“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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78 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

  13. John

    James,
    I have a second piano (upright) Sterling 1911. I am in the process of having some work done to it, action regulated and tuning. I have this piano out on the patio. I understand this is not the ideal spot for a piano, my piano repairman questions my intentions. I am is So. Calif. where the weather is not harsh. What are your thoughts regarding a climate control device?

  14. James Harding Post author

    Hi, John! I had someone from San Diego recently email me with a similar question. Let me be clear – the ONLY piano that can survive outdoors is a digital piano (and, of course, even that must be protected from the weather). ANY acoustic piano will suffer tremendously from the daily fluctuations in temperature and humidity it experiences in Nature. If you love your piano, bring it inside. Otherwise, the money you are spending on regulation and tuning is wasted – as would the money you’d spend on a humidity control system (They don’t work outdoors). …and even if you put one on, all it would do is protect the soundboard. It wouldn’t help with key warping, tuning stability, action regulation, etc. Pianos just aren’t meant to be outside. Sorry!!

  15. Maureen Koppenaal

    Hi John,
    One evening my husband and I heard loud popping sounds in our living room. Not knowing what they were, we assumed it might be the pipes knocking. NO! It was the sound of my spruce soundboard cracking on my 4 four-year-old upright piano which I purchased new from a world-renowned piano manufacturer. There were five major cracks. THe manufacturer acknowledged this was an extraordinary circumstance and immediately offered to replace it. Problem: We are terribly concerned about proper humidity. Being more of an intermediate player now, I want to buy up to a better model, which requires a $6,000 investment over what we already paid, but we were advised to first get the humidity in check. We live in an average size two bedroom apartment in NJ where we do not control the heat. We are also gone away two months in the summer, ao the air conditioner is not on during those months. The piano is against a wall at the opposite side of the radiator. We currently have a small two-gallon humidifier on a table near the piano, but apparently it is not enough. enough because the humidity, as registered on my hygrometer, can fall into the high teens.

    My piano is a prized possession and I want to protect it.
    Steinway does NOT suggest a Dampp Chaser.

    What can you suggest?

  16. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Maureen, and thank you for your question. I am sorry to hear about your upright piano (which – I am going to assume – has a brand name that starts with E and is well-known for having problems like this). I am also sorry that I have really bad news for you: The only piano that is going to live happily and safely in your home environment is a digital piano. Acoustic pianos REQUIRE constant climate control – whether you are out for the summer or not. I would especially recommend you don’t let the manufacturer find out that you leave the air off for two months every summer. They may not replace the piano! Just like the piano MUST be tuned regularly to remain in top playing condition, it MUST be kept in a constant temperature and humidity environment whether you are playing it daily or not. Otherwise, you’re doomed to repeat this same experience with the more expensive piano in a few years. Time to make some hard decisions. Either put some Boston ferns in the piano room along with a larger humidifier and make sure they are meticulously watered and maintained during the winter months AND KEEP THE AIR ON ALL SUMMER (you can lower the setting 10 degrees or so for the two months you’re gone, but you can’t turn it off) or learn to love playing digital pianos. …or find a new place to live? Pianos are made of wood and – just like dry sponges – they can crack, expand or contract based on your apartment’s climate. There’s no getting around it, sadly. Best of luck to you! – James (not John) 🙂

  17. Brett

    Hi James,
    Thank you for all the excellent advice you are giving. I have a Pearl River Baby Grand piano in my living room. I live in Denver, CO where the air is notoriously dry. I bought a hygrometer and have been trying pretty hard to keep the humidity between 45 to 50% by using a humidifier in the room. Unfortunately, we live in a very old house with no air conditioning and I am worried about the temperature changes in the summer. The house will heat up during the day and occasionally reach 80 degrees. At night we open the windows to air out the house and the temp will usually drop to about 60 degrees. Is this 20 degree temperature shift going to ruin the piano even if I stay diligent with keeping a good humidity in the room? I know that it is bad for keeping the piano in tune but is there any structural damage to the piano I should be worried about? Thanks in advance for your reply.

