Why is my house so humid?

I received an excellent question today, in a nutshell it was: “Why is my house so humid that condensation is dripping from the ceiling?”

The questioner reminded me of all the times I’ve heard this question, both on this blog and when I was in the field, helping track down issues in people’s homes. Clearly this is serious issue that needs more attention because it leads to problems with a home’s health, comfort and efficiency – exactly the things I focus on! (I also wrote extensively on this in a previous article: “Cathedral Ceilings – Mold and Moisture”)

Why is a humidity important?

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What Temperature Should I Set the Thermostat to When Away for the Winter?

I recently received this question on Quora and decided to share the answer with readers there as well as on TedsTips. I hope this will save some of you from heartbreak after your winter vacation!

A primary consideration in cold climates is pipes freezing. It is very important to realize that pipes can freeze even if the home temperature is above freezing due to the locations of the pipes. I once owned a townhouse where the pipes would freeze when the outside temperatures dipped into the single digits outside, even though we were warm inside the house. How? The pipes ran up through an inside wall, across the ceiling and over to an outside wall spigot. The inside wall, at the top, opened to the cold attic, so that cold air would get into the wall cavity and freeze the pipes. This was fixed by air sealing the top of that wall cavity, but required considerable detective work to figure out. The pipes running through the outer wall down to the spigot would freeze near the spigot where the pipes were exposed to cold temperature, so this run had to be isolated from the rest of the house plumbing and drained during the winter.

These are two examples, that show potential issues that are made worse by turning down the temperature while you are away. Imagine the situation where the pipes don’t freeze when the house is occupied and the walls are warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. Now, imagine reducing the indoor temperature, maybe only a few degrees, but enough that the cold from the outside overwhelms the meager heat coming from the house that is able to reach the pipes. This has bitten many a homeowner during winter absences.

Unfortunately, there is really no way of knowing if this will happen until it happens. This is why it is critical that you turn off the main water valve for the water supply to your spigots in your house when you travel*. The pipes may still burst, but at least your house won’t flood. When you return after winter and turn the water back on, you’ll know quickly that there’s a leak and can turn off the water and fix the leak before catastrophic damage is done. This is no exaggeration – I was called into a home that was literally FILLED with mold and had to be gutted. A pipe had burst and the owner returned after a month to find the house completely flooded.

*I was reminded (see comment below article) that you MUST NOT turn off the make-up water supply if you have a boiler for heating your home. This is very important. Boilers need available water to maintain system pressure in your radiators etc. Without make-up water, the pressure in the system can drop and the system will stop functioning.

If you plan on leaving your home for an extended period, it is always a good idea to have your HVAC company give the heating system a once-over to ensure that it is in good working order. While there, they can advise you on which water valve you can safely turn off and which you should not touch. It would be advisable to label all the valves for future reference.

Flooding is the most damaging effect, but there’s another, more insidious issue that can arise during winter house shutdowns – condensation damage and mold.

Water and Ice on a Cold Window

Condensation can lead to mold and wood rot

In order to understand this, I have to touch on the physics of condensation. Condensation is the conversion of water vapor to liquid water that occurs at or below what is called the “dew point.” At normal temperatures (say 70F), condensation rarely occurs during the winter because the home humidity level is modest and most of the inside of the home is above the dew point. However, even with typical indoor humidity levels, you can experience condensation on windows, because windows get much colder than the insulated walls of the house. You might have noticed this if you have curtains or insulating blinds. These help keep your room warmer but allow the windows to get even colder because they intentionally reduce the windows sapping heat from the room. When you open the curtains, you might find the windows soaking wet from all the condensation. Worse, the wood around the window, especially at the bottom edge, might be saturated with water.

Under normal circumstances, you would see this in the morning and could dry off the wood and allow it to warm up when you open the curtains. But when you are away, even if you don’t turn down the thermostat, the water will remain and can get worse every day. Over time, this will likely lead to mold growth and if allowed long enough will rot out the wood. For this reason, I highly recommend that people leave their curtains and insulating shades “UP” or “OPEN” when they are away for extended periods. You want to minimize the chance of condensation buildup and the associated potential for mold and wood rot.

Let’s continue this thought experiment. If you turn down the thermostat enough, the inner surfaces of your house (walls etc.) can get to a temperature below the dew point and, just like those windows, the water vapor in the air can condense on those surfaces. Many people have made this mistake and come home to a horrible, moldy mess! For this reason, it is extremely important to do two things:

1 – do not turn down the heat excessively. It’s impossible to tell exactly what temperature is too low, but in most climates, people find 55F-60F is safest.

