The Environment for Pianos
The environment in which the instrument lives.
A piano manufacturer does not know ahead of time in which kind of home a supplied instrument is going to reside. The manufacturer can therefore not take into account in detail the circumstances in which the instrument will dwell. However, in consultation with you, Guus van den Braak is able to do so! When moving home, the instrument will again be placed in a different climatic environment. In a nutshell, a piano or grand piano, that contains wood and metal, cannot adapt outside its surrounding. The adaptation will need to take place in its own environment. The first and foremost factor a piano owner needs to be concerned with is controlling the relative humidity.
Temperature and relative humidity (RH).
Wood and metal do have an inclination to expand and contract with higher and lower temperatures. The types of wood glue used these days are to some extent still sensitive to temperature changes, but pianos and grand pianos are able to cope with those temperature changes within certain tolerances. The danger lies not just only with changes in temperature but far more with the coherent humidity in the air.
The outside weather (air pressure, humidity and temperature) determines the amount of moisture in the air. Air does hold an absolute or actual amount of moisture. These amounts vary depending on the temperature and the pressure of the air at the time. As the temperature increases, the air expands and is then able to hold more moisture. Given that the air has an absolute amount of moisture in it, and that air is now warmer, due to its increased ability to hold more moisture, the air's RH is now lower because relative to the absolute amount of moisture it can now hold more. This results in a transfer of moisture from such porous materials as our skin and wood or the ground. This transfer of moisture will continue until the levels of moisture equalise. In reverse, as the air cools, its ability to hold that moisture decreases, increasing the RH and trying to unload the moisture it has into the porous materials such as wood or in the environment. If those materials can no longer take on more moisture, condensation will occur in some form or other.
Climates such as in South Australia, with extremely high and low humidity variations in their wet/dry or summer/winter seasons, are extremely damaging to pianos and can be disastrous or fatal to your instrument! The tensions in woods drying too rapidly are of such a nature that no structure is able to stand up against it. The wood will become warped and will crack. The wood will swell in a too humid environment and metals will oxidise, by which all sorts of parts can get jammed: sticking keys, noisy pedals, hinges and strings become rusted. Because different kinds of woods are incorporated, each with their own specific properties and ability to absorb moisture at a different rate, controlling the relative humidity is a very important matter.
The ideal RH in our home is 45%. Read on and find out why. EMC (Equilibrium Moisture Content) is a measure of the amount of moisture present in wood. This is directly affected by the RH of the air around the wood. As mentioned earlier, when RH increases, the air is trying to unload its moisture into anything that will soak it up, and wood is ideal. Even with a coating of varnish or paint, moisture in the air will still permeate into the cell structure of wood. The only way to prevent excessive moisture content in the soundboard, or the lack thereof, is to control the RH around the wood. Hence the need to use a Humidity Control System.
- The ideal EMC for wood within a piano is determined by most manufacturers to be 8%.
- To maintain an 8% EMC, an RH of 45% is required. The safest range of RH for wood is between 40% and 50%. RH swings within this range reduce the risk of destruction of the cell structure.
- If RH swings are beyond this range, the cell structure of wood becomes fatigued and starts to break down.
- Wood that has too high an EMC is soft and structurally weak because the cells are full of water. The acoustic properties are dampened, swelling causes stresses where it is glued together (like at the rim or by the ribs) resulting in fractured glue joints and compression ridges commonly seen in soundboards (which will split when they dry out too much).
- Too low an EMC creates the possibility of a brittle cell structure. This may be stronger than too high an EMC, but will result in splitting or cracking if pushed too far.
- Swings in EMC only exacerbate all of the above problems and speed up the process.
RH is measured with a natural hair or digital hygrometer. Accurate digital hygrometers cost around $600. Most digital and synthetic hair hygrometers seen in homes are grossly inaccurate and can be out by 25%, rendering them useless. Natural hair hygrometers should be calibrated for accuracy once a year. Place the hygrometer on top of a fully saturated sponge in a small, clear and sealed plastic bag for half an hour. The needle should point to 99%. If it doesn't, adjust the needle with the adjustable screw at the rear of the hygrometer. Dry the hygrometer of excessive water and hang it near the piano.
