How to control indoor humidity to avoid indoor air quality complaints, mold and dust mites.
This article answers the question "What indoor humidity level should I maintain to avoid mold and indoor air quality issues?" We explain the need for maintaining an anti-mold low humidity level indoors to avoid mold and other indoor pathogen growth in buildings.
We also discuss where and how to measure indoor humidity, what indoor humidity targets to set, and we explain relative humidity, dew point, and moisture condensation in and on building materials.
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We recommend use of dehumidifiers and humidity instruments or humidity transmitters to monitor your building. But no dehumidification system will be up to the task of preventing mold if a building has serious leaks, flooding, or water entry.
No dehumidifier, no "air cleaner," no "ozone generator," nor other magic machine, spray, or air treatment will correct a mold problem in a building if there is a significant problem reservoir.
For that case, what's needed is to find the mold problem, remove it, and correct its cause. And as a last warning, there are about 1.5 million mold species - some of them may be able to grow in very dry or very wet or other inhospitable conditions.
Mold spores are everywhere all the time, entering from outdoor air as well as on pets and clothing.
A mold spore landing on an indoor surface is likely to be insignificant and amount to little more than a common component of indoor dust, until such a mold spore lands on an organic surface (such as drywall) and the indoor humidity level and thus the humidity or moisture level of the surface on which the mold spore rests, is sufficiently high. Since a mold spore requires moisture to propagate and grow, the indoor humidity level is a key gating factor in the control of indoor mold (and dust mites) in buildings.
Certain common mold genera and species, such as some members of the Aspergillus sp. and others grow readily on common building materials if they also have enough moisture. While there are fungal species that are able to grow under a remarkably wide range of environmental conditions, keeping indoor humidity at the appropriate level will reduce the chances of growth of the most common indoor problem molds.
We refer to common problem indoor toxic or allergenic molds such as Aspergillus sp., Penicillium sp., Stachybotrys sp. /S. chartarum /Memnoniella echinata, Trichoderma sp. /T. viride, Ulocladium sp. /U. chartarum, and at a less significant level of concern, Cladosporium sp. and its common indoor species such as C. sphaerospermum and C. cladosporioides.
A number of Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes also appear indoors as wood rotters and on other wet or damp building materials, though they may as a group be less often toxic or pathogenic to humans and more often an indicator of wet or damp mold-conducive indoor conditions.
Our table of the most commonly found indoor molds growing in buildings has been moved to a separate online document. See Table of Most Common Indoor Molds Found in buildings. Use the back button on your browser to return to this page.
High indoor humidity can encourage more problems than indoor mold. The same moisture conditions that support growth of problematic indoor molds also encourage the development of bacterial hazards, dust mite populations, a mite fecal allergen problem, and possibly other insect problems in buildings.
The same measures to control humidity to prevent mold growth are what's needed to discourage the dust mite population that exists in all living areas. Measures discussed in this article including choosing and maintaining the proper humidity level to avoid indoor mold will also work to minimize the level of dust mites and dust mite allergens.
Suppose a building does not currently have a mold problem, or a mold cleanup project has been completed. How can we avoid a future mold problem in the building?
1. be sure there are no ongoing building leaks, water entry, or venting problems.
2. keep the indoor humidity level in the mid-comfort range. A maximum indoor relative humidity of 55% RH may be acceptable, 50% RH better, 45% RH for an attic knee wall provided there are no ongoing leaks and the attic space is not one which is being vented to outside (in that case you're not in control of the humidity. If you run humidity too low or too high the building occupants will be uncomfortable.
The text below offers more technical background on indoor relative humidity (RH) control. This is getting slightly more technical about measuring the relative humidity - knowing a little more about how indoor air moves, how moisture levels vary in air and in building materials, and how to set the best humidity targets will improve the management of indoor moisture levels.
