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Q&A Spotlight

Why Is It So Humid In Here?

An Ohio homeowner wonders why his heat-recovery ventilator is doing such a lousy job of controlling the relative humidity in his new house

Is this the culprit? An Ohio homeowner wonders whether high indoor relative humidity can be traced to this Venmar Kubix heat-recovery ventilator.
Image Credit: Andrew Chappell-Dick

From the sound of it, Andy Chappell-Dick has left no stone unturned in his quest to keep the air inside his house comfortably dry.

His extremely tight new house in northern Ohio (Climate Zone 5) is built with structural insulated panels, and heated and cooled with a pair of ductless minisplit heat pumps. For ventilation, Chappell-Dick has a Venmar Kubix heat-recovery ventilator that pulls exhaust air from two small bathrooms and supplies fresh air to two upstairs bedrooms with a flow rate of between 40 and 80 cubic feet per minute (cfm).

“All my plumbing traps are good,” he writes in a Q&A post at GreenBuildingAdvisor. “We hardly take any showers. We cook some, not a lot. No dishwasher. No aquarium. No dryer — we dry clothes offsite. I figure all the entrained construction moisture is long gone.”

And yet the interior air isn’t really very dry. Chappell-Dick has seven hygrometers around the house to measure relative humidity, and none of them seems to drop below 47 percent, typically reading about 60 percent.

Does he have a bum HRV?

“Even in a worst-case scenario of compromised or short-circuiting airflow, say 25 cfm, shouldn’t this unit be capable of doing several total air changes per day? It was a damp December, but we had some cold, dry days that didn’t move the needles much.

“In such a tiny tight house, does the humidity produced by just the two of us require a dehumidifier in addition to the HRV? Is there some moisture source we’re overlooking? Or is there typically a long lag in getting the house’s contents — tons of drywall and flooring and interior framing and everything — to dry out so it’s no longer the source?”

Chappell-Dick’s battle with high indoor humidity is the topic for this…

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15 Comments

  1. Chris Gleba | | #1

    We had the same issue
    We had the same issue in our house:

    http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/guest-blogs/wrapping-older-house-rock-wool-insulation

    .9ACH50 retrofit and we had poured a new slab in the basement (with sealed XPS under it). RH was in the 60s the first winter, 50s the second winter and now that we're in the 3rd winter it is in the 40s.

    Like the person with the question I had left virtually no stone unturned in trying to figure out "why"; I could not pin exactly the cause and It bugged me that I could not quantify it. Like in the article, the RH numbers did not lign up with the water contributions from people, concrete, showers and cooking. . . but I saw a long-term average trend of the RH falling (between seasonal cycles) so I figured I would re-visit the issue when the trend bottomed out. . .now that it is no longer an issue my best guess is that it was unaccounted for construction-related moisture (maybe paint, joint compound, water intrusion before the weather barrier went up, etc, etc)?

    The other unexpected (and likely related) aspect is I put a coat of poylurethane on the floors during construction and it took nearly a year to clear the VOC smell. During that time I ran the HRV at a higher setting but if it went off for a few hours the smell would be quite strong! On year 3 it is comepletely gone now.

    The last interesting moisture-related aspect is that post-DER the house does not creak at all with changes in humidity, Pre-DER it used to sound like we were sailing in a galeon come spring time with all the creaks and craks! Now it is nice and quiet. . .

  2. Carl Mezoff | | #2

    Data reliability
    If the owner is spending so much effort on resolving this issue, it makes sense for his first step to be obtaining good data. He can buy a simple "sling psychrometer" for about $60 that will give more reliable information than (as Peter Yost notes) cheap electronic devices. The psychrometer has two thermometers built in, one that has a moist "sock" over the tip to provide an evaporative effect (wet bulb temperature). These two thermometers give you a direct readout of wet and dry bulb temperatures from which, with a chart, you can directly read the relative humidity with a lot of confidence.

  3. Don Fugler | | #3

    Checking things out
    My suggestion is always to run the HRV at a high speed for the first winter after construction, to accelerate the drying. You can reduce it to a normal level in subsequent winters.

    Further suggestions:
    1) Check the HRV airflow to ensure it is operating as designed (http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2011/schl-cmhc/nh18-24/NH18-24-33-2009-eng.pdf)
    2) Check the hygrometer calibration (http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2011/schl-cmhc/nh18-24/NH18-24-1-2009-eng.pdf)

    Don

  4. Tim Johnson | | #4

    humidity
    Was there a capillary break installed between the basement footing and the wall? Water will wick up 1000' in concrete, so I am told.