Relative Humidity & Air Conditioners
If the RH in the room drops below 45%, you need to add moisture to the room to bring it back to 45%. If the RH rises above 45%, you need to remove moisture from the room to bring it back to 45%. Your piano enters a real danger zone if the RH drops below 35% or is above 55%.
An evaporative air conditioner rises the humidity in a home to a rather high level and is unable to reduce the RH lower than 60%, which is outside the safe zone for pianos. It will swell the wood in your piano too much and will cause the strings to rust. A refrigerating air conditioner does the opposite. It removes moisture from the air in the home (and the wood in your piano) just as your fridge does. In fact, a refrigerating air conditioner turns your home into a giant fridge, only not as cold. The removed moisture from the air inside your home drips away outside your home near the air conditioner unit. If you place a carrot in a fridge, the carrot will loose moisture and will become as flexible as rubber.
On an already warm to hot and dry summer day with a very low humidity level, a refrigerating air conditioner will remove even more moisture from the air in your room and wood from your piano, which is extremely damaging to your piano because the wood dries out, shrinks and cracks. Air conditioners turn on and off to maintain a desirable temperature. When this temperature is achieved, the unit turns off, no matter what relative humidity is achieved. Heaters and ducted heating systems are also designed to give a comfortable temperature level, and are not designed to control relative humidity levels.
Pianos are primarily made of wood. Pianos go out of tune mainly due to RH fluctuations.
Humidifiers & Dehumidifiers
To keep the entire piano room (therefore also the entire piano) at an ideal constant and stable humidity of 45% and temperature of 220C all year round, as an art gallery would have, would be a complex and expensive set-up. This is not practical in case you go away for a period of time, would like to move the piano to another room or home, and this would result in a higher electricity bill.
Some people have a room humidifier, which can only raise the humidity level and cannot lower the humidity in the room if needed. Those noisy and unsightly room humidifiers are a lot of up-keep. They need refilling with water or emptying on a daily basis as the entire room is treated, and they take up space in your room. It is a messy time consuming business. You also need to constantly monitor it day and night with a hygrometer. If your hygrometer is inaccurate and the RH is too high in the room, the piano will be damaged, as rust will form on the strings, bridge-pins and tuning-pins, as well as the soundboard swelling too much. Tuning has then become a nightmare as the strings will not slide smoothly over friction points as they should, but will be stuck, causing major tuning issues and possible tuning instability.
In cold weather, room humidifiers can drive moisture into walls, causing mould growth, structural damage and an unhealthy environment in which to live. It is not an ideal and practical system. Never place jars filled with water into the bottom of your piano as it delivers too much moisture in one area in the piano and does a lot of permanent damage to the soundboard, bridges and strings. Do not place a light globe inside your piano either to remove excess moisture, as it will attract lots of insects and moths, which will devour all the expensive cloths and felts inside the piano. Neither will you be able to guess accurately enough to less than 5%, when to warm the air inside the piano or when to add moisture.
A Piano Climate Control System.
But, there is good news. Nowadays, with technology at our fingertips, we are able to deliver at a very reasonable price a safe, even and constant humidity level to your piano all year round. This very popular and effective system is installed inside your upright piano, or tucked away under your grand piano. It does not treat your entire room but your piano only. It is very effective, no matter what type of air conditioning or heating system you have. It is a humidifier/dehumidifier system that will prevent the wood of your piano from swelling or shrinking too much, prevents strings from rusting, and will keep your piano within the RH "safe zone." This Piano Life Saver System® has the advantage of being able to raise and lower the humidity level, is silent, out of sight, consumes very little power, prevents mould, and is automatic. You fill the reservoir about every 3 weeks, and it carries a 5 year warranty. Today, Piano Life Saver Systems® protect hundreds of thousands of pianos worldwide. This is not "smooth sales talk", but you should seriously consider the following:
The results of shrinking and swelling are:
- Pitch Instability. Your piano must have stable pitch to hold a tuning well.
- Cracking and Splitting of wooden parts, which brings costly repairs.
- Glue Failure throughout the piano, which also brings costly repairs.
