plumbing
Types of dehumidifiers

TL;DR: Whole house dehumidifiers are often refrigerant dehumidifiers that attach to the existing HVAC system. They are large and expensive.


What Exactly Is Humidity?

Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. This is sometimes described as the relative humidity in an area or a room.

Dehumidifiers help deal with humidity in your home, and I have them installed to regulate the relative humidity in my basement and garage.

The higher the relative humidity, the more moisture there is in a room.

A damp room will have a high relative humidity, whereas a room why dry air will have a low relative humidity.

TL;DR: Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. The amount of vapor beyond a certain points becomes damaging. 


What Is A Dehumidifier, Then?

Dehumidifiers are appliances that remove excess moisture from the air.

They do this by drawing in air filled with water vapor, removing some of the moisture as liquid water, and then blowing dry air back into the room.

This lowers the overall relative humidity in a given area.

There are several ways this is accomplished, including electrical, mechanical, and natural methods.

Most dehumidifiers are electrical, and many people have portable dehumidifiers in their homes.

I have a series of portable dehumidifiers across my home set up in the areas that need dehumidification the most.

By dehumidifying or removing humidity, these devices can make our lives more comfortable and help to protect us and our belongings.

They protect the things I care about the most and give me peace of mind.

ACLAB Note:

On the flip side you have humidifiers. If the air in your home gets excessively dry during certain time of the year, then investing in a humidifier can become necessary.

Since the humidity levels often do not stay the same throughout the year, you may require both a humidifier and a dehumidifier to be used at different times of the year to maintain optimal humidity.


Origins & Working Principles Of Dehumidifiers

The first dehumidifier was invented by Willis Carrier in 1902 and the dehumidifier’s first job was to remove moisture and (hopefully) odors from a New York printer’s warehouse.

Carrier said that this invention was the basis for his other air conditioning inventions and led to the brand name we all know today.

The first dehumidifier was crude, of course, and used a series of cold coils, a warm coil, and fans to move air through different temperatures to remove the moisture.

Today, the process isn’t much different, but it is a lot more advanced.

The main idea behind a dehumidifier is to absorb moisture or extract excess moisture from air molecules.

It can do this in a few ways, but the most efficient is to rapidly cool the air so that the water molecules become too dense to stay in the air molecules.

We see this process frequently with window condensation as cool air hits a cold surface.

The moisture is then removed and collected. The super-cooled air is heated back up and warm air is returned back to the source, room, or home.


Natural Dehumidifiers: How They Work

how to reduce humidity in house without dehumidifier

A natural dehumidifier is a smaller model that usually comes in a canister, box, or as a disposable unit.

These generally have very little power consumption and are the more energy-efficient type of dehumidifier.

These are the most common natural dehumidifiers:

  • Charcoal-Based Dehumidifier.
    Charcoal is a porous material that naturally absorbs moisture from the ambient air. You can use briquette or lump charcoal to reduce humidity and absorb odors in a room.
  • Salt And Essential Oil Dehumidifier.
    Salt is another natural absorbent and can be used as a dehumidifier. A common DIY project is to create a salt bucket to collect moisture and add essential oils to help purify odors.
  • Baking Soda As A Dehumidifier.
    Baking soda works a lot like charcoal to absorb odors and moisture from the ambient air. You can find baking soda boxes with removable panels to allow airflow without having to open the container.
  • Clay-Based Dehumidifier.
    Clay is a commonly used dehumidifier that is cost-effective and non-corrosive. If you don’t want to use a salt bucket, desiccant clay is a suitable alternative.

TL;DR: You can also find natural dehumidifiers that are not as powerful as electrical dehumidifiers, but they are cheaper to operate.


Benefits Of A Dehumidifier

Helps With Allergies

Allergens thrive in moist air, and with a proper humidity level, many of the allergens in your home can be controlled.

By using your dehumidifier to maintain a humidity level between 45 and 50%, you can prevent mold and mildew from growing and limit the pollutants which trigger allergies.

Reduces Pest Related Problems

Like mold and mildew, other pests such as spiders, roaches, and even dust mites require moisture to survive.

If you remove the humidity from the home, these pests won’t have the required moisture for hydration and will either die out or move on.

In fact, dust mites will be largely destroyed if you use your dehumidifier to keep the humidity below 65% [2].