  5. Brooke Guthman | | #5

    Relative Humidity
    I would also question the stone siding on this house and the structure behind it. Is there an air space behind the stone, is there a moisture barrier behind it? If not, stone/brick can be like a sponge, soaking up moisture. When sun hits the stone, it will drive the water vapor inward. If there is not adequate ventilation or a moisture barrier behind the stone, it can be driven inward into the home.
    I built my home 22 years ago with a .10 NACH and as an experiment, did not install the ventilation system the first winter we moved in (March of that year). That winter, we had very high moisture to the fact i also had to use a dehumidifier. I did install a ventilation system the second year, but i also believe the lower RH was due to the fact of the home finally drying out (sheetrock, paint, concrete). So, i too would give it time, but would still be curious as to the construction techniques used behind the stone.

  6. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #6

    brief responses to questions posed
    Hi. I'm the guy in the article above. At this point I'm resigned to waiting one more winter, to see if things dry out a little more. Anecdotally, there seems to be precedent for needing multiple drying seasons to get to a baseline humidity.

    Carl and others pointed out the need to get better data by using better instruments. Point well taken. FWIW, my cheap hygrometers are analog, not digital. They all agree with each other to within a couple degrees, and with the digital meter on the dehumidifier.

    Don suggested running the HRV on high speed the first winter. That's probably a good idea. I'm so reluctant to do that, since it brings in so much cold air. It's efficiency is only rated at something like 70%, so the energy penalty is high. I've tried it a few times for a couple days, and RH does approach 40% but stalls out there.

    Don's other suggestion to check airflow is also good, and I did, and it is pushing air as rated.

    Tim asked about capillary break at foundation wall/footer. There is none. Oops. Didn't nail that detail at the design stage. How much this draws moisture up, I don't know. It was a question I asked on the original blog post, and nobody has addressed it. My basement is insulated with quite tight 3.5" of XPS on the interior side, though, so the concrete is somewhat sealed off from the interior.

    Bryce questioned the stone masonry. Ah yes, a thorny issue. But I'm pretty sure it's not affecting this particular question. There is a minimum 1" well-ventilated air gap behind the stone, and behind that the building structure was thoroughly coated with the StoGuard liquid-applied weather barrier system, then further covered by a Typar-drainage mat sheet.

    I'm still hoping someone can comment on two basic questions: is it worth spending all the energy dollars on mechanically reducing my IRH from 45% to 35%?

    And since we mostly keep the windows open for 6-7 months a year, will it take all winter EVERY year to dry out the moisture accumulated in the wood and concrete of the house's interior?

  7. Kevin Hogan | | #7

    I'm confused by Holladay comment
    "But Holladay, like others responding to the post, wonder about the possible role the concrete in Chappell-Dick's basement may be playing. Concrete contains a lot of water that must evaporate after it cures and, Holladay adds, is it possible that the contractor forgot to put a layer of polyethylene plastic or rigid foam insulation beneath the basement slab to block moisture from migrating upward."

    How is it that putting a layer of polyethylene plastic or rigid foam insulation beneath the basement slab would serve to block slab moisture from migrating upward? That doesn't make sense to me.

    The purpose/role of the polyethylene or rigid foam is to reduce/prevent ground moisture from continually migrating upward into the slab. When polyethylene or rigid foam insulation is placed under the basement slab, it causes/forces the moisture, associated with the slab, to evaporate to the interior of the home. After all, that is the desired effect/rationale for doing so.

    Halladay must have been referring to using polyethylene or rigid foam insulation beneath the basement slab to block ground moisture from migrating upward or he was confused because using polyethylene or rigid foam insulation beneath the basement slab does not serve to block moisture migrating from the slab to the interior.

    It is obviously too late to employ a capillary break installed between the basement footing and the foundation wall as a legitimate concern mentioned by Tim Johnson, but it's not too late to install a sub-slab ventilation system (a/k/a active radon mitigation system) if there is a sump crock present in this home. By depressurizing the space below the slab, moisture will be removed to the outdoor atmosphere 24/7, all year long. As a result, the basement will experience lower relative humidity levels as will the entire home. Most of these systems utilize a low wattage in-line fan that can be controlled with a variable speed control that the savvy homeowner can "dial down" as the home's relative humidity is reduced over time. This strategy is also less expensive to operate vs. mechanical dehumidification. Another obvious side benefit is radon mitigation. Operating the HRV in conjunction can provide a reliable source of "background" fresh air ventilation provided the HRV airflow is operating as designed (as mentioned by Don Fugler).