The benefits are:
- The system Saves You Money by avoiding the extra expense of pitch adjust tuning. If your piano is too far "off-pitch", the tuner needs to adjust the string tension to achieve proper pitch before he/she can even begin to do a fine tuning. Pianos that have drifted radically off pitch will usually go out of tune quickly after they are tuned.
- The system Reduces Shrinking and Swelling of the soundboard, thus stabilizing the pitch.
- The system Reduces Shrinking and Swelling of the bridges. Rusty and/or loose bridge-pins will cause the quality of sound to deteriorate dramatically. False beating strings cannot be eliminated by tuning.
- The system Minimizes Tuning-Pin Movement which also helps stabilize pitch.
- The system Improves Keyboard Control noticeably.
- The system Prevents Rust on metal parts such as strings, tuning-pins, screws, and action mechanism parts from high humidity in upright pianos.
- The system Prevents Action Mechanism Parts from Becoming Loose or Tight, noisy and misaligned with other parts due to swelling and shrinking.
- The system Prevents Cloths and Felts from Absorbing Moisture or Drying Out too much. Moist hammer felts produce a dull sound, and hammer felts which are too dry produce a hard/ bright sound.
If you are not convinced that your valuable instrument warrants the protection mentioned above and have the "wait and see" approach, you may be shocked later when you find that your piano has serious damage, lost some tonal qualities, and is dramatically reduced in value and resale value. Most people have anti-corrosion/freeze in their car engine to protect it. A piano needs similar protection and can live for many decades if it receives total care, not partial care. Guus has seen soundboards, bridges and pin-blocks in very expensive, good quality pianos crack in a matter of 2 years.
A Piano Life Saver System® can prevent damage and maintain tuning stability in your piano! It prolongs the life expectancy of your instrument by many years. Major piano manufacturers such as Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Yamaha, Kawai, Schimmel, Blüthner, Fazioli, Mason & Hamlin, Pearl River, Petrof, Sauter, Seiler, Steingraeber, Baldwin, Hailun, agree on the benefits of a Piano Life Saver System® by Dampp-Chaser®.
Guus van den Braak is a qualified and registered installer of Piano Life Saver Systems®.
The Piano Life Saver System® consists of:
- A humidistat - This is the brain of the system, which senses whether the wooden parts of your piano are too moist or too dry.
- A dehumidifier - Which carries moisture away from your piano using air currents when humidity levels rise.
- A humidifier - Which moisturises the dry wood of your piano when the humidity drops below a pre-set safe relative humidity level.
- A light panel - Three LED lights will tell you the status of the system. The light panel can be fitted on the left or right and out of view.
- A water fill tube - A watering can, supplied with the system, fits the tube. An LED light will warn you when to fill the tank. The fill tube will be installed out of view.
Frequently Asked Questions.
1) My water light stays on all the time. Why?
Without sufficient electrolyte, the yellow low water light will blink continuously, even when the tank is full. You must (according to the label instructions) add one cap-full of Humidifier Treatment to each watering can to ensure there is adequate electrolyte in the Humidifier to support operation of the Low Water Warning Light and to prevent algae growth.
2) What water is best used in the System?
Water quality is very important. Tap, rain or bore water is poor quality water, even if it is filtered. The use of distilled (not demineralised) water is strongly recommended! Distillation produces very pure water. The use of distilled water will significantly reduce the build-up of mineral deposits on the pads and element. Distillation involves boiling the water and then condensing the vapour into a clean container, leaving solid contaminants behind. Demineralisation does not significantly remove uncharged organic molecules. Demineralised water is also known as deionised water. Demineralisation is a physical process, which uses specifically manufactured ion exchange resins, which bind to and filter out the mineral salts from water. The price of distilled and demineralised water is cheap and cost the same in supermarkets, yet distilled water is superior. Only Foodland and AGL sells it.
3) How often do the pads need to be changed in the humidifier?
The pads are an important element of the System. To ensure a properly functioning Humidifier, the pads should be changed at least once a year if distilled water is used, two or three times a year if other water is used. The pads become less effective with time due to calcification and algal growth. Without proper pad maintenance, the System is less effective and may even be useless! If the red light is flashing, it is warning you that the pads have totally failed and that the pads are long overdue for replacement. If you never let the pads become bad in the first place, you should never have a red light warning you. Pads are cheap.
