10 Ways Fluctuating Humidity Levels Can Damage Your Home and Belongings

Close-up picture of a humidity meter with arrow far to one side

Most of us have heard the warnings about high humidity in a home. A lot of moisture can cause paint to peel, drywall to get soggy, and carpets to grow mold or mildew. However, the dangers of low humidity levels aren’t as often talked about, but they are just as real.

If you live in a desert area where the air is almost always dry, you probably don’t think much about humidity. The same goes for those living in areas that see harsh winters with cold, dry air. It’s important that you recognize what the absence of moisture in your home’s air might be doing to your property and belongings and adjust your home humidity level with the seasons.

"The moisture in the air can drop to as low as ten percent relative humidity in the winter months, which is as dry as the Sahara Desert. If humidity levels are too low, household objects from wood furniture to artwork can be damaged over time as moisture is pulled from wood, paper and other porous materials," said Dr. Ted Myatt, ScD., senior scientist with Environmental Health & Engineering and the University of Rhode Island. "The solution is to maintain relative humidity levels in the optimal range of 40 to 60 percent by running a humidifier in colder, drier winter months, to mitigate these effects."

The bottom line is that monitoring humidity levels is the only way to protect your home and belongings from the fluctuations over time. If you’re not convinced that this issue is serious, the designers of Honeywell Humidifiers and indoor air scientists have released new information on how everyday household objects suffer under low humidity conditions and what steps homeowners can take to combat the effects of dry air. Take a look at the 10 household items are most impacted by improper air moisture levels.

1. Wobbly Wood Furniture

Because wood is porous, it absorbs and desorbs moisture from the air as humidity levels change. This will cause the wood to swell and shrink with the changes. In some areas these changes are gradual, going from dry winter to moist spring to moderate summer and fall and back again. In other areas, these levels can fluctuate dramatically within the span of a week. This takes a toll on wood furniture.

If your dining room table seems a little wobbly, it could be because of fluctuating humidity levels, as the joints have likely loosened with the constant changes.

"A useful instrument that can be used to measure the relative humidity levels inside your home to determine if you need added moisture is a hygrometer, like the Honeywell Humidity Monitor," Myatt says.

2. Out-of-tune or Warped Musical Instruments

Contracting and expanding wood isn’t just a problem for furniture; it can affect pianos, guitars, flutes, drums, and other wood-constructed musical instruments. Most instrument builders use wood because of pleasing acoustics and resonance it provides. However, the constant change in wood can cause glue joints to fail or crack, which will result in out-of-tune instruments.

When wood absorbs airborne water, it will raise the string height for string instruments and lift the bridge. For woodwinds, the reeds will become saturated and harder to play. Alternatively, when the moisture is sucked out of the wood, it will cause string instruments to become concave and crack from the excess pressure.

If your ukulele just isn’t producing the same sweet music it used to, it could be that it has fallen out of tune due to improperly regulated air moisture levels. For string instruments, buzzing notes or sharp fret ends that start to slightly protrude from the neck can be signs of damage. If you aren’t any of the major warning signs of warping, you’re probably not facing irreparable damage, but you should make changes immediately to avoid that from happening if your instrument is frequently out of tune or produces a slight buzzing when played.

3. Brittle Books

When there isn’t enough moisture in the air, it can cause the pages of books to become brittle. If you are a collector of older books, low humidity can completely ruin your collection.

As the seasons change and air gets muggier, the absorption of water into already fragile pages can cause the dimensions to change, leading to wrinkles in the paper and warped book covers. Not to mention, mold and mildew can grow if your books are kept in overly damp areas, such as basements.

4. Gaping or Bent Woodwork and Wood Flooring

Older homes that have been consistently exposed to changes in the air may already show signs of damage in wood flooring and woodwork. In newer homes, it is important to monitor and regulate levels in order to prevent warping over time and preserve the home’s value.

As the wood absorbs and desorbs moisture, molding can separate from the floor or wall, causing gaps. Hardwood floors are also susceptible to gaps between planks, warped planks, or “cupping” in corners, all of which prevent the floor from lying flat.

Too much humidity can be problematic as well, as the floors and subfloors can experience rot spots and mold growth.

5. Ruined Wine

If you’re a wine collector, you need to monitor your home’s moisture levels to prevent your unopened bottles from getting ruined. Wine corks are susceptible to shrinking, drying out, and cracking in low humidity environments. The corks are responsible for protecting the wine from improper oxygen exposure. Bottles are corked with the perfect ratio of oxygen to liquid inside the bottle, as too much oxygen will spoil the wine and too little will prevent the wine from reaching its full potential.

When the cork is exposed to low humidity areas, it can crack and warp to the point of exposing the wine in the unopened bottle, effectively ruining its taste and quality.

6. Cracked Artwork

Art collectors should also worry because dry air tends to make paint brittle. When dried paint becomes brittle, it then also becomes prone to cracking. Oil paintings on canvas are particularly susceptible to this fate, as the oils will crack and peel while the fibers of canvas expand and contract with changes in air moisture, which will warp the painting.

7. Worthless Stamps

As moisture is continuously absorbed and desorbed from stamps, they become ruined and lose their value. High humidity levels will cause rippling and discoloration, while low levels will dry them out and cause them to become brittle. Needless to say, stamp collectors should monitor their air quality and collection to ensure they don’t lose their value.

8. Accelerated Aging in Photographs

The older the photo, the more brittle, flaky, discolored, or curled it may be. If you’ve got newer printed photos that are showing serious signs of aging, it is likely due to improper air quality.

When a lot of water is in the air, the gelatin binder used to make printed photos will get sticky and soft, whereas low levels will cause the same binder to dry out and crack.

High moisture can also cause mold to grow between layers of photographs, and this mold cannot be removed without ruining the picture completely. If you have older photos that you are unable to replicate, it is important that you take care to keep them in a moderate environment.

9. Damage to Walls

When humidity levels are too high in a home for a prolonged period, the water can dissolve the bond the paint has on the wall, causing the paint to bubble, peel, stretch, or crack. High humidity can also create pockets of moisture in the walls of your home, which can cause drywall to become soggy and flake away over time. Mold and mildew can build up in these areas too. Once the mold starts to build up, it will grow and expand. Once mold has become a problem, it can be costly to repair.

“If you notice condensation on windows, that is an indication that the humidity is too high,” Myatt warns. “This is where having a hygrometer in the home is important to help avoid humidity levels reaching an unhealthy point.”

However, peeling, cracking wallpaper and separated drywall seams can also be a sign of low humidity in the home. Because these materials tend to be porous, when they lack adequate moisture they can separate and crack.

10. Malfunctioning Electronic Equipment

Unsurprisingly, water and electronics don’t mix well. Extreme levels of humidity can be dangerous, as condensation that forms will wreak havoc on the internal components of your electronics. Long-term exposure to high air moisture will cause your devices to short circuit. Most of the time, the damage is irreparable.

In dry climates, the internal components can suffer from static electricity. Just as your hair starts to stand up and your sweaters shock you when getting dressed in the dead of a winter’s dryness, that static electricity can damage the internal components of computers and televisions.

Try the Honeywell Cool Moisture Humidifier to balance out the humidity in your home during the dry season.

Dr. Ted Myatt received a Bachelor’s of Science in microbiology at the University of Illinois, a Master’s of Environmental Management at Duke University, and a Doctorate of Science at the Harvard School of Public Health. His research focuses on the impact of the built environment on indoor air quality and health.