“Ask James” – Humidity Control for Your Piano

James,

I have a Steinway grand piano and my technician told me to add a humidifier to it or the soundboard would crack.  He offered to install one for $600.  Is this a good idea?  Do I need it?  I know he’s selling something, but he’s got me scared that my Steinway is going to be ruined if I don’t put the humidifier on it right away!  Help!

-Linda (Student of PIE Teacher, Carole Browning)

I have spent all of my professional life in one river town or the other and I am very familiar with this scenario.  …but before I answer Linda’s question directly, allow me to take a second to explain her technician’s concern.

hygrometer

Use a simple hygrometer to measure humidity in your room.

Most decent pianos are built from a combination of metals and organic materials.  Wood makes up around 85% of the organic materials and, thus, pianos tend to be susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.  When a piano gets overly humid, wood expands – causing the piano to push itself out of tune.  When a piano dries out, its wood components contract.  This relaxes string tension and causes the piano to fall out of tune.  Because of its porous nature, unprotected wood can expand up to 6 inches during a warm/wet season or crack from extreme cold or dryness.  As the thinnest and most sensitive wooden part of a piano’s construction, the soundboard is especially vulnerable to damage from these changes.  It’s also a very costly part to fix or replace.

With that in mind, I can see why Linda’s tech might be worried.  However, while most major piano companies recognize the benefits of humidity control systems in cases of extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity, none advocate the inclusion of a humidity control system on every piano they make (That is why they don’t build them into their pianos at the factory.). 

I have spoken with technical representatives from every major piano brand and they make the following suggestions:

  • Before purchasing a humidity control system for your piano, purchase a hygrometer (available at Gist or any Radio Shack for $20 – $40) and test your piano’s living conditions.
  • Many modern home heating/cooling systems include humidity control.  Make sure yours is working properly if you have one.
  • To prevent excessive dryness, use appropriate window coverings, leafy plants and – where necessary – an in-room humidifier.
  •  To prevent excessive moisture, avoid sudden dramatic temperature changes, keep windows closed during cloudy or rainy days and – if necessary – use an in-room dehumidifier.
  •  If – and only if – all of these methods fail to produce a stable environment for your piano, consider the installation of humidity control system.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask?  Why not just install them on every piano and be done with it?  Steinway & Sons’s Technical Director, Kent Webb, said it best:  “Installing a humidity control system on a piano that doesn’t need one is like giving a patient medicine when he’s perfectly healthy.  You can create a problem where one doesn’t exist.”  By “over-controlling” the humidity around our pianos, we can cause the very soundboard damage, pin-block cracks, rust and tuning trouble we’re trying to prevent.

Humidity Control System

Grand Piano Humidity Control System

We expect reputable technicians, mechanics or medical professionals to provide us with data that indicates a logical course of action.  You’d never accept a strep throat diagnosis without an examination or a recommendation to replace your transmission without a checkup.  If your technician recommends a humidity control system for your piano, require him/her to show you the hygrometer readings he’s taken in your home before you give your “ok.”  If you’re ready to buy a new piano, don’t allow the company you’re buying it from to install a humidity control system without taking the necessary readings (Some piano companies will offer to “throw in” a “free” system.  This is a ploy to get you to purchase a piano.  It is not a legitimate attempt to protect your investment.  Instead, ask for an equivalent discount on the piano since the company you’re buying it from won’t have to pay for the system and its installation – or wait to purchase the instrument until the company has done the proper testing in your space.)

Make an informed decision about humidity control for your piano.  Don’t rush to treat an illness that your piano doesn’t have.  It’s not about the money – it’s about your piano’s long-term well-being.

Have something you’d like to “Ask James?”  Submit your piano question to jharding@gistpianocenter.com and I’ll answer it on The Gist Piano Blog.

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62 thoughts on ““Ask James” – Humidity Control for Your Piano

  1. Vannessa

    Hello, James:

    Greetings from Santa Monica, California, and thank you for providing this wellspring of information. We are in the process of purchasing a Yamaha C1 and we live 2 blocks from the beach; close enough that we hear the ocean waves at night when the City is quiet. We get a lot of marine layer in the mornings, and we do notice our apartment feeling noticeably humid on summer days (65+). We love fresh air so we keep many windows open, and you can definitely feel the sea breeze. We do not have air conditioning and we do not have heating. Our living space is pretty open with the living room blending into the dining room and kitchen. The piano will be placed in the living room where the window is never opened and does not get direct sunlight. We have a balcony sliding door in the dining room that we keep mostly open in the summer months and it is about 27 feet from where the piano will be. Because of our proximity to the ocean the dealer/technician did recommend a humidity control system. I know you’ve recommended a hygrometer and I will go ahead and monitor the area where the piano is to be placed, but I was just wondering if our proximity to the ocean is enough to recommend the installation of the humidity control system. Also, the dealer/technician is charging a fee of $200 (he said he’d just charge for the part, and not the labor) — why does that seem a low price to me?

