SUPPLIERS FIND NEW TECHNOLOGY BOOSTING SALES FOR HUMIDIFIERS

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CHICAGO — Humidifiers are becoming popular again, driven by new evaporative technology and consumer concerns about dry winter air, according to manufacturers at the International Housewares Show.

Driving home the message about the plastics-intensive products were record cold Chicago temperatures during the show. A dramatically worded news release from Bemis Manufacturing Co., led off like this: ``With the winter months upon us, cold, dry air can cause parched throats, burning, dry eyes and frequently a shallow, hacking cough that can hang on for months.''

Officials from three suppliers — Bemis, Lasko Metal Products Inc. and Holmes Products Corp. — agreed that most of the growth is coming from evaporative machines. A pump moves water through a wicking paper filter, then a fan draws air through the filter, where the air picks up moisture. Some models also purify the air.

Holmes added a new twist at the Chicago show by teaming with Brita Products Co. to show a HM-2200 PureMist Humidifier that purifies the water through a Brita filter.

Robert Rohner, Bemis field sales manager, said evaporative machines keep sludge from the water in the wick filter. ``The wicking technology has been the big change in the business,'' he said.

Rohner said sales had been declining for humidifiers because of problems with the old wheel models, which sprayed out impurities along with the water. But evaporative machines retain any sludge from tap water in the paper filter.

Bemis, of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., injection molds its own plastic parts. Most of the components are polyethylene and polystyrene. The company outsources blow molded water bottles for some units, Roher said.

Lasko, of West Chester, Pa., also molds its own parts, at a plant in Franklin, Tenn. Lasko starting shipping its first Natural Cascade humidifiers in 1995. At the Chicago show, Lasko introduced a much bigger console model, able to hold 12 gallons of water and humidify 3,400 square feet.

``We feel that evaporative are really the best, the healthiest, humidifier. You're naturally putting out water at the rate it's needed,'' said Eileen Heller, Lasko marketing coordinator.

Holmes, of Milford, Mass., makes all types of humidifiers, including warm mist, ultrasonic and evaporative, using plastic parts molded in China, according to Heather Jones, product manager. Resins used include high-impact polystyrene, ABS and polypropylene.

``Over the past five years, there's been dramatic growth in the evaporative market,'' Jones said. ``The warm mist market is very strong as well.''