If the RH in the center of a basement is 55% it is likely that at the walls or corners, where there is less air circulation, the RH may be different. The local temperature difference close to a cool masonry wall surface means that both temperature and measured relative humidity close to the wall will be different than in the center of a room.
But it's at the cooler wall surface that condensation may be expected to occur. If you measure the RH at the worst-case location such as the most-suspect-of-dampness corner of a basement and you're 55% close to the wall you're likely to be ok.
I have a 1,400 square-foot basement with a drop ceiling below the main level subfloor. The house is on a slope, so one wall is not underground. In some areas, the RH is 62 percent.
I was thinking of installing an attic-style vent fan horizontally through that wall in the area between the drop ceiling and the subfloor to create air movement and to vent the air to the outside. Will that help reduce the RH? Thanks. - D.M. 6/4/2013
Our illustration at left shows where to look for moisture in and leak problems in basements, courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates. Click to enlarge.
Interesting question; I think we need more information to make an answer beyond mere arm-waving;
While years ago we thought that we should vent crawlspaces and perhaps basements with outdoor air - still reflected in crawl space or foundation vent opening size ratios found in some building codes.
Current best construction practices, now better informed, have shifted to making the indoors a closed, conditioned space. That's because the moisture level and temperature of outdoor air vary so widely in many areas that under many conditions mere venting makes indoor moisture levels worse not better.
Also take a look at the collection of suggestions under CRAWL SPACE DRYOUT - home
In the case of an attic crawl space, perhaps a knee-wall area abutting an upper floor bedroom, the risk of excessive inside humidity at a wall is much less than in a basement. In the attic we don't face a cool concrete-block wall surface in the attic.
But what about an un-vented attic in a cold weather climate? Heat loss into such a space and warm moist air leaking into such a space can indeed create high levels of problem moisture - enough to wet surfaces or even form frost and later drip onto the attic floor.
On the other hand, if the attic is vented to outside (ridge vents and soffit vents as I recommend) you'll never control the attic RH. You'll be trying to control the whole outdoors.
On the third hand (if that's possible), if an attic is not vented to outside, the RH there is most-likely a function of and approach the levels of the humidity levels in the air in the rooms abutting and below the attic area.
One client said he could keep the basement at 55% Relative Humidity (RH) but he didn't want to push it below that. Is this enough safety margin?
At 60% indoor RH we're entering the indoor problem mold-formation risk zone of high interior moisture in building wall or ceiling cavities or on wall and floor surfaces, possibly conducive to mold growth.
If you set the RH target at 55%, you're operating with **not much safety margin** of dryness. A small change in outdoor conditions (spilling water by the foundation) or indoor conditions (a nearby roof, wall, window, plumbing leak) can increase the moisture and RH into the problem zone. If for reasons of dehumidification cost you have to operate close to the edge, extra attention to leaks, moisture proofing, roof and surface drainage are even more important.
When have you reached your mold avoiding relative humidity RH target? If a building has been damp for some time, moisture has been absorbed into various materials such as wood framing and masonry surfaces. It may take weeks or even longer to drop the humidity in such an area, as the moist materials also have to dry out, not just the air. Using a fan to increase air movement in the area being dehumidified can speed this process.
Warning: if you cannot get the indoor RH down to a low level in a below-grade area such as a basement or crawl space, I'd suspect that too much moisture is continuing to enter through the slab or masonry walls. Attention to outside drainage may not be enough. In such cases, coating the walls with a masonry sealer (Thoro-Seal™ or Dry-Lok™ are example products) might help.
If you want to get past this practical discussion of indoor humidity and mold, check out "Understanding Ventilation," by John Bower. The Healthy House Institute, 1995.
More than a normal person can stand to read about what to do about mold in buildings is at our website. You might start at the "Mold Information Center - What to Do About Mold in buildings"
A variety of instruments can measure the amount of moisture in air, which we call "humidity." For example an inexpensive indoor "weather station" often includes a "humidity" gauge along with a barometer and thermometer. But just knowing the level of moisture in air (absolute humidity) is not enough. Usually, the humidity targets we use in these articles, and in academic or scientific texts are numbers expressed as relative humidity which takes into account not only the absolute water level in the air, but also the air temperature.