    Thank you in advance for your time and kind offer of advice.

    With every best wish,
    Vannessa

  2. James Harding Post author

    Hello, Vannessa! I’d LOVE to see photos of your house. It sound GORGEOUS! Hahaha. As for the piano, I do think the summer months might be a bit rough on it. Think of the piano as a dry sponge. When you drop some water on it, it expands and when it dries out too much, it can get brittle and crack. If your piano regularly gets 65% or more of humidity, that’s not a terrible thing. The problem comes when the air dries out and then gets moist again, etc. It’s the fluctuation that would worry me – especially with open windows and doors. That said, I’d go ahead and monitor the space to be safe… but I’d also ask your tech what is included in the “humidity control” system. Is it JUST the dehumidifier? If so, the $200 price makes sense. If it’s both a dehumidifier and a humidifier, that is too low of a price. Make sure he’s using the Dampp Chaser brand and the system he is putting on is new. (Never put an old system on a new piano. You never know what bacteria might be in there, etc.) In short, if you trust your technician, I’d definitely follow his advice. …but I think you’re wise to make sure you understand every detail of what he’s planning to put on your piano. Best of luck! -James

  3. Lauren

    Hi James!

    Thank you for your post! It has been very informative. I am located in the Houston area and work with a company that had 3 upright pianos on a ground floor during the flooding and Hurricane Harvey. While none of the pianos were damaged, there was water on the floor and we are very concerned about the humidity and potential damage to the pianos. We are getting a hygrometer, but I would love to hear your thoughts about temporarily using a dehumidifier to compensate for the irregular amount of water from the storm..

    Thanks!
    Lauren

  4. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Lauren! Thanks for your question. I am so sorry to hear about your piano troubles. I am sure you folks are really going through it down there! I would certainly use a dehumidifier in your case – at least until the ambient humidity levels return to normal. Even after you “dry” carpet, the air can remain humid for days – even weeks. It’s always better to be safe! Good luck down there. We are all rooting for you!

  5. Barbara

    ifHi James,
    I supplement with wood heat in the winter. My grand piano is about 10 feet from stove. I keep a kettle of water on stove when fired up. What is the optimum humidity for the piano? I’m thinking a humidifier would be useful if humidity drops to low. How close to piano should humidifier be placed?

  6. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Barbara! Great comment. You’re not alone. Lots of folks are supplementing with wood heat in the winter and that can dry out a room even faster. The kettle of water will help, but the immediate concern I have is that your piano isn’t getting too warm from its proximity to the stove. Put your hand on the piano (side facing stove). If it is noticeably hotter than the side that faces away from the stove, you might want to move it a bit. As for the humidity situation, I agree that a whole-room humidifier would really help. It just needs to be in the same room with the piano. I wouldn’t but it next to the piano – just in the room with it so the humidity has time to mix with the air and stabilize. Stability is the key! Thanks and good luck!

  7. Claudia Kirschner

    Hi James,
    My Name is Claudia. I just came across your website on my search for a good humidifier for my baby grant that I will get next week. I purchased a kawai baby grant GE-1. I’m exited and scared at the same time. First, I never owned such a precious piece of an instrument and second I do not want to destroy it. So my first question is about a good in room humidifier. I do not want to put one into my piano. Is there a brand you could recommend? I read much about a Venta humidifier, a German company. Second, and for this i might have to send you some pictures. It will be placed in a large room with a very large window. The question is, is this a good place or should I stay away from it?

