Of acids, descaling and my sinuses

I love my humidifier. Since buying it a month ago my sinuses have given me a lot less trouble. Leaning over the unit and directly breathing in the hot moist air has decreased my sinus difficulties in a big way. However, while I do love the humidifier I certainly don't love taking care of it. Particularly not the scale that builds up quite rapidly on the thermal unit in the base. Since the humidifier goes through a couple of liters of water--and since my water is from a well with lots of mineral content--a night, there's a lot of mineral salts building up. I need to descale every week.

The typical descaling method is to soak in vinegar. Vinegar is mildly acidic having around 5% acetic acid and a pH of around 3. Traditionally vinegar is produced by allowing bacteria to oxidize a fermented solution, typically wine or hard cider. This process takes considerable time, weeks at least and more often months. Some expensive Balsalmic vinegars are aged for decades.

That's acetic acid over there to the left. C2H4O2

This need to descale my humidifier gave me an excuse to bring up a little chemistry and history curtesy of Wikipedia.

Vinegar has been used by people since before recorded history. As soon as any type of fermented product was available, vinegar soon followed since the bacteria that digest alcohol produce acetic acid as a byproduct. Bacteria poop, if you will. And since that alcohol was first produced by yeast as a byproduct of their digesting carbohydrates it's like double poop by the time it's acetic acid. Microorganisms are so useful!

According to Wiki, In the 3rd century BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastos described how vinegar acted on metals to produce pigments useful in art, including white lead (lead carbonate) and verdigris, a green mixture of copper salts including copper(II) acetate.

The diagram doesn't have anything to do with descaling my humidifier. I just liked the way it looked. :-) Most acetic acid production these days is done chemically with no organic processes involved. Hell, even vinegar is mostly made that way with a sizeable minority being produced organically but sped up by using stirrers and injected oxygen. This can speed the process up from weeks of the natural process to the day or so of the assisted process. Progress, eh?

Just remember--acetic acid is caustic and it's dangerous when you have concentrations much above what you find naturally in vinegar. Glacial acetic acid, which we use in the lab, can strip flesh right off of you. Ick.


carli said…
I'm almost afraid to use my humidifier. Everyone tells you something different re: bacteria. It's annoying when you have asthma, and your cat has asthma. And I'm lazy and don't like cleaning things. Still, I did pay like $40 for it, so I guess I should use it.

Here from M.
Carmi said…
I'm never opening up another jug of anything in my house without calling you.

You know the scientific skinny on just about everything: I wish I had your ability to dissect and explain.
kenju said…
About 10 years ago, I threw out 2 vaporizers due to reports of bacterial growth and mold too. But during a recent flu episode, me. kenju bought another one. So far, he has been diligent about cleaning it out every morning. So vingear is bacterial poop, huh? Who knew?
Carolyn said…
We have a humidifyer that uses a solution called Bacterio-Stat (I think). We buy it at Sears. One capful mixed in w/the water keeps the deposits down considerably with frequent filter changes too.

My Dad used to say they made them drink a little vinegar in the Army during WWII to avoid the scabies. I'm currently using white vinegar to clean the new grout excess from the hearth tile. I can't imagine drinking it ;)

Here from Michele's!
grant said…
Chemistry lessons are cool.
Those humidity machines are noisy.
Cats are cool, so so cool.

Michele sent me Utenzi although I'm starting to think she may not in future.
Bob-kat said…
Bacteria, can't live without some of 'em and could definitely do without others!

Vinegar sure is useful stuff. I have hard water over here to and use a warter filter.
I like that you can take Vinegar, put about 1/2 cup in a 2-liter bottle. Then place some baking soda in a thin balloon, tie it off and drop it in the vinegar. Screw the top on the 2-liter bottle. If every thing works well, you should have a homemade version of a concussion grenade in abut 10 minutes.

Wait a minute, this isn't the "how to annoy your neighbors" blog. Forget everything I just said.

Hi from Michele.
srp said…
I remember my dad doing the vinegar and soda thing for the stomach flu. I don't know if it worked or not... made me throw up every time which I thought was beside the point. Of course PeptoBismo does the same thing only all I have to do is get a whiff of it.

If you add a tsp or so of vinegar to the water when you make hard boiled eggs it helps prevent cracking.

Brings back memories of the chemistry major in college, the stockroom and the smell of glacial acetic and sulfuric acid in the morning..... Those were good days.
Becky68 said…
Lol at AOC, that's pretty good!
Vinegar certainly does have a lot of uses. I know my Great Grandmother used to use distilled water in her humidifier because it caused less mold. But that was in Massachusetts where most people buy all their water in bottles, the stuff that comes out of the taps is not fit to drink for the most part so 60 cents for a gallon of distilled water every day doesn't seem like such a big deal.
It seems strange to me now though, living in Virginia with a perfectly good well. Always a pleasure to visit.
Here from Micheles.
Mr. Althouse said…
Double poop! Who knew?

We use glacial acetic acid in the darkroom as well, but it's in very low concentrations. Chemistry is fascinating, really... My dad is a PhD chemist and his best friend is a PhD physicist - both Stanford grads. Getting them together talking science is a little like watching grass grow - at the molecular level.

Michele sent me.

craziequeen said…
Hi Dave - wot, no raw meat?? :-)

If you leave your humidifier off for a time, don't forget to empty the tank, if necessary. We got that warning with our chiller unit - the standing water can get infected with legionella.....I'm neurotic about emptying our tank...

Here from Michele this evening.
Azgreeneyes said…
Ummm, ok, so I have this bottle that is for removing fingernail polish. It says 100% acetate. Should I be afraid, be very afraid?

Here fromMichele's with zero scientific knowledge!
utenzi said…
No worries, Karen. Most esters aren't too bad as chemicals go. Just don't beathe in the fumes too much--it's bad for the liver. Personally I prefer acetone to have around due to it's slightly greater versatility but ethyl acetate works just fine,

CQ, I don't worry about the bacteria too much. In any case, I usually don't leave water in the tank more than a few days.

Mike, that's not really glacial acetic acid anymore. LOL It's a definition thing.

Becky, I agree. I like AOC's bomb idea but I'll wait until it gets warmer to try it out. I dont want vinegar all over my kitchen-- including walls and ceiling!
Ty said…
Hi, Michele sent me!
It is interesting about Humidifier's...I have to be very careful about germs and bacteria...And a good friend who is a nurse said they are a double edged sword because of bacteria...so I don't use one.
Wouldn't it be great if they could inven a self cleaning Humidifier to go along with your Self-Cleaning House? (LOL)
colleen said…
Have you ever checked out all the used for urine? Probably more than vinegar. In the summer we have to use a de-humidifyer. I have some friends who solve all these problems by living outdoors! Michele sent me.
Teresa said…
I use vinegar for a lot of things. I actually haven't paid attention to the humidifier this winter... I guess I should think about cleaning it, huh? We use the humidifier to counteract the effects of the wood stove, but I think part of the problem with the wood stove is some of the wood has mold growing on it. Do you have advice to clear up that problem?
Anonymous said…
Humidifiers can make such a huge difference when it comes to winter dryness. We have one too but I can never leave it on at night because I'm a light sleeper and the glugging sound it makes when the water refills wakes me up. :)

Ari (Baking and Books)
Yaeli said…
I love vinegar, but hearing you call it bacteria poop has put me off I think!
Shephard said…
I'm so glad you posted this, because it gives me a chance to ask you a question.

We have been thinking about a humidifier too... our nights are so so dry here. But, we'd read bad things about humidifiers and bacteria, and are kind of hesitant now. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.
Michele says hello!

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