Don't use the red light as the indicator to fill the tank. The pads will be dried out by the time the red light comes on. Nothing will degrade pads more quickly than periods of dryness. Refill the Humidifier as soon as the yellow Low Water Light is flashing.
The photo below vividly shows the excessive corrosive minerals on the pads and Smart Heater Bar rendering the System useless. The owner neglected the System and wrongly believed the use of filtered tap water to be suitable.
It is critical that all components are clean, in good working order and in their exact position for the System to work properly and effectively. Have your System checked and maintained by us at least once a year. It takes very little time to clean the tank, replace worn pads, and to check the correct operation of all components.
Replacement Humidifier Water Treatment and Humidifier pads are available from us.
- Other brands of humidifier treatment may contain acids, which can corrode strings and metal part in the piano. The use of other humidifier treatment will void the warranty of the Piano Life Saver System and may void the warranty of the piano manufacturer.
- Do not put salt in the Humidifier, as it is corrosive.
4) Water in my fill-tube is siphoning back out when filling. What's wrong?
The factory adjustment of the fill-tube in the Humidifier has been set to avoid water from the tank from flowing back. However, a little water will remain in the tube after filling. Lower the watering can with the tube still attached and let the water run back into the watering can so that no water drips on your floor. Hang the tube up neatly between the brackets provided.
5) How do I know the system is working?
If the piano is staying better in tune, the system is working. An alternative and more immediate way of telling is to feel the Dehumidifier Rod and the Humidifier Heater Bar. One or the other should be on. The Dehumidifier Rod will feel hot, the Humidifier Heater Bar just warm.
6) My yellow light won't come on at all. Why? It is a fairly new light.
If the water sensor probes that go into the Humidifier Tank are in fact submerged in water, the yellow Low Water Light should be off. If the water level has dropped below the ends of the probes, the yellow light should be on. If this is not the case, send us an email or call us.
7) How often should I fill my tank? I have been filling my tank every 3-4 days and I usually only have to fill it once every 3-4 weeks. What's wrong?
Probably nothing is wrong. What you are seeing is the result of going from one season the the next season; i.e. going from a period of high humidity to one of low humidity; or visa versa.
8) How much water do I put in the tank when my yellow light comes on?
Filling the provided watering can to the red line is sufficient for an upright and grand piano.
9) My Dehumidifier Rods stay on all the time and never turn off. Is there something wrong?
It's not very likely. This tells us that the humidity level in the piano is not getting down to the relative humidity level of the Humidistat preset by the factory; i.e., the ambient humidity level is constantly very high and/or there is not enough dehumidification capability installed in the piano.
10) How many pad changes does the replacement kit provide?
The kit contains 4 pads. There are therefore two changes in one kit.
11) How much electricity is used and what does it cost to run?
A two metre long (6'6") grand piano with a humidifying and dehumidifying system consists of one 38-watt dehumidifier, one 25-watt dehumidifier, and an 8-watt humidifier, totalling 71 watts. If for example the humidifier is on 50% of the time and the dehumidifiers 50%, it means half of the 71 watts (35.5 watts) are used. 35.5 watts x 24 hours a day = 852 watts = 0.825kWh (kilo Watt hour). Assuming one kWh cost 25 cents, it would therefore cost approximately 0.852 x 25 cents = 21.3 cents per 24 hour day = $1.49 per week = $6.45 per month = $77.48 per year to run your system.
An upright piano has a system totalling 46 watts and would cost about 13.8 cents per day = $50.37 per year to run.
Don't unplug the Humidifier side of the system in the wet season.
Some people think, "why add moisture to an already humid situation?" Well, it seems logical, but it's wrong. Remember, the system creates its own climate environment. The Dehumidifier will reduce the Relative Humidity level to the point where the Humidifier will come on. The Humidifier and Dehumidifier should always be connected. Never disconnect the power supply to the system. If there is a power outage, the System will automatically come back on when power has been restored to your property. No need to reset anything.
Warranties to your System, and possibly your piano, are void if someone other than a qualified professional PianoTechnician/Tuner makes the installation, or the System is tampered with or modified.