  8. James Harding Post author

    Hello, Claudia, and congrats on your new piano! I’ll address your last question first. The large window you spoke of – which direction does it face? If it’s an East-facing window that gets a tremendous amount of sunlight through it, you might consider a different location for your piano (or some pretty hefty window coverings). Direct sunlight shining on your piano creates heat that can damage the instrument over time (and ruin its tuning stability). If the window doesn’t get much sun, you should be alright. As for the humidifier, I only have three rules: 1 – Make sure the humidifier is big enough for your room. Don’t get one that’s too small and think that putting it close to the piano will work. 2 – Get a COOL water/mist humidifier. Warm water units can grow bacteria, etc. 3 – Make sure you CLEAN it and change the filters regularly. If you follow these three rules, you should be ok. I don’t have a specific brand recommendation. Good luck with your new piano and thanks for finding us online!

  9. Gabriel

    Hi James,

    I just moved here to Lake Forest, CA last year and I have noticed high humidity most of time in the house with the hygrometer ( placing it on top of my grand Steinway) reaching to mostly on high 65 (weeks) and few days of low on 30-40 (days). Now I’m just using the regular humidifier but since the piano is in a very open area (formal living is open to dining, family room and kitchen with half of stairs-split level), it’s constantly running and it’s costing a lot on my electric bills. It’s a 70 pint dehumidifier and I need to dump water out twice a day! This is the second year we are here and I’m noticing my keys starting to stick. Currently the dehumidifier is under my grand piano setting at 50, but the hygrometer on top of my piano is still showing 57. I’m seriously looking into purchasing the dampp chase for my piano but was wondering since the air around the entire areas are so high in humidity. Is the dampp chaser really going to work? And by looking at the diagram of how they install the piano life saver for grand …it’s simply putting under the piano, not really inside the piano, just under the soundboard. It’s really hard to believe that it’s going to work with such a high level of humidity outside the piano almost all of the time. And on top of that, I do not want to invest on this and found out that my keys are still sticking. And one more thing, the technician that I currently using told me the price to install is $600-700. And with just the dehumidifier is $100 less?? What is actually the correct price overall? I might have to search for another technician. Lastly is there a downside of getting the dampp chaser?

    Desperate to hear from you!
    Thanks!

  10. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Gabriel, and thank you for contacting us! I can certainly sense the frustration in your voice. …and rightfully so. It sounds like you really do have a humidity problem in your home. Ideally, Steinway would like to see their pianos sitting in a relatively constant humidity of 40-60%. This is a real challenge for some climates and it sounds like you might need a larger dehumidifier to help manage this. You might check with your HVAC person and get a price for adding a dehumidifier system to your house. If that is too pricey, the only other suggestion I have is to add a second dehumidifier to the room. I know that is twice the work for you, but it’s the best way to keep your piano in a comfortable environment. The Dampp Chaser system is designed to protect the piano’s soundboard. It does that pretty well, but it has little impact on the piano’s action. …and you’d have to drain the water out of it as well. In this situation, I don’t think it would work well for you. (I also think the price they are charging you for it is a bit high. I would expect the full system to be $500-$600 personally. The dehumidifier should be quite a bit less. If you decide to pursue that, you might want to check around. As for a downside to having a Dampp Chaser, the only thing that comes to mind is the extra work. You have to clean the system from time to time, you have to use a special pad treatment solution every time you add water and you have to replace the pads from time to time (on the humidifier part). The dehumidifier alone is quite a bit less maintenance, but I don’t know that it will do much for those sticky keys. I’d hate for you to spend the money and find out the system isn’t helping you. As always, the best approach is a whole-room approach. If you can do that, you’ll be happier and so will your piano. Best of luck!

  11. Anna

    Hi James

    I am in Peterborough Ontario. We have extremes of everything. Winters are very cold and indoor humidity has to be 30% to keep ice from forming on windows. Summers are hot and humid and even with room dehumidifier, humidity is anywhere from 65-75%. I have a very old working player piano on an outside wall, 4 feet from sliding door which faces north. Am not concerned about sunlight from sliding door as it faces north and I have blinds to keep hot sun out in summer. Outside wall, well, no other place for the piano and I think the house is reasonably well insulated. Problem is humidity. Do you think a humidity control system for the piano is worthwhile? I currently have the piano tuned twice a year, summer and winter, but it seems to go out of tune a lot sooner in the winter.

    Thanks

  12. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Anna! Thanks for your question. Based on what you’re telling me, I’d definitely recommend a humidity control solution for you. Of course, I prefer a whole-home (or whole-room) solution like a humidifier system on your HVAC or an in-room humidifier. Those will better protect your entire piano. If neither of those are practical, though, the humidity control system on your piano will certainly help. Good luck! -James

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