ACLAB Note:

While a dehumidifier can help with pests and microbes that thrive on humidity, a dehumidifier does not clean the air. To clean the air, you will need to procure a separate device known as air purifiers. You can also find dehumidifier and air purifiers all in one combos. 

Controls Moisture Levels

Your dehumidifier works to control the indoor humidity levels in your home.

You can make your dehumidifier work in hot or cold conditions and it will help to keep you comfortable at home.

Lowering the humidity to between 40 and 60% in your home will help you breathe easier and stay more comfortable year-round.

Protects Your Health

Along with normal moisture levels in the air, it also makes things more comfortable.

Humid air is harder to breathe, and if the humidity is too high, it can also lead to illness and respiratory issues.

Reduces Energy Costs

You can also make your dehumidifier work to lower your bills. 

By using a dehumidifier instead of a dehumidifier you can lower the humidity and tackle moist air without spending as much on electricity.

TL;DR: A dehumidifier can help remove allergens, protect your health, reduce energy costs as well as save your belongings from damage caused by moist air.


7 Signs You Need A Dehumidifier

A long time ago, before I knew about dehumidifiers, I had no idea the humidity levels were causing issues.

It took me a while to spot the issues because I didn’t know what I was looking for!

To make it easier for you, here are the 7 clear signs that you may need a dehumidifier.

If you aren’t sure then I would recommend using a hydrometer to measure the relative humidity in the air.

  • There’s visible condensation on the walls
  • You can see mold or blistering paint
  • Clothes won’t dry because of a damp problem
  • There’s a musty smell
  • The room is cold and damp or feels very hot and clammy
  • You’re sneezing or coughing more frequently, or finding it harder to breathe
  • Creaky floors or doors which have expanded because of the moisture
will a dehumidifier kill mold

TL;DR: Pay attention to the tell-tale signs of excess moisture in the air. This could range from visible condensation to musty smell and even deteriorating health.


How Long Does It Take For A Dehumidifier To Work?

You should run your dehumidifier for at least 12-15 hours to have the most impact.

During July and August I often run my basement dehumidifier 24/7 to manage the humidity, but you may not need that in your home.

If you are running it for longer then remember that you will need to empty the tank more frequently.

You should expect it to take at least 12 hours before you notice the effects of your dehumidifier.

Some larger models, whole-home dehumidifiers, and small silica-based models may start working immediately.

However, you are unlikely to notice the effects of the lower humidity in the areas they are located in (a basement, inside your cabinet, etc.) until the drier air begins to circulate.

It will also depend on how humid the air inside your home is, the airflow rate, and the ventilation situation.

TL;DR: It can take anywhere between 12-24 hours before you see a difference in air quality using a dehumidifier.

Dehumidifier Components

Mechanical and electronic dehumidifiers may all use slightly different processes, but the parts are usually the same.

Here are the key components which come together to create a dehumidifier:

Fan

The fan is either a dual purpose (when there is a single fan) or a single purpose (when there are multiple fans).

The main job is to bring air from around the unit inside to be cycled through and to force the dehumidified air out into the room.

Compressor

The compressor works much like a compressor in an air conditioner. Its job is to compress and cycle the refrigerant through the coils.

Reheater

The cooling process from the refrigerated coils causes heat to be removed from the air.

The reheater collects the excess heat and returns it to the air after it has the moisture removed.

Compressor Cooling Coils

The cooling coils cool and decompress the refrigerant, allowing the moisture to accumulate and stay out of the air.

Reservoir

Finally, the reservoir is where the collected moisture/humidity from the air is stored.

The collected water will either be evaporated by the reheater, collected in silica gel, or drained through a drain hose.

Humidistat

Modern dehumidifiers have a built-in humidistat that measures the moisture levels in the air.

This controls when dehumidifiers work to remove moisture from the air, and when they can stop.

This component is essential for keeping the relative humidity of your air within acceptable levels and helps to improve the overall energy efficiency of the dehumidifier.

ACLAB Note:

Depending upon whether you have a refrigerant or desiccant dehumidifier, the parts can vary.


Optimal Dehumidifier Humidity Setting

Most dehumidifiers have setting controls which let you choose the desired humidity level.