    - See more at: http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/qa-spotlight/why-it-so-humid-here?utm_source=eletter&utm_medium=eletter&utm_content=gba_eletter&utm_campaign=green-building-advisor-eletter#sthash.wghU89iO.dpuf

    - See more at: http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/qa-spotlight/why-it-so-humid-here?utm_source=eletter&utm_medium=eletter&utm_content=gba_eletter&utm_campaign=green-building-advisor-eletter#sthash.wghU89iO.dpuf

    - See more at: http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/qa-spotlight/why-it-so-humid-here?utm_source=eletter&utm_medium=eletter&utm_content=gba_eletter&utm_campaign=green-building-advisor-eletter#sthash.qIiOuBAh.dpuf

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Kevin Hogan
    Kevin,
    Here's what I actually wrote (as opposed to the summary of my comments provided by Scott Gibson): "One possible source of indoor moisture is your basement. Of course, there is construction moisture in your curing concrete that has to evaporate. There is also the possibility that your contractor forgot to install 6 mil polyethylene (or horizontal rigid foam) under your basement slab."

    You wrote: "Holladay... was confused because using polyethylene or rigid foam insulation beneath the basement slab does not serve to block moisture migrating from the slab to the interior."

    I was not confused. I was referring to two different phenomena: (1) Moisture that enters basement air from curing concrete, and (2) Ground moisture that diffuses through a slab that was installed without a layer of polyethylene or rigid foam underneath it.

  9. Kevin Hogan | | #9

    I appreciate the explanation
    Martin,
    Thanks for your prompt reply. After reading what you actually wrote as opposed to the summary of your comments provided by Scott Gibson, it casts an entirely different perspective for me.To be clear, I am in complete agreement with you.

    Please see the subject line in my original post to know where my thought process was to begin with.

  10. Steve P | | #10

    Simple test
    Would it be worthwhile to tape a square (as large as feasible) of clear poly down against the basement floor (or flooring) and see what (if any) moisture condenses on the bottom?

  11. Andrew Bennett | | #11

    Simple test
    If there is an uncovered bit of concrete I think SteveP's suggestion could be quite compelling. It doesn't provide a metric, but it does give a good indication of vapor permeation.

  12. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #12

    Update on the original Spotlight
    Allison Bailes' 2/24/2016 article on relative humidity (http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/articles/dept/building-science/what-ideal-relative-humidity-winter) prompts this update. I am the subject of the above Spotlight. This winter is our third in the house. RH remains constant at around 50%, or just below. I am now measuring with a sling hygrometer for more accuracy. Difference in RH throughout the house, between the finished basement floor and the second floor ceiling, never deviates more than a couple points. Heating is via two minisplits.

    The plastic-sheet-taped-to-the-basement-floor test revealed NO moisture beneath.

    So I'm still at a loss as to why I can't mechanically vent my place down to below 40%. The construction moisture explanation seems to be moot by now.

    However, Allison seems to suggest I probably shouldn't worry. I was meticulous in SIP sealing, inside and out, and my 0.6 ACH50 seems to confirm that. The risk of interstitial condensation is extremely low. I do worry about point defects, though.

  13. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Andy Chappell-Dick
    Andy,
    Are you ventilating your house at 40 cfm or at 80 cfm?

    What happens when you crank up your HRV to maximum, to increase the ventilation rate -- especially when the weather is very cold?

  14. Tyler Keniston | | #14

    Air coming in dry?
    I see this is a bit old, but am curious if it ever got solved.
    I am wondering if a humidity reading was ever taken of the incoming air, just in case some odd source of moisture was finding its way into the intake.
    Lots of plants in the house?

  15. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Tyler Keniston
    Tyler,
    I have no idea whether Andy Chappell-Dick ever solved this problem from 2015. Perhaps Andy will see your comment and post a response.

    In any case, you may be interested in reading a relevant article that I wrote after this Q&A Spotlight was published: Preventing Water Entry Into a Home.

    -- Martin Holladay

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