Relative humidity, by taking into account both the absolute humidity in the air and the temperature of the air, is telling you the humidity level as a function of the maximum amount of water that the air is capable of containing at a given temperature. If we're trying to control mold and other indoor pathogens for which water is a gating factor, it's relative humidity that is important.
Why? Because water condenses out of air onto a building surface (and thus supports mold or other indoor pathogens) only when the air at that surface contains more water than it can hold at that temperature. When warm, moist air contacts a cool surface, your basement drywall near the floor, for example, the air touching that surface may cool and give up some of its moisture to condense on the surface.
See TOOLS for MEASURING HUMIDITY for accuracy and options for indoor humidity measurement equipment.
The relative humidity, or "RH" will vary significantly in a building at a given moment, depending on where you make your observations.
Here are some example RH measurements from a recent investigation at a 1970's wood frame two story home in generally good condition, after an extensive mold remediation and dryout project, where the owner had been running two dehumidifiers in the basement, and where there were no building leaks:
Notice, with no surprise, that the RH is higher close to the (cool) masonry surface? This explains our reasoning in suggesting a fairly low basement RH target for buildings if we're going to measure the RH in the center of the room.
Some dehumidifiers have an RH meter built right into the machine, so it will tell you what RH level it's seeing in its incoming air. But for operating efficiency you'll often run the machine in the center of the room.
The target humidity for a building, if measured at room center, needs to be low enough to avoid condensation out on cool surfaces at the room perimeter or floor.
To avoid moisture condensation on cool basement or other building surfaces, we need to keep the RH down below the dew point at those surfaces. The "dew point" is the temperature at which moisture will condense out of the air. The dew point is determined by the combination of the current temperature of the surface, the air temperature, and the humidity level.
If we were being scientifically precise we'd monitor all of the pertinent data - surface temperature, air temperature, relative humidity, and indoor air movement across surfaces. For our purposes, setting a reasonably low room-center target RH will usually be enough. But remember, even if you don't see water condensing on and running down your basement walls, it doesn't mean that the walls won't be at a notably higher moisture level than the air in the center of the room.
See DEW POINT TABLE - CONDENSATION POINT GUIDE for details about the dew point and how to measure or calculate it for a building area or surface.
Water molecules are very smart. They will naturally move from a moist area or surface to a more dry one, tending to seek equilibrium moisture across all surfaces and materials in a building, always considering the factors We have discussed above: temperature, relative humidity, and dew point. So if humidity increases in a basement from warm moist air entering that space, moisture will begin to enter the more dry drywall and insulation materials.
Conversely, as you run a dehumidifier in the basement, moisture will be removed first from the basement air, and then as that dry air contacts more-moist basement surfaces (drywall and insulation, for example), moisture will move from those materials back into the air. Moisture moves in either direction, into the air from materials, or into materials from air, always moving from the more-moist to the less moist substance, seeking equilibrium. This is why there will be a lot of water output from a basement dehumidifier when it is first run in an area, and then later water output will slow.
No. Why does water condense on your cold water pipes overhead in the basement before it condenses on the steel Lally columns supporting your main girder?
Perhaps because cold water (at 40 deg.F.) is running through the water pipe, cooling its surface to a lower temperature (40 deg.F.) than that of the Lally column (perhaps 55 deg.F.). Water pipes do not "sweat" as people say - water is not exuding out of pores in the pipe. Water is condensing from moist air onto the surface of the cold water pipe. Insulate your cold water pipes to avoid condensation and drips onto the floor. It looks like sweat, but it's not.
