How does a dehumidifier know when to turn on and off? The one I bought from Sears doesn’t use the “wet-bulb/dry-bulb” method (of which I could use a better understanding, too). How does its on-off switch work? — JS, Amherst, NY
Most humidity sensing switches or “humidistats” use the expansion or contraction of certain materials to measure humidity. The more humid the air is, the more water molecules there will be in those materials and their shapes and sizes will be affected. For example, human hair becomes longer when wet and it makes an excellent humidity sensor. On a dry day, a hair will contain relatively few water molecules and its length will be shorter. On a humid day, the hair will contain more water molecules and its length will be longer.
A wet-bulb/dry-bulb system measures humidity by looking at the temperature drop that occurs when water evaporates. As water evaporates from the bulb of the wet thermometer and the bulb’s temperature drop, the rate at which water molecules leave the bulb’s surface decreases. The bulb temperature drops until the rate at which water molecules leave the bulb is equal to the rate at which water molecules return to the bulb from the air. At that point, there is no net evaporation going on. In humid air, water molecules return to the bulb more often so that this balance is reached at a higher temperature than in dry air. The wet bulb temperature is thus warmer on a humid day than it is on a dry day.