Hazers – Oil or Water Based? – The Ultimate Guide

By David / a couple of years ago

Let’s just start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Haze is cool.

Theatrical Haze GuideHazers are really cool.  If you want one way to really spice up your stage lighting, haze is the way to go!  Besides having a good console, haze is the best way to take your show to the next level without spending an arm and a leg.

However, there is a ton of confusion about haze, how it works, if it sets off fire alarms, and if it’s safe to breathe.

I know many of you are also looking to get better looking haze than what they already have.

Perhaps you own a hazer, but it looks more like a cloud of smoke than a concert tour.  Or maybe it all gets sucked away into the air vents, and you wonder what possessed you to buy the darn thing.

Whatever your situation, sit back, relax and read on as we dive into the many facets of haze and what you need to know, separating the facts from mythology!

Haze vs. Fog

Lighting Beams

This is what fog looks like – a cloud of smoke!

When it comes to atmosphere for live production, there are 3 types of atmospheres that you can generate.

The first is fog, which is covered right here.  Fog is a lower, thicker lying atmosphere that doesn’t give anywhere near the same effect as haze, and isn’t designed as the type of effect you’d run all night long.  Fog is more of a thick cloud of smoke than the smooth, air-like atmosphere like haze that we all love.

So, for today, we’re going to focus on haze – breaking it up between water-based and oil-based because they are the 2 most common types of hazers out there.

Haze is designed to create a thin layer of atmosphere over the entire room which you are performing in.  However, you don’t get there in 5 minutes.

Haze is a slower process, and hazing a room can take 30 minutes or more, with your hazer likely running non-stop, or at least on and off periodically to maintain the thickness you’re striving for during your show.

Water Based Hazers

The first type of haze is water-based.

This haze is made by heating up a water based fluid and shooting it through a nozzle out of the machine.  Compared to oil-based hazers, these units have to heat up before they are ready to go, and they also have a cool-down process where they occasionally seep out small clouds of haze.

So, unlike fog or oil-based haze, you can’t simply turn “off” the hazer and expect a 100% stop on a dime!  Water-based hazers also use a bit more fluid than oil-based, so you’ll expect to use 1/2 to a full bottle every night.

The exact amount of fluid used will depend on how heavy and how long you run the hazer, as well as what model you are using.  Since water-based haze has larger particles than oil-based, you naturally need more fluid to keep things going, and the particles dissipate into the air within a few minutes.

The upside to this heater design is that the water based hazer is nearly silent as it runs.

Water Based Haze in Action

Thanks to Incase on Flickr.

Though I don’t like water based haze as much as oil, it does have its place.

In a long-term situation, like an installed venue or church, oil based haze will find its way into all surfaces, nooks and crannies of your equipment and rooms, and can be a pain to clean up if you use a thick haze constantly.

Water-based haze on the other hand, is easy to clean up, and the fluid doesn’t make a mess on and around the hazer itself, making it easy to place anywhere without worry or much planning.

Oil Based Hazers

Oil based hazers make that lovely haze that is uniform, not cloudy, and hangs nearly forever.  It is the choice of professionals for nearly all music tours, special events and theater.  Not to mention it is also nicer with fire alarm systems as well (more on that below).

Oil hazers produce haze by pushing a mineral oil fluid through a compressor and out of the unit.  The compressor doesn’t have to heat up, it is ready to go from the instant you turn it on.  The oil also hangs in the air much better – nearly forever in a motionless room!

On the downside, the compressor sounds like a small air compressor – it’s not always the quietest thing, so this isn’t your choice for a quiet theatrical show!

Some oil hazers, like the popular DF-50, are a bit on the loud side for small venues, but the American DJ Haze Generator and others are much quieter and still have great output.  I’ve personally used the American DJ Haze Generator, and find it to be the best affordable hazer on the market.  I’ve yet to have a problem.

Photo by givikat on Flickr.

Oil Based Haze Photo by givikat on Flickr.

Not only are they quieter, but oil-based hazers also are better on fluid consumption than water-based hazers.  You’ll find that most oil hazers will go weeks before needing to be refilled with a new bottle of fluid, offering a huge savings!

I can think back to a conference I did recently where the hazer ran 12+ hours a day for a weekend.  I only refilled the hazer once!

Like I said above, oil-based hazers will leave an oily residue on anything that is left close by.