For a different reason, that of energy efficiency, you might want to insulate your hot water and heating pipes in a basement as well, though in some conditions we are so desperate to warm and dry a problem area that we deliberately leave the hot water and heating pipe insulation off so that we can steal some of their heat to warm and dry an area.
Similarly, moisture will condense out of moisture-containing air on cool building surfaces like stone, brick, metal, concrete floors or walls or ceilings, and on tile floors or walls set over cool or cold surfaces.
I have 3 dehumidifiers going plus the central air and the basement and first floor are at 50 - 55% humidity but I can not get the top floor where the bedrooms and bathroom is below 60% in the spring/summer/fall. Some days it even goes to 65%.
We had a mold problem 7 years ago and had professional remediation and have not seen any evidence of mold since but I have developed chronic sinus and bronchial problems that I wonder if it is being caused by mold spores.
I thought maybe humidity coming from the attic but then the floor downstairs would be affected also as it is a multilevel house and the kitchen/dining/living room area is directly under the attic also and it is 50% down there so I do not know how to fix the humidity problem. Any help would be appreciated as I am tired of being sick. Thank you. (this is the first summer I have been sick like this and can not get over it) - Anonymous 9/12/11
Although sometimes we find surprising down-currents of air and moisture from a building attic, that's not the most common indoor moisture problem source.
Since we haven't inspected your building and know next to nothing about it, we have to outline a more general strategy for reducing high indoor moisture:
At MOISTURE CONTROL in BUILDINGS and also with more focus on sources of indoor moisture
or water beginning
at WATER ENTRY in BUILDINGS we discuss the importance of finding the source of excessive building moisture and doing what we can to correct that problem first.
At MOISTURE METER STUDY we include examples of the difficulty of measuring moisture in building walls and ceilings and we show points of hidden leaks that may affect indoor humidity levels.
A U.K. reader wrote that he had recently installed a Nuaire "positive input ventilation" PIV system sold in the U.K. The installer monitored the temperature and humidity in the most suspect corner a building room. The PIV system generally maintained 55% RH but sometimes the humidity increased to 60-62%.
The operating premise of a Positive Input Ventilation (PIV) system is the continued introduction of filtered outdoor air into the building at a continuous rate, presumably putting the building at positive pressure with respect to the outdoors and thus causing indoor air to move outside through other building leaks or vents.
Shown at left, the Nuaire Drimaster Positive Input Ventilation System (PIV). In the U.K. & Ireland Nuaire is at +44 (0) 29 2085 8200, www. nuaire.co.uk Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
This product is sold in the U.K. specifically intended to address indoor dampness & condensation problems.
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A further underlying premise is that the relative humidity of outdoor air is always below that of indoor air. This is usually true for buildings in which there are significant moisture sources (use of plumbing, cooking, occupants, or a wet basement or crawl area).
Really? Well often but not always: In some climates and under some weather conditions, if outdoor humidity is quite high, even though we are introducing outdoor air, it may be more humid than indoors. A widely-discussed example of this "reverse humidity" problem (insofar as the Nuaire design intends to bring in outdoor air) is the movement of humid outdoor air into cool crawl spaces below buildings during summer weather. The result in these areas can be a significant increase in the crawl area moisture level as moisture from warm, moisture laden outdoor air condenses out into the cooler crawl space.
Relative temperatures between indoors and outside are also a factor. A commissioned installation by experts would include measurements of building air flow, air changes per hour ACH, and humidity levels.
In the U.K. Nuaire offers an HRV Best Practices Guide (cited below) that may be helpful. The company warns that installing any ventilation system without first studying building conditions is (in my words) a bit uncertain. Here is what Nuaire says about controlling condensation or moisture when installing a PIV system:
Control of condensation/moisture
In ducted ventilation systems, condensation will occur when warm, humid air extracted from bathroom, shower, kitchen or utility room hits the cooler surface of your ventilation duct. If the extracted air is significantly cooled, the moisture will condense back to water and become trapped in your ducting, potentially causing damage to the fan and property.
