Choosing a Dehumidifier
When there's too much humidity in a home, the air feels heavy; people and plants wilt; and mold, mildew, and dust mites have a party. Just think what this means in a basement, a space perpetually plagued by dampness. An inexpensive dehumidifier is a quick and ongoing fix that helps get the ambient air close to the ideal relative humidity of 50 percent. Cheapism.com consulted expert sources and hundreds of consumer reviews to find the best portable dehumidifiers for large and small spaces priced below $250.
Dehumidifier Brands.Numerous brands vie for consumers' dollars in the residential corner of this market. Well-known names include Frigidaire, GE, Danby, Whynter, Friedrich, Honeywell, LG, Haier, Sunpentown, and DeLonghi. Lesser-known brands that also claim a following include HomeLabs, Ivation, Keystone, Soleus Air, and HiSense. And this is only a partial list. Many makers of portable dehumidifiers offer products at all points along the price spectrum.
Pricey vs. Cheap Dehumidifiers.At the high end, dehumidifier prices start at $500 and climb beyond $5,000. Some of these units are built into a home's heating and cooling system and must be professionally installed. Some are designed specifically for basements or crawl spaces. And others are portable but powerful enough to dehumidify the whole house or a large apartment.
The differences between cheap and pricey dehumidifiers have to do with size, build quality, and features. Expensive dehumidifiers generally are more efficient and may be able to pull more moisture from the air during a 24-hour period. Some can run continuously (the compressor is always on), which may be helpful in extremely damp conditions or for people who suffer from heavy-duty allergies. The housing and components tend to be of higher quality, as well, so the dehumidifier is quieter and more durable. And some can function at below-freezing temperatures. That said, the best cheap portable dehumidifiers more than hold their own in terms of performance and features.
Dehumidifier Sizing.The size of a dehumidifier is denoted by its capacity; that is, how much water it can pull from the air in a 24-hour period. In the budget segment of the market, manufacturers offer models in a range of sizes -- typically 30, 50, and 70 pints (a few brands specify gallons rather than pints). Prices rise with capacity.
The right size depends on the square footage and the amount of moisture in the space where the dehumidifier will be placed, as well as on the climate. Manufacturer specifications typically state that a 70-pint model can handle up to 4,000 square feet, give or take; 50 pints up to 3,000 square feet; and 30 pints up to 1,500 square feet. These specs are based on test conditions, however, and are really only rough guides for the real world. Sylvane, a specialty vendor of indoor air quality products, offers more practical guideposts: a 30-pint model for a slightly damp room of 300 square feet, for example, and a 70-pint model under the same conditions for a 1,500-square-foot room. Sylvane further suggests adding 10 pints in humid climates and 5 pints for spaces people live in, like a den or living room.
Experts caution against choosing a dehumidifier based solely on price. Where there is lots of moisture in the air, a larger (and pricier) model may be a wiser investment. A dehumidifier that's too small for the job will run nearly all the time, which eats up energy and requires that the bucket be emptied frequently, unless connected to a drain hose. In general, experts suggest erring on the side of too much capacity rather than too little. We confined our top picks to portable models with capacity of 50 or 70 pints, but we've also suggested a lower-capacity unit and even a mini dehumidifier for a small space like a closet or a gym locker.
Drain Options.Most budget dehumidifiers give users two options for getting rid of water pulled from the air. By default, water collects in a bucket, or reservoir, that must be removed and dumped when full. The other option is to connect a hose (a garden hose suffices) and rely on gravity to continuously draw water into a floor drain, to a sump pump, or out a door. Continuous drain frees users from constantly having to monitor and empty the contents of a bucket and is well suited to basements or other locations where vigilance is impractical. Just keep in mind that water must be able to flow downward in order for this type of drainage to be effective.
A third option, available in just a few room dehumidifiers at the lower end of the market, involves a built-in condensate pump that forces water upward through a drainage hose and out a window or, alternately, into a sink, tub, or other outlet (the height depends on the model -- some reach 16 feet). Another few cheap dehumidifiers can be connected to an external pump that performs the same function. Integrated pumps are more common in big-ticket models.H2: Dehumidifier Reviews: What We Considered
Only a handful of dehumidifiers in the budget range garner more than a couple hundred reviews from consumers, and most claim many less. Even fewer merit assessment by experts. We focused our research on models with a total of at least 100 reviews on sites including Amazon, Home Depot, Best Buy, Lowe's, Walmart, Target, and Sylvane, and also looked at comments posted on manufacturers' product pages. Expert input comes from sources such as Consumer Reports, Wirecutter, Good Housekeeping, and DehumidifierBuyersGuide.com, which test dehumidifiers, as well as Top Ten Reviews.