  18. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Brett, and thanks for your question. Yes, if your piano is experiencing 20 degree fluctuations on a daily basis, you can be certain that structural damage is in your future. Specifically, the piano’s soundboard is made out of very thin wood and it is not designed to withstand that kind of variance. In addition, Pearl River pianos are inexpensive “starter” pianos. They don’t use premium woods (often “green” woods) and they are especially susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. Your best bet is to put a window air unit in the room with your piano and try to do a better job stabilizing your home’s climate. Otherwise, I can recommend some very nice Roland digital grand pianos that will be better for you long-term. …and I would make a decision quickly – before things start to crack. Best of luck to you!

  19. Daniel

    Dear James,

    my Steinway model k just turned to be 100 years old. Now a Steinway technician recognized that the humidity at our home is with 28% in the winter months extremely dry. That also caused problems with the keyboard and mechanics. An external humidity control systems we have just installed seems not to help as the rooms are high and open.

    What do you recommend?

    Regards
    Daniel

  20. James Harding Post author

    Hello, Daniel, and thank you for your question. 28% is pretty dry during the winter months, but the more important question is: How much does that humidity level fluctuate? Does it stay at 28% through most of the winter? If so, just put a floor humidifier near your piano, put a couple of Boston ferns in the room and you should be good. If it jumps from 28% to 50% to 18%, etc on a regular basis, then you need to contact the people who installed your humidity control systems and make sure they are working properly. It’s normal to be closer to 30-40% humidity in the winter and 50-60% humidity in the summer… but it is NOT good if the piano gets too dry (less than 30%) or if there is a regular vacillation between more humid air and dryer air. Best of luck!

  21. Daniel

    Thanks for your fast reply James

    Humidity is not fluctuating in the winter months and stays constantly around 28% and 30%. In summer it goes up and stays constantly around 40%.

    What I meant by humidity control system is a large floor humidifier. But due to our homes construction and room layouts it did not help at all (even though it should based on the manufacturer’s recommendation).

    The Stainway technician thus recommends to put a humidity control system directly into the piano, as other measures did not show any effects.
    I am not sure about it.

    Is it better for the piano to do so in my case instead of leaving everything like it is?

  22. James Harding Post author

    Thank you, Daniel. While the air in your room might be a bit too dry during the winter, the fact that it does not fluctuate is very important. I would recommend adding a second large floor humidifier to the room. The piano humidity control system will do little to protect the piano’s action or to maintain it’s tuning stability. If the second humidifier doesn’t help, then you may have to move your piano to a smaller room or put a humidity control system on it. Best of luck!

  23. Barbara Becker

    Dear James,

    I am in a dilemma! Several excellent technicians over time have tuned my piano but not to my satisfaction and lately I feel the keyboard is un-stable, un-balanced and some notes are very irritating! Some have a ‘buzz’, some a metallic quality – and they just leap out at you when depressed.

    I live east of San Francisco in a very dry climate year round. The piano’s keyboard, because there is no other place in this condo, faces the front door and is exposed to the opening/closing of the time from time to time. And during winter, the temperature in the room fluctuates because of the cold temperatures. My question: will a piano humidifier be helpful in stabilizing the climate of the piano and maintaining the pitch of the notes?

    I would appreciate any help you can offer for my Yamaha C-7

  24. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Barbara. Unfortunately, I think you’re in for more trouble with that piano. Even if you install the humidity control system, ALL it will do is protect your piano’s soundboard from humidity-related cracking and distortion. This will help in a minor way with tuning, but it will not protect your piano from temperature changes or the draft from your door. Certainly, if your climate is very dry, I’d recommend a whole-room humidifier to keep the air in the piano room as close to 50% moisture content as possible… but it sounds like the other problems you’re having will continue as long as you have door draft and constant temperature variances in that room. Stability is the key! Best of luck to you!