For this reason building regulations stipulate the following installation guidance in order to prevent issues with condensation and moisture:
Horizontal ducting including ducting in walls should be arranged to slope slightly downwards away from the fan to prevent backflow of any moisture into the fan unit
Ducting rising vertically carrying extract air to outside requires the use of a condensate trap, this is to prevent any moisture forming inside the ductwork, dropping back down and into the fan unit. This should then be connected to a suitable soil vent pipe using 21.5mm pipe. - Nuaire Best Practice Installation Guide [for] Mechanical Heat Recovery Ventilation (MVHR), Nuaire Group, retrieved 1/1/2015, original source: http://www.nuaire.info/bpguides/BestPracticeInstallationGuide-MVHR.pdf
To understand why humidity might increase in a building where a PIV system is installed, start by looking at the periods of higher relative humidity levels, temperatures, and comparing indoors and outside air conditions. An expert, if one designed and installed your system would also have looked at building air flow rates or air change rates expressed as air changes per hour (ACH).
An improperly-sized, installed, or located unit can give unsatisfactory results including indoor moisture and moisture-related mould problems, poor indoor air quality or fan noise issues.
I would also look for both apparent and clandestine moisture sources in the building. The fact that you found most concern at a wardrobe (do you mean a closet or a piece of furniture?) may simply reflect temperature differences in that location.
In the U.S. we also refer to PIVs as Supply Only Ventilation Systems. The operation of supply ventilation systems or PIVs is discussed in more detail by our contributor and expert Steven Bliss at
VENTILATION, SUPPLY-ONLY - inspectapedia.com/BestPractices/Ventilation_Supply_Only.php
For U.K. readers, as of 1 October 2010 revisions to Approved Document F-F1 the Means of Ventilation, applicable to people living in England and Wales requires that all Mechanical Ventilation & Heat Recovery System (MVHR) installations require that such systems be commissioned using a qualified, competent expert in compliance with 2010 ADF2010 regulations.
Among the requirements for these ventilation systems are conditions that will improve the installation and performance of any mechanical ventilation or heat recovery ventilation system wherever you live: [Paraphrasing from the Nuaire Best Practices Guide cited above and again in detail at REFERENCES]
You might do some simple, low -cost tests using toilet tissue or talcum powder or smoke or even a match to see which way air is flowing at your windows or doors.
Don't forget to look for condensate leaks in the PIV system ducting too.About boosting the airflow rate of the PIV system, the company says:
The unit air volume can be manually boosted to maximum speed by wiring a simple one way switch (part number 771532) to the PCB (located under the top cover). By switching the ‘boost’ all other functions are over-ridden. - Nuaire, retrieved 1/1/2015, original source http://nuaire.info/IandM/671179.pdf
See these articles on attic ventilation:
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For years I've been trying to figure out the excessive humidity problem in my home too. I finally found it after working with foundation people, plumbers, a/c techs -- nobody could figure it out, but I finally did. When the cooling kicks on, the moisture level skyrockets. It has affected the inside of my home tremendously. We thought it was the a/c drain. They re-routed it, made sure it was draining well and clear. It is. Leak near or under the foundation. We checked everything-that wasn't it.
What's happening is the fan is actually sucking the moisture out of the evaporator coils before the condensation off the coils can drain away. The design of this Lennox horizontal system in the attic is such that the small space right above and right below the squirrel type fan, creates a venturi effect, increasing the velocity of the air being sucked into the fan.
The velocity of the air is so strong that the coils (about 12 in. away) have the moisture sucked right off of them and into the fan, which, of course is then blown into the ducting. I'm not sure if this is an engineering design problem, if the a/c co. wired the fan to a speed that's too high, or if perhaps a part is missing that is supposed to prevent this.
