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On some of our furnace ducts, there is a switch/valve for Summer/Winter or S/W.

  • What does changing this switch/lever accomplish?
  • Can bad things happen if I forget to switch it?
  • Bonus question: Pictured below, an Aprilaire humidifier control unit also has W/S written on it. Is this related?

Furnace ducts with S/W switch

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I assume you are in a cold climate, like Minnesota (where I am). I will address your question in three parts; the first two have to do with the humidifier.

  1. The "winter" setting on the duct in your photo: It appears from the photo that the duct in question goes from your humidifier around to the return (intake) side of your furnace's ducting. This needs to be open in the winter to allow the humidifier to function, but closed in summer. If you leave it closed in winter, then your humidifier will have almost no effect. If you leave it open in summer, then your A/C's efficiency will be reduced.

  2. The white control box in your photo is the controller for the humidifier. On mine, the knob settings are "off" and 1-7 (1=less humidity added to your house, 7=max humidity added). There is also a "test" setting past 7 that will turn on the water. Someone appears to have labeled yours with a "W" to indicate what they think is the best winter setting. If you leave this "off" in the winter, then your house may become uncomfortably dry. It should be set to "off" in the summer. There are no fans or other moving parts in your type of humidifier; there is a water valve that is either closed or open (the humidifier is on when water is running through it).

  3. If you have other ducts in your house that are labelled "winter," then those are probably just changing which rooms get the most air blown in. In my experience, people like to direct more heat into lower levels (e.g. basement) in the winter. (edit: Evil's response on this point is more complete).

  • I checked, and the Summer/Winter duct is indeed a bypass for humidified air (I assume this is because it would be bad for the furnace/filter to have humid air go through them). I don't know if I will turn on the humidifier though; it looks very ancient, and it at least needs a new water panel! – The Other Steven Mar 1 '13 at 15:19
  • Yes, humidifiers that use a foam pad to expose the water to evaporation, usually need to be cleaned and/or replaced every so many years. Usually dissolved minerals build up in the pad and reservoir. In the spring, shut it off, and soak and clean with vinegar to remove as much buildup as you can. If it gets too bad, buy a replacement for next season. – DaveM Jan 30 '18 at 3:01
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For the ducts, the setting indicates where you should set the switch based on the season. If your house has separate air return ducts on different floors or even multiple ducts on the same floor, changing the setting changes which ducts pull air from the house, allowing lower ducts to suck cold air out in the winter and higher ducts to suck hot air out in the summer.

This matters because air-flow more easily goes to where there's a space for it - so pulling OUT the hot air, which rises, in the summer means the cold air has room to move up, and the warm air that got pulled out of the room gets cooled. If you had low returns open in the summer, the cold air that comes in the room and settles to the floor gets sucked out again and the hot air that rises stays up top.

The humidifier settings, however, are likely to increase comfort based on the season. You want more humidification in the winter (which has drier air) and less in the summer cause hot muggy air sucks worse than hot air.

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