  25. P

    What humidity range and temperature range (if any) can a piano dammp chaser system control? Or is there another recommended piano humidity control brand? Reading the other comments it seems that it only protects the sound board and not the action parts to help keep tunning? I noticed your suggestion of Boston Ferns? Their purpose and placement relative to the piano? About windows that have some direct sunlight – are there automatic window blinds that can be installed to regulate up and down accordingly? Recommendation on brands? Our location is Chicago area, older radiant water heat and tall ceiling older home and the ability to regulate humidity and temperature. Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

  26. James Harding Post author

    Hi, P. Thanks for your questions. I can tell you that the Dampp Chaser system strives to keep your piano around 45% relative humidity. If properly maintained (the system requires water, water treatment, humidifier pads, electricity, regular cleaning, etc.), the system will protect your piano’s belly (soundboard, strings, etc.). It is the humidity control brand recommended for pianos. The Dampp Chaser website claims that the system can help keep a piano in tune, but my experience says otherwise. First of all, few people maintain the system properly. Secondly, the system is in the belly of the piano and doesn’t have as much affect on the tuning pins and small action parts inside the piano. Don’t get me wrong – in a church or school where “whole-room climate control” is impossible, I recommend a Dampp Chaser system (so do most piano manufacturers). However, most piano manufacturers recommend a “whole-room climate control” solution. Placing some Boston Ferns in the room with a piano can help provide “whole-room” humidity in dry situations. A whole-room humidifier can be a big help if you get the right size humidifier and properly maintain it. Keeping pianos away from windows and out of direct sunlight is critical (whether you use a special window glaze or blinds, etc.). …but the first step always is to purchase a hygrometer and study the conditions in your house. Let it go for 3 months and see what kind of variance you’re getting in your home. If you tend to run dry… add a humidifier and some ferns. If your air tends to be more humid, run a dehumidifier. Balance and consistency are the keys. Try to keep within the 40%-60% range year-round. Good luck!

  27. Greg Pierce

    James, I have a Mason-Hamlin, built in the 1920’s. Beautiful sound presently. Need to move it to the Central coast of California (Cayucos) and unfortunately must put it into our new double garage which is fully insulated and protected from sun light. We do not store cars in the garage so the doors will only be open during pleasant days. I will be storing all my musical instruments(guitars, amps, sound systems) in the room plus it is going to be a practice room. Because this is the only place the piano fits into our house, I have no alternative choice to store it and play it. That said, will supplying a Dampp-chaser System into the baby grand, plus a heavy duty-quilted cover (extended to the floor), plus a room humidifier and ferns (ha) in the garage be a reasonable answer to climate control and piano protection. This is terrible thing to do to my “baby” but, at this point, I have no other alternatives. Please consider my problem and the “plan” for protection. Thanks very much. Greg

  28. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Greg! I am sorry to hear about your situation and, frankly, I have dire concerns about your plan. Does your garage have climate control? If not, the temperature variations alone will destroy your wood instruments over time – especially if you plan to open the garage doors at all. Pianos are indoor instruments. If you’re going to put it in the garage, you’re FAR better off exchanging it for a digital piano (that is designed to withstand temperature and humidity differences). This is why TV shows like The Voice and American Idol use digital pianos. There is no way to keep an acoustic instrument in tune outdoors or under hot stage lights. It’s impossible. In addition, the instrument will burn through its lifespan very quickly in a poor climate-control environment. The Dampp Chaser system will help protect the soundboard, your humidity control plan is solid (as long as you don’t open the doors on “pleasant days”)… but you need temperature control as well. I hate to be the Bad News guy here… but I’d hate to make you think this situation is going to work well for your piano. I really don’t think it’s going to be ok in the garage. They just aren’t designed for that. Thanks for the question and best of luck!

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