Regardless, the inside of the unit is now so covered with mildew and mold and the electrical connections on the heating elements as well as all the electrical connections on the inside of the unit, are so corroded and rusted, it's a wonder that love thing works at all. (This also probably explains why sometimes the heat works and sometimes it doesn't. The a/c repair guys have never been able to figure out why. They always seem to think it's the t'stat. It's not. It's new and has recently been completely re-wired when I moved it from an outside wall to an inside wall.)
Anyway, that's where MY moisture problem is coming from. Good luck! - Mike / DFW 12/13/2012
Mike, gold star to you for good detective work. We will keep your note in this article, as it will surely help other readers.
More about dehumidifcation problems traced to central air conditioning systems can be read at DEHUMIDIFICATION PROBLEMS.
Do you think that the root problem, then, is an improper duct or plenum size or design?
(Apr 21, 2014) if you have sprayed foam insulation in an attic in louisiana and fiberglass insulation in rafters at correct r factor will the relative humidity be better with no ridge vents or whirlybirds.i think the attic is air tight with foam sprayed on the underside of the roof.the attic does stay cooler but i was just wondering about air flow or ventilation .
If a home in Louisiana with 100 degree summers has the attic sprayed with foam insulation on underside of roof,and fiberglass insulation in rafters at correct r factor with no ridge vents or whirlybirds for air flow will the relative humidity be better in the rooms below.the home has central air with unit in the attic.
Adding insulation and cutting ventilation do not themselves reduce indoor humidity in a warm humid climate, but operating air conditioning, provided it is not over-sized, will reduce the indoor humidity level. The contribution of the insulation in this case is the reduction of heat gain by the buidling, reducing the cooling costs.
Beware that if the building design drives moisture into any building cavities (roof, walls for example) trapped moisture there invites mold, rot, and insect trouble. So the building design needs to include attention to ceiling and wall vapor barriers (in LA typically on the warm outside) and penetrations or air leaks.
(May 22, 2014) Chi said:
It's 68 degree outside and humidity at 60%…my inside RH is 52% at 66 degree without AC…is that normal during Spring/Summer?
Should a sufficient roof/attic ventilation reduce the RH??
During Winter, my indoor RH was 35% at 68 degree while outside was below 20 degree with humidity at 100% due to snow
Without trying to re-calculate your numbers against a standard, I'd say of course in humid weather your indoor RH won't be down at 35%, but probably more useful is this comment:
IF you run your A/C and the interior cools off enough to satisfy the thermostat but the humidity is still uncomfortably high then your A/C system may be oversized - and so not dehumidifying.
Roof ventilation, or attic ventilation, properly balanced between intake and exhaust may cool an attic but it would not directly affect the humidity of the occupied spaces below - with an exception that in circumstances of excessive condensation or even frost formation in an attic, that space can become a moisture source against the ceiling or occupied spaces below.
(Oct 6, 2014) TonyC said:
Living in CT, experiencing condensation on the inside glass of my windows on the main living area, and second floor, none in the basement. The indoor temperature read 66 degrees and humidity indicated at 46%, not sure if this is RH or absolute. The outside temperature was 39 degrees with the weather station indicating 94% humidity.
We seem to experience these problems during the Fall seasons as temperatures gradually change to Winter where we require the heat to be on. We can find no visible drivers for excessive moisture in the home. We use bathroom fans that ventilate to the outside when showering and for 20 minutes afterward.
We have an exhaust fan that ducts to the outside over our cooktop and that is on when we cook. Some windows are worse than others particularly those that face the north and east and this is always noticeable in the morning. Is it possible all my windows are failing. They are 10 years old, but we have had this problem for several years, I am only just finding this site to ask a question. We are lost as to where to begin to try to solve this. Any ideas would be appreciated
IF windows are "failing" and we are referring to insulated glass, you'd more likely see moisture collecting between the panes.
If windows are failing by becoming leaky or drafty you can detect that using a smoke test or perhaps thermography.
I'd start by asking why moisture might be higher in the problem room than in others.
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