2 – make sure you don’t add any moisture to the air while you are gone. This can be disastrous. For example, many homes have central humidifiers built right into the heaters. If you leave this one it raises the humidity level inside the house every time the furnace runs, likely leading to moisture problems. Turn off all humidifiers before you leave!

Even if you don’t have humidifiers, natural ground moisture can seep into the house through the basement, crawlspaces, etc. This is especially common in homes with dirt floors underneath. Water vapor rises up into the house, driving up the humidity. If you live in such a home, it is really important that you monitor the humidity levels in the home to ensure that they are not too high. During winter, indoor humidity levels will naturally be low, typically less than 50% relative humidity. Humidity levels above 70% are considered too high as they promote mold growth. Get yourself a humidity monitor (they’re cheap on Amazon) and see what humidity levels are. Or better yet, get an Internet smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat with Relative Humidity

Get an Internet connected thermostat that monitors temperature and humidity

These let you to monitor indoor temperature and humidity levels while you are gone. These are affordable nowadays, and can give you tremendous peace of mind. A quick daily check on temperature and humidity gives you a read on the health of your home. It’s not a guarantee, as you still might have condensation problems, but at least you can be sure that the general climate inside your home is reasonable. It will also tell you that your heating system is working. If the temperature suddenly drops to 45 even though your thermostat is set to 55, you know there’s a problem and can call in help.

Have a wonderful winter. Hopefully you will avoid the main pitfalls that have hit too many other people. A few easy steps can greatly improve your odds of coming back to a healthy home!

Humidity Explained

Condensation on wooden windows is more problematic

Humidity. Moisture. Water vapor. Evaporation. Condensation. Mold. Rot.

These are all words that go together in people’s minds when the topic of humidity comes up. But what is it and why is it so important?

I’m going to try to explain this as simply as possible, so for the scientists and engineers reading – please cut me a little slack. I’m going for clarity over precision. However, if you catch the inevitable factual errors, please point them out so I can correct them.

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Why Doesn’t My Mini-split Heat Pump / Air Conditioner Work?

I recently had an interesting question – a reader asked what could cause a Fujitsu mini-split air conditioner to cause the air to become *more* humid. In fact, they noted that the air became highly moisture laden and the house was just yucky humid.

I really scratched my head on this one because, from a physics standpoint, under “normal” conditions, this is impossible with a mini-split. Why? Because a mini-split system has an air handler unit in the house with the only connection to the outside (and outdoor humidity) is through a small hole in the wall where the electrical and refrigerant lines run. And yet it happened.

The questioner noted that multiple units were involved and that various parts of the electronics had been changed, and yet the problem persisted. He noted that he’d heard of a number of other people with the same problem. I admit, I was baffled!

Then it came to me. In fact, I had worked with an associate, helping them to track down this exact problem. While I can’t state with 100% certainty that the problems were the same, the symptoms are the same. In addition, I realized that my own home’s systems exhibited the same issues, but I automatically made the adjustments to make the systems work properly!

Here’s what’s going on…

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April showers bring May flowers, August storms bring…roof leaks!

Summer rains bring flooding

There’s nothing like a gentle Springtime rain. But Summer often brings us torrential downpours, and along with them, roof leaks, incredible moisture and mold!

A few days ago, we had record rainfalls in Eastern Pennsylvania – five inches of rain in some areas. This fortunately came after an extended dry spell, so the rivers didn’t flood this time. We got really lucky.

These heavy rains often bring high winds, fallen branches and roof damage. Sometimes, they’ll just lead to enough leaking for you to notice. Maybe there’s a discoloration on your ceiling or window jamb. Whatever the sign, please pay attention. Failure to deal with a “small” leak now can lead to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of damage to your house later. Worse, the accompanying mold can pose a severe health/allergy risk.

When dealing with leaks, you need to take several steps in order to minimize the chance of more serious damage to your home:

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High Electric Bills, Wasted Energy & Central Humidifiers

It’s winter, and for many people, that means dry skin, cracked lips and nosebleeds, so I’m often asked about whole-house humidifiers – humidification systems that connect to your central heating system to distribute moisture throughout the house.

As noted in another post, I’m not a big fan of these units. Any time you concentrate humidity, you run the risk of growing mold. A little leak in your duct system and you could be squirting moisture into walls, ceiling cavities or other areas where you might not know there’s a problem until the entire thing rots out.

It is vastly preferable to use standalone units that use cold water, a small fan and a pad to soak the water. These units are very energy efficient. But beware, there are energy hogs among the small units too. some of them have electric heating elements to evaporate the water and use ten times the electricity as the simpler models! 

