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.
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.
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.
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