So keep moving lights, amp racks, and anything with cooling fans a good distance away from your oil-based hazer, and you’ll be great!

If you use oil-based haze without going overboard in thickness, you’ll find that it will take a very long time before you notice any residue on your gear – especially with newer hazers that are getting better and better!  While there are upsides and downsides to both types of hazers, I usually recommend oil-based to anyone who is searching for a hazer, unless they frequent venues that don’t allow them.

My favorite oil-based hazer is the American DJ Haze Generator.  It has the output of the classic DF-50, with a very small price.  Check it out here!

Hazer Direction and Control

When it comes to sizing your hazer, you generally have a few choices.  Water based hazers tend to come in small or large sizes, and oil-based hazers are typically just big.

Sizing a hazer can be really tough, especially if you play different venues.

Your first concern is the size of the room.  A small hazer, like this unit by Chauvet is perfect for rooms up to 400 people.  I’ve used it a bunch, and I highly recommend it!

Rock Band Lighting Design

Photo Credit: Sergiu Bacioiu via Compfight cc

However, there’s not a golden rule to follow.  Even in a small room, the HVAC can suck away all of your haze in an instant when it turns on.  Every venue is different.

Experiment with the placement of your hazer and see how the AC system moves your haze around.  Usually, you can find a great spot to place your hazer that works with your AC system to distribute the atmosphere evenly.  :)

This magic spot is usually straight across the stage from the main return vent for your AC system.  This is what we’re going for, and will give you a great, haze-filled show or service!  Not every venue will have this issue…and in some venues you’ll be able to stick your small hazer just about anywhere and get a good, thoroughly-hazed look without a lot of effort!

Every hazer setup needs a proper fan to guide the haze.  Any old box fan or similar will work, as long as it moves the air.  You’ll want to set it next to the hazer and guide the haze out of the unit and up into the air towards the beams of light.

Make sure you don’t place the fan in front of the hazer – while it will spread the haze, you’ll end up with a fan that is dripping in haze fluid – and that’s just not fun to take home at the end of the night!

If a small hazer doesn’t cut it, you’ve got a couple of options.  The first is that, if you have the problem of a “hazeless spot” on one side of the stage or another that you can’t get rid of, you can go ahead and get a second small hazer.

But if the small hazer is just too small for the room, it’s time to upgrade to a bigger hazer.  I highly recommend Chauvet’s newer Hurricane 3D hazer, which has twice the output of the old model,  and looks really good!

Is Haze Safe to Breathe?

One of the top concerns I hear from folks about hazers is the safety of the air that is hazed up.  This is totally understandable, as it looks like smoke, and we all need to be careful about what we let into our bodies.

But I’ve got to leave this one to the professionals.  The Broadway Actors Equity report is the full scientific and medical study that the actors union did to check the safety of theatrical haze.

If you have the time to read it, it’s very deep and complex.  If not, here’s a quick summary: Haze is safe to use for theatrical performances.   Some folks may seem to have a reaction to haze, but that is purely psychological.  While you can technically get haze thick enough to cause a physical reaction, you have to practically be drinking the fluid for that to happen – way thicker than you’d ever want your haze to be!

Oil or water-based, is does not matter.  Both are safe to use and enjoy.  And if you have problems with folks complaining, print out a copy of the report for them to read and see what conclusion they come up with.  :)

Fire Alarms

The last concept I want to touch on is the world of fire alarms.

While water based hazers are more likely to set off fire alarms, every fire alarm system is different.  If you have beam type detectors, for example, most hazers will set off the alarm system.

Other types of alarms will be set off by different levels of haze.  The only real way to be safe is to work with your alarm company and local fire department to figure out what is the best practice for using haze.

Many localities will help you to work with you alarm company to turn your alarms to silent, allowing a staff member to monitor the alarms, and make sure there are no real fires.  Some venues will allow you to use haze without shutting off the alarms because they know it won’t cause problems.

Never, ever disable your fire alarms or turn them to silent without the blessing of your fire department.  This is how people die every year and tragedies happen.

If you are playing a venue where concerts are a regular part of their lineup, it’s likely that haze is acceptable – but always ask before you turn on your hazer.

And of course, if you’re outdoors, haze is all A-Ok!  You just might need an extra hazer or 2 to keep up with the wind, so it may not be practical for you.