In spite of my personal aversion to these units, I recently worked with a friend to track down the source of her high electric bills. She’s an engineer too, so she was reading manuals and trying to uncover the problem. 

As it turned out, she told me “Ted – I have a whole house humidifier, could that be an issue? It runs on hot water.” I’ve heard of this before. Units that squirt hot water into the air stream of the heating system. The trouble is, her unit worked very inefficiently, running the hot water the entire time the heating system is on!

Let’s look at this. This system was basically leaving the faucet on for 8-16 hours per day, using 50-100 gallons of hot water just to put a few gallons of moisture into the air. What a horrible waste!

When you run the numbers, you find that, at the low end, this was costing her $30/month to run. However, with high electric rates in the northeast U.S. and cold winter days, this number is about $100/month! 

Fortunately, there are other ways to solve the problem. If you must have a whole-house humidifier, look for one that doesn’t use hot water and doesn’t run the water the entire time your heating system is on. You’ll have to do your homework, and maybe argue with your heating contractor who will just want to install whatever unit they have sitting on their truck. But it’s your utility bill, so don’t settle.

Guidelines for choosing a whole house humidifier:

  • It should run on cold water, not hot water
  • It should only run if the humidity is below the set point
  • It should not run water continuously when the heating system operates

In addition, whole house humidifiers can be breeding grounds for mold, depending upon the design, so make sure you service it regularly. That means draining the unit and opening it up to clean it out as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Off-season (typically Spring, Summer and Fall), they should be disabled, otherwise they work against your air-conditioning system causing it to work extra hard.

So if you have high utility bills this winter, check to see if you’ve got a whole house humidifier. It could be pouring your utility $$$ down the drain!

If you find Ted’s Tips to be useful, please support my work and visit my Amazon store. In it, I’m collecting the products mentioned in these articles so you don’t have to hunt all around the web to find them.

How Can Your Bath Fan Cost You $20,000?

Bath fan venting ino the atticAn improperly vented bath fan can lead to tens of thousands of dollars of damage to your home and even create a health risk. How? *Moisture!*

The main purpose of a bath fan is to remove moisture from the bathroom after you take a shower. The reason you want to do that is that all that excess moisture can lead to mold and potentially cause your paint to peel and may even rot out your walls. So why do people dump all that water into the attic? Basically, because they’re too stupid and lazy to vent it properly – straight up and out through the roof.

How bad can it really be? Bad! I have had many clients with moldy attics due to this improper fan venting. But one in particular stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful custom home – no expense was spared. I was called in due to mold in the attic. Usually, this means a little patch of black on the roof plywood. But when I opened the door to this attic, I was greeted by a roof covered with fuzzy mold. Everything was damp. This was a problem!

After searching, I found the culprit – the builder had routed the bath fan duct under the fiberglass insulation over towards the soffit (the overhang where the roof meets the house). Often this are has a little bit of ventilation, so many lazy builders run bath fans to this area. However, in this case, there wasn’t even any ventilation slots in the soffit, so the bath fan was just dumping all the moisture straight into the fiberglass insulation.

The homeowners had to spend thousands on mold remediation. They then decided to re-insulate the entire area using spray foam and had to pay to get added attic ventilation to avoid this problem in the future. All because the builder was too cheap and lazy to add a $25 roof vent cap and run the bath fan to it.

Broan roof vent cap

So if you ever consider venting a bath fan into the attic, remember this story. Always vent bath fans straight up and through the roof. Use insulated ductwork from the fan to minimize the chance of condensation in the duct. And use a high quality roof cap, like this one from Broan.

Why not vent out the soffit?

I’ve had some builders argue with me, saying that it’s ok to vent out the soffit. They claim it’s safer because you don’t want to put more holes in the roof because of the risk of leaks.

First off, a high quality, self flashing roof cap like the Broan shown here is very easy to install water-tight. I did two myself and I’m an engineer, not a builder. So scratch that argument – it’s bogus.

Next, think for a moment. What does warm, moist air do? It floats up! Duh. So if you try to vent a bath fan out the soffit, that warm moist air is just going to rise back up through the soffit and back into the attic. It’s hardly better than venting straight into the attic. So under no circumstances should you accept soffit venting of a bath fan. Save $50 on installation today, pay thousands for mold remediation and a new roof tomorrow!

The only acceptable alternative to roof venting is sidewall venting. You might do this when you have a slate roof. In this case, you can route the vent to the nearest exterior sidewall. it’s not perfect, but it will do if it’s not too far away.