Conquering the muggy (wetlands?) basement foe – active, passive, and natural humidity control

The Problem: humidity galore

So, now that I have settled into life at home, I have rolled up my sleeves and intend on tackling an ancient problem with this house – the consistently high levels of humidity in the basement, and the ease with which mold and mildew can show up whenever a particularly bad rainstorm hits and floods in a bit.  The jump from “very high humidity” to “partial wetlands ecosystem” after such a storm has a tendency to spawn some mildew and mold patches where air isn’t properly circulating.

The hygrometer in place in the basement - a muggy high of 71% humidity in the direct path of a heavy duty fan

The hygrometer in place in the basement – a muggy high of 71% humidity in the direct path of a heavy duty fan

What is a Mike to do, then?

Research the bejeezus out of the problem and come up with cost-effective, non-toxic and as many low-electricity passive methods of solving the issues, of course:

1) mold eradication, natural style

The first issue, of course, with the intermittent wetlands ecosystem of our basement is the mold and mildew – and I am disinterested in spending a huge amount of money on clearing it out, but also do not want to put a bunch of extra fungicidal chemicals, inimical to non-mold life (for instance, me), into the air.

After doing a great deal of searching, I found a sufficient number of claims about the viability of natural tea tree oil, mixed approximately 1 teaspoon of the oil per cup of water, in a spray bottle.  Leave it on the mold or mildew patches overnight, and then in the morning wipe it clean and either IMMEDIATELY dispose of the rags outdoors, or wash them in scalding water, so any living mold particulates do not remain in the house.

This is the particular tea tree oil I used, and at $10 per 2 oz, certainly not cheap.  But dilute with water and spray and it works fungicidal miracles!

This is the particular tea tree oil I used, and at $10 per 2 oz, certainly not cheap. But dilute with water and spray and it works fungicidal miracles!

The Department of Health has a few important tips on using this – “One patient went into a coma after drinking half a cup of tea tree oil” – so I do not plan on imbibing any more than a third of a cup of the stuff, I guess.

I have been on too much of a cleaning crusade to stop and take before/after photos, but the product seems to work wonders – all the patches of mold or mildew, particularly on wooden baseboards, seem to be completely free from mold after one application and then cleaning with Murphy’s Oil Soap.

2) air flow + near HEPA-level air filtration, cheaply

Following one of the projects I put into place in New Haven, I have made two box fans here into air filters on mechanical timers – and they are both in the biggest problem areas for humidity swings, and both aimed towards the intake for the house furnace and fan system (and thus a third air filter before sending air through the house and HVAC system).

Approximately 3 hours on for 1 hour off on each fan, at their medium speeds, and the ambient humidity seemed to go down (no hygrometer readings prior, so that is a guess) – but regardless, moving the air through two extra grade 9 filters and aiming it towards the intake AND making sure air is getting turned over in places with relatively small return (especially the far edge of the crawlspace)… these will cause positive changes to air quality in the whole house over time.

3) upgrading to a <25 year old dehumidifier

I looked into rock salt dehumidifiers (basically, the large chunks of salt pull moisture from the air, and is situated in a bucket with a drain hose into a sink)… but the combination of possibly making rust a problem with the salt in the air, and the worries about the salt eating away at whichever gaskets and fittings I used on the drains, made me spring for a new Frigidaire dehumidifier:

Humidity in this basement, your golden age has ended

Humidity in this basement, your golden age has ended

Besides the fact that this both uses less electricity than the older unit AND it comes with a built-in air filter (with an alarm to tell you to clean it after every 250 hours of running the unit)… just makes my air quality quest that much easier!

4) root-free and humidity-eating Tillandsia plants

The Tillandsia is the addition to this project which will have outposts upstairs as well – the plants of this sort do not have a root system, having evolved to live atop rainforest canopies.  As such, their stalks have small scales on them through which humidity and dust are taken in to provide water and nutrients, respectively.

One of the plants hanging, this one has the beginnings of a bloom

One of the plants hanging, this one has the beginnings of a bloom.  Notice the silver looking dust – those small scales actually take in humidity and dust for water and nutrients, respectively

The core notion being clean air at low prices, and having paid $20 for 10 of these relatively small plants, I decided to use bricklayer twine to hang the plants in each of the three bathrooms of the house, as well as above the kitchen sink.  Perhaps not the classiest, but this is the test run – if these plants thrive as much as I suspect they will, and perhaps even make a dent (albeit small) in ambient humidity, they might get upgrade to more permanent and nice-looking fixtures of some sort.

Three plants in place in one of the bathrooms used for showering, and thus huge billowing humidity jumps

Three plants in place in one of the bathrooms used for showering, and thus huge billowing humidity jumps

Another nice benefit to these is that they need a fair bit of sunlight but ideally not direct – well, northeast Ohio is basically a realm in which the sun does shine intermittently, but indirectly at best (we are very cloudy and snowy) – so they will thrive for both the lighting and humidity conditions present, if my guess is correct.

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And, after a week of running the new Frigidaire and those other methods in place, I daresay the humidity has been put under control:

Much better with 20% reduction in relative humidity, even the hygrometer says "OK"

Much better with 20% reduction in relative humidity, even the hygrometer says “OK”

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BONUS: dealing with humidity issues inside crawlspace storage containers

One of the core causes for my embarking upon this great crusade is to ensure that my possessions which need stored while I am at home, in particular my sizable book collection, won’t get damaged in the higher basement humidity which also calls the crawlspace home.  So while I did indeed do all of the above to reduce ambient humidity in the basement generally, I am nothing if not thorough – and so each storage container got a little bit of tender loving humidity control (TLhC) – adding a small bag of reusable and color-indicating industrial-grade desiccant.

Industrial dessicant, cheap pantyhose, reused twist ties - easy!

Industrial desiccant, cheap pantyhose, reused twist ties – easy!

The desiccant isn’t really very healthy to handle, and I didn’t want to spend a fortune on containers – so after reading about other people’s habits (especially in tool kits or drawers where rust prevention is key), I learned that simple cheap pantyhose are a great way to make air porous bags for the silicone beads – cut them into manageable sizes, tie an end with a twist tie, fill with some desiccant, and tie the other end – easy!

The best part about this system is related to the worst part – it will eventually need to be checked for any packets which have turned blue, indicating 60% or higher water content in the beads… so I have to check them.  But I can put them on a sheet in the oven for a few hours and they will be 100% restored for reuse – so there is no upkeep cost other than time for the labor.  A price worth paying to make sure important items stored for the future are kept mold, mildew, and water-damage free.

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All told, these invasive wetlands have been officially dealt with for now and, with any luck, the long term.

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