I would recommend that you aim for a humidity level between 40 and 60%. 45 to 50% is considered the “sweet spot” for health, comfort, and limiting mold or pest growth.

However, you should always make your dehumidifier work for you so don’t be afraid to experiment with different humidity levels to see which is the most comfortable.

You should also consider the energy efficiency and only use a dehumidifier when it’s needed.

TL;DR: Most dehumidifiers have humidistat. The best setting is to keep at 45-50% relative humidity.


Dehumidifiers Vs. Air Conditioners

Air conditioner vs Dehumidifier

An air conditioner is used to cool a room down, whereas a dehumidifier is used to remove excess moisture from a damp room.

I have both installed in my home and my AC controls the temperature while the dehumidifier controls the humidity.

Even though they have different functions, in many cases, a central air conditioner also removes moisture and humidity from the air.

However, the process uses more energy and makes the system run longer to cool the air after it has been devoid of moisture.

ACLAB Note:

Removing moisture from the air and maintaining optimal humidity can give you a cooling sensation.

By using a dehumidifier with the AC, you can run the units for shorter times and make the AC more efficient, saving on your annual energy bills.

Over the years, this has saved me hundreds of dollars from the electric bill, so if you use an AC I would recommend doing the same.

TL;DR: ACs remove moisture AND cool the air. In doing so, they consume a lot of electricity. Dehumidifiers remove moisture without reducing the temperature. They are much cheaper to procure and operate as compared to ACs.


What Is The Difference Between Humidifiers & Dehumidifiers?

A humidifier and a dehumidifier are opposites.

humidifier vs dehumidifier
The primary difference is that a humidifier adds moisture as the air passes through, while a dehumidifier removes moisture from the air.

Humidifiers are best used when the air is drier, humidity levels plummet, and the seasons turn colder.

Late fall and winter are when you will find most humidifiers in action.

A dehumidifier is best utilized when the air is full of moisture, there’s a higher temperature, and allergens that cause respiratory illness are at their peak.

You will find dehumidifiers best used in spring and summer to stop mold growth and keep you comfortable.

TL;DR: Humidifiers and dehumidifiers are polar opposites. You may need both devices to maintain optimal humidity levels depending upon how the moisture content fluctuates over the year.


People Also Ask (FAQs)

How Much Do Dehumidifiers Cost?

A good quality dehumidifier will cost $50-$200, but the exact cost will depend on the size dehumidifier you choose, and the make and model of the appliance.

Some whole home models can cost over $1500, plus installation costs.

Where Should You Place A Dehumidifier?

The best place to put a dehumidifier is as close to the source of moisture as possible. To improve the dehumidifier’s efficiency you should try to place it in the centre of the room to maximize the air flow in and out of the device.

How Long Does A Dehumidifier Usually Last?

A dehumidifier will usually last 5-10 years if it’s properly cleaned and maintained. However, the more you use a dehumidifier, the quicker it will need to be replaced.

Portable dehumidifiers usually last 3-5 years.

How Can I Check Humidity Levels In My House?

You can use a hygrometer or humidistat to measure the humidity in your home. Many dehumidifiers have a hygrometer built-in, but you can buy them separately from places like Amazon or Sylvane.

Do Dehumidifiers Cool You Down?

Dehumidifiers will not lower the temperature in a room like air conditioning devices, but because a dehumidifier removes humid air it can make you feel cooler and more comfortable.

Wrapping It Up

Dehumidifiers are one of the most used appliances in my home and I couldn’t live without them.

They remove moisture and humidity to improve my air quality, stop allergens and pollutants from impacting my health, and defend my home and belongings.

Most importantly, dehumidifiers give me peace of mind that my home and family are protected.

If you live in a humid area then I would definitely recommend investing in one because you will feel the benefits.

Hopefully, this guide has helped explain how dehumidifiers work and you now know if you will benefit from using one.

References: 

  1. https://www.achooallergy.com/blog/learning/the-effects-of-humidity-on-the-human-body/
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/in-depth/humidifiers/art-20048021
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/dehumidifier-benefits
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Josh Mitchell

Founder

Josh Mitchell
My name is Josh and I am obsessed with home appliances. From portable AC units to heaters and air purifiers, I enjoy testing, learning and using these devices to improve the air quality inside my family home.

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Midea U Shaped Window Air Conditioner

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