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Moisture Meters & Douglas Fir: Common questions about moisture meters for wood

July 12, 2011 by | Nicole | There have been 0 comments

What’s a moisture meter? When should I use one? And, Do I really have to use a moisture meter on my new Douglas fir floors? These questions might pop up as you’re starting a home project or major renovation. What follows is some moisture meter Q & A, starting with the basics, that should help you decide if using one is right for your current project.

Q: What’s a moisture meter?

A moisture meter measures the percentage of moisture in something. There are moisture meters for ceramics, concrete, soil, and most commonly, wood. It comes in handy during a renovation or building project, usually before a material is installed, like wood flooring.

In this post, we’ll be referring to moisture meters used specifically on wood.

Q: Why should I use a moisture meter?

A moisture meter is a prevention tool. Taking a moisture reading of your floor boards before installation tells you how much water or moisture is in the wood – too much or too little at time of installation can cause big problems later. It’s sort of like taking the temp of a turkey in the oven – too hot and you’re left with a brittle bird; not hot enough and you might find yourself leaving the dinner table repeatedly throughout the meal. In cases like this, prevention is the best medicine.

moisture meter

A pin meter can be used to measure the moisture in Douglas fir.

Q: What types of moisture meters are there?

Pin and pinless models are two of the most common types of wood moisture meters. The latest models have an LCD screen. Wood moisture meters should also have settings specific to ‘wood species’. On these, the user can adjust the meter to the species being read, such as Douglas fir or Cedar. Different species have different characteristics, so they all give different readings even when the moisture content is the same.

Q: How does a moisture meter work?

Pin moisture meters commonly have two pins – Pin A + Pin B – that are inserted into the wood. Once the pins are in, a current passes from Pin A to Pin B. Since moisture conducts electricity, a strong current indicates high moisture content. A low current means low moisture.

A pinless or surface moisture meter sends electric wave signals into the wood. These signals create a field. The level of moisture – high or low – affects this field.

Q: Is one type of meter better than the other?

A pin moisture meter is the most accurate. But, if the material will be featured in highly visible areas, the pin-holes can be an eyesore for the homeowner. And, the pin detectors may be more challenging to operate; some have tiny cables that tangle easily.

Pinless moisture meters are easier to use, but also more likely to give a faulty reading if there is moisture on the surface of the wood. However, there’s no piercing involved.

Q: When do I use a moisture meter?

You can use a moisture meter before, during, and after any wood installation project -- for products like flooring, decking, paneling, and trim. Tracking readings is important throughout the project. Why? You’ll learn that in the answer to the final question.

Q: What’s a good moisture-reading?

A good reading is one that is compatible with its working or end-use environment. It is referred to as the equilibrium moisture content (EMC), when the wood’s moisture is in sync with its surroundings. Because environments, seasons, and climates change, so does the EMC. That’s where the average moisture content figures into “a good moisture-reading.”

Builders and contractors tend to rely on an average moisture content of 8% which is common in most of the US, even in the rainy Northwest. Hot ‘n’ humid places along the central and southern coast of California and the South have an average moisture content of 11%. In desertscapes like Arizona and Nevada, the average moisture content is close to 6%. Knowing the average moisture content of where you live (and where the wood will be), helps you achieve EMC, creating wood + environmental harmony.

Q: Do I really need a moisture meter?

The quick answer is, “That depends on the homeowner.” Most contractors, builders, and wood-working shop owners rely on moisture meters – it’s a tool of the trade. This is why proper acclimatization is an essential step for homeowners who don’t have or use a wood moisture meter. Installing Douglas fir flooring right after it lands on your doorstep is bad practice and not recommended. Wood needs time to adjust to its new home, whether that is your living room, the attic, or even the deck. If the moisture content is too high, way above the EMC, the floor boards will shrink and gap along between the seams. If the content is way below the EMC, you’ll end up with floor boards too big for their own britches: replacing cracked and split floor boards isn’t fun for anyone.

However, if you want to take the guesswork out of knowing when your new Douglas fir (or any wood) is ready to be installed, use a moisture meter. Using one may help to prevent warping, shrinking, or splitting problems later on, giving you piece of mind now.

And if you do go the moisture-meter route, be sure to read the instruction manual.

- Nicole Morales

This post was posted in All Entries, Douglas Fir Flooring, Care & Maintenance and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir floors, douglas fir trim, warping floors, douglas fir paneling, douglas fir decking, wood moisture meter

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