The models on our list are effective and user-friendly, according to dehumidifier reviews. They quickly dry out humid spaces, are easy to empty, and boast features that consumers value, such as wheels for transport, some sort of handle for the water container, and a washable air filter for easy maintenance. They all have buckets set in the front for manual drain or can be configured for gravity drainage; a couple boast a built-in pump. They feature adjustable humidistats for choosing a desired relative humidity, multiple fan speeds, electronic controls, timers, and Energy Star certification.
Overall Performance.Although none of the best cheap dehumidifiers claims an unblemished 5-star average rating, they all punch well above the 4-star level. Some earn glowing reports regarding their effectiveness -- for example, filling up a 16-pint bucket once a day in a 1,200-square-foot basement or ridding a basement of a damp, moldy smell. Other reviews tell of dehumidifiers making the air comfortably dry in a large, high-ceilinged room or in a small cottage located in a rainy climate; eliminating wintertime condensation on doors and windows or mildew in below-grade bedrooms; and keeping the air in a workshop dry enough that tools don't rust. Some manufacturers recommend setting the humidistat lower than the desired level, as a cushion, and note that humidity naturally fluctuates around that target.
Complaints about these models concern issues like rusting compressors, failing electronics, tricky hookups for gravity-drain hoses, hard-to-remove (and replace) buckets, inaccurate humidistats, hyperactive filter alerts, and noisy operation. Some reviewers are disappointed when a dehumidifier isn't all that effective in the advertised square footage. Consumers should keep in mind that such specifications reflect testing conditions that are not replicated at home.
Controls.The current crop of dehumidifiers feature electronic controls. There are push buttons (or pads) for functions like on/off, fan speed, drain option, and timer, and LCDs or LED displays for the target relative humidity and sometimes for the room temperature. Indicator lights (and sometimes an audible alert) signal when the bucket is full and when the filter needs cleaning. Some reviewers grouse that the icons on the control panels are hard to fathom -- at least in the beginning.
All the portable dehumidifiers we researched can be set to a desired relative humidity level, usually between 35 percent and 85 percent. When the target level is reached, the compressor shuts off and restarts when the humidity creeps back up. These models also shut off automatically when the bucket fills up.
Two or three fan settings are standard on portable dehumidifiers. The fan can be noisy as it sucks in air and disperses it, so the ability to turn it down is a definite plus. High speed is useful for dehumidifying a room quickly.
Newer dehumidifiers also feature an auto restart that remembers the settings and gets the unit going after a power failure has been resolved.
Cheap dehumidifiers are most efficient when operating in spaces where the ambient temperature doesn't fall below about 41 degrees; only a few can work efficiently in colder environments. Most feature an auto-defrost function in the event that the coils freeze over.
Setup and Maintenance.Always follow manufacturers' instructions for setting up a dehumidifier. This is especially critical if using the hose attachment for gravity drainage or vertical drainage with a condensate pump, because a connection that isn't tight will leak all over. Complaints about leakage and difficulty connecting hoses pop up here and there in dehumidifier reviews. Also note that it may take a bit of trial and error to figure out the best humidity setting and most effective fan speed.
The air filter, which targets dust and assorted allergens, should be cleaned often for optimal performance. All the models we recommend feature an indicator light that alerts users when it's time to check the filter; some also come with an audible alert. A common interval for cleaning is 250 hours of use.
The dehumidifier bucket should be cleaned periodically, as well, to avoid scummy buildup. Some reviewers say the nooks and crannies in the buckets make them hard to clean, and getting the bucket out and back in may require a bit of jiggering. A larger container has to be emptied less often (and helps avoid shutoffs due to neglect), but the full bucket is harder to carry.
Energy Efficiency.A dehumidifier can eat up as much energy as a refrigerator, so Energy Star certification is critical. All the models we researched meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for performance and energy use, and bear an Energy Star label. But remember: If a dehumidifier is too small (in terms of capacity) for the space and the degree of dampness, it will run more often and use more energy, and perhaps have a shorter life span.
Although room dehumidifiers do use a lot of electricity, they may help lower summertime electric bills. Sticky humidity makes the air feel hotter, and running a dehumidifier can make a room more comfortable without the air conditioner on full blast.
Noise.All dehumidifiers make noise -- described as a racket by some but tolerable to others. The models we like boast decibel ratings as low as 50 dBA and as high as 55 dBA. These specifications reflect the fan running at the highest speed; noise is reduced when the fan is on low. If the unit will be set in a living area, the lower the decibel rating, the less likely it will be an irritant. If it's going into the basement, the noise level is probably irrelevant; some manufacturers don't even provide decibel information.
Durability.One big negative that repeatedly pops up in reviews of budget dehumidifiers, including those on our list, is that they tend to wear out or break down within a few years. Experts note that durability depends, in part, on frequency of use. Most warranties extend for 12 months; Keystone and Frigidaire cover the sealed system (compressor and refrigerant) for five years.
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