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How to Achieve Humidity Control for Your Piano

How to Achieve the Ideal Humidity for Your Piano

There are a number of factors to consider when trying to determine and achieve the ideal humidity for your piano. First, where is the piano located in your house. Hopefully, it's on a main living level and not at or below grade. Basement situations are not ideal, although you can work with them.

The ideal situation for a piano is against an inside wall, away from heat sources and drafts, and with no sun falling directly on the case. Wood burning stoves in the room or nearby are a big no-no.

Recently, I have increasingly come across a resurgence of radiant heat situations. These are systems which rely on pipes installed under the floor to circulate hot water, the heat from which then rises to heat the rooms. There used to be a lot of these systems in my region, installed in slab houses in tracts all over Massachusetts. They all failed at some point and rather than dig up the concrete floors, people put in baseboard heat.

Now, it should stand to reason that the absolute worst way to heat a room with a piano in it is to create a situation where the piano cannot escape the rising heat. At least with baseboards or radiators, you can put the piano somewhere away from the heat flow. With radiant heat, there's no where to go. The rising heat will crack the soundboard, cause the pinblock to fail, and create a host of problems ranging from loose screws to unacceptable buzzes. Unfortunately, some piano dealers in my area haven't thought the implications through and are actually advising their customers that this is an acceptable heating source.

Having said all that, what should you do to keep the situation under control? Again, start with the humidity gauge or hygrometer. You need to know what you've got before you start doing anything. A safe range for most pianos is between 30%-50% RH (relative humidity). If you can keep your piano within this range without making any changes to the normal environment, you've got it made. If the humidity fluctuates beyond that range, you need to take corrective action.

Humidify for the Dry Season

Some folks have humidifiers on their furnaces. This can be a good thing, or it can lull you into a false sense of security. Many times these humidifiers do not function as advertised, or become disabled because they are not maintained properly. Again, put the humidity gauge in the room and verify what is real.

One of the best ways to achieve the optimum humidity is to address the issue on a whole room (if you can close the door) or a whole house basis. What's good for the piano will also be good for you. A too dry climate in your home will lead to nosebleeds in the winter and more colds.

You will need a large (5 gallon) console style humidifier, and will need to monitor the humidifier's hygiene or you will get mold growing in the machine which will then infect the air and the surfaces in the room. Again, 30% RH is good for the winter, slightly higher (up to 45%) is fine for the less cold times (Fall and Spring).

Dehumidify for the Damp Season

Remember that humidifying in the heating season is only half the battle. You must also address the times when the humidity gets over 50% RH. For that you will need either central air conditioning, a window air conditioner, or a dehumidifier.

It is not enough to have a dehumidifier in a damp basement if the piano is on a higher floor. The humidity control needs to take place where the piano is. And, of course, the air conditioner or dehumidifier has to be turned on.

Now I know that lots of folks don't use their air conditioners because they're trying to save on electricity, or perhaps they just want to tough it out, but your piano will suffer if you make that choice. The tuning will get quite funky (the middle of the soundboard rises, causing the middle of the piano to get sharp - making the top octaves compressed, which is not pleasant to listen to).

Aside from how bad your piano will sound, there are some rather severe structural changes which will occur: all the wood parts of the piano will swell, causing the wood fibers to become compressed; after only a very few cycles of expansion and contraction, the wood can no longer recover and you will get the dreaded soundboard cracks, the loose tuning pins, the loose and buzzing screws, the shifting parts that rub each other and won't play, ivories popping off the keys, veneer becoming detatched from the case... you get the picture.

A Solution for All Seasons

I do have a suggestion for all-season humidity control which doesn't involve such close monitoring of the relative humidity in the room.

I like the Dampp Chaser Piano Life Saver as a solution for most in-home and institutional settings. In the 15 or so years that I have been installing these systems, it has always helped the piano stay in better tune - sometimes so much so that the piano owners didn't think the piano needed to be tuned - ever! Pianos which have loose tuning pins are now able to hold a tuning for long enough that the owners can actually enjoy their pianos, instead of listening for the clangers.

When a woodburning stove or a fireplace is in close proximity, I suggest using the Dampp Chaser, as well as adding a room humidifier. If the piano is sitting on top of a radiant heat source, or must be located very near a baseboard or other heat vent, I recommend the Dampp Chaser with their undercover (for grands) or backcover (for upright pianos), as well as the room humidifier.

For more information, check out their website at: http://www.pianolifesaver.com/english/home.php

Elizabeth Atkins
rev. 11-29-13


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