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Thread: Dry basement with musty smell

  1. #1
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    Dry basement with musty smell

    Live on cape cod. basements are notoriously damp and musty around here. I have owned this house for about 18 months. The basement is poured concrete, about 1,000 square feet, with about 2/3 of that finished space and the other 1/3 storage/mechanical/etc.

    When I bought the house, the basement was damp, but not wet. It had a musty smell but on a scale of 1-10, I would give it a 6 at the time of purchase, which is much better than average around here. They had one of the walmart special dehumidifiers running...the type that costs $150 and needs to be manually emptied and always freeze up when not summer time.

    I installed an Aprilaire 1830 dehumidifier after a lot of research. I have it set up so that it circulates the air all the way through the basement (expels dry air into the finished area, air intake into the unit is from unfinished area, circulation vents between the two spaces). I have the humidity level set at 45% RH. It has a digital hydrometer read out and does an excellent job keeping the humidity at the set point. Since install, the air never ever feels even remotely moist. It runs a lot when it is humid outside and only occasionally when it is dry out. I have high confidence there is very little moisture in the air...the only downside is that when it is running a lot, the basement gets hot. I also added a Whirlpool WPT80 HEPA air purifier.

    I was hoping this would solve the smell issue and get it down to a "1" on a scale of 1-10. It definitely helped...I would say it brought it from a "6" to a 2 or 3. I am sensitive to the smell of mold (or whatever that musty smell is), so I was ok with this but still a little disappointed. Well, recently we were away from the house and had the basement totally closed up for 7 weeks. Both the air purifier and dehumidifier were running the whole time. Wow...went from a 2/3 to a 5 I would say. There goes the big improvement. My kids like to play in the finished area (they never seem to mind the smell and my wife thinks I'm just being picky as she couldn't smell it after the fixes and thinks it's OK now).

    I want the musty smell gone! I'm torn between how to get there. Here is what I'm tossing around as next steps:
    -Bigger air purifier
    -Add an air exchanger (ERV???)

    I'm not sure if the increase in smell is more due to the stagnant air (nobody going into the basement for 7 weeks) or maybe the HEPA air filter on the purifier just needs to be changed? I do not mind spending the $$ on solutions that will work but do not want to throw money away.

    I also want to add a mini split (more to address the heat in the summer than anything but would also be nice for reverse cycle heat in the winter as the basement has electric heat $$ now), but I guess that is another topic.

    What do people think the best next step is here? Replace HEPA filter? Replace air purifier with something much bigger? Add an air exchanger (what kind?)? Something else?

    THanks for any input!

  2. #2
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    My parents have a basement and they painted the walls with dry lock I believe it was called and painted the floor with an epoxy floor coating and after that all the smells and humidity went away. They were able to turn off the dehumidifiers much of the time.

    Sent from the Okie state usin Tapatalk

  3. #3
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    Musty odors are highest during active mold growth. Mold accumulates and becomes residual. As you dry the space dew point. the cool surfaces lose surface moisture needed to grow and becomes dormant. The dormant mold has a odor but much less than active mold growth. As time passes the odor will decline. If you want to get rid of it now you must remove the dormant mold by washing with a detergent. If any mold grew between the concrete floor and the floor surface, it should be replaces and the concrete scrubbed and the surface replaced. If the moisture content is maintained low enough to avoid near condensation, the odor will continue to decline.
    Fresh air ventilation is important any time the space is occupied. Winter winds and stack effect air will improve the odor problem. Your dehumidifier could have a fresh air inlet connected to the return with dampers to provide adequate fresh air to improve the odor problem. You need about 50-80 cfm until the odor declines to what you want. After that, suggest fresh when the home is occupied.
    Also make sure you do not have a damp spot in remote corner where mold may be still active.
    Raise the setting to 50--55%RH to reduce the heat build up in the basement. This is low enough to prevent mold growth in most situations and will reduce heat build up.

    This is what I do in my WI finished basement with good results. Originally, I removed the old carpet to get rid of the musty odor.
    Keep us posted.
    Regards Teddy Bear
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

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  5. #4
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    If I had that issue to resolve I would first do an extensive top-to-bottom scrubbing with a industrial soap solution with about 10% chlorine bleach added to it. Then the next day do a second extensive scrubbing with an Odor-Ban type of product. You can use a sponge mop on the walls and ceilings to make it easier. Anywhere there is no ceiling I would spray well with a 10% chlorine bleach solution - use a pump type garden sprayer.

    Keeping the RH below 50% has stopped your molds from growing but what you smell is their residual odors. You have to physically clean that remainder out of there. The same way that, after the mice are dead - you have to empty the traps outside somewhere. <g>

    If you hate bleach for some reason you can rent (or build: I built both of mine) an industrial strength ozone generator and eliminate the cleaning step one above.

    Then paint the exposed concrete walls with one of the moisture proofing products and paint all the finished areas with anti biological paint - usually sold as 'bathroom paint'. For the exposed wood, joists and so forth, spray it all with something cheap like Thompson's water seal. Just use a garden sprayer.

    Afterwards I would add bamboo charcoal odor absorbers and keep the RH% below 50%.

    PHM
    --------


    Quote Originally Posted by capecrusader View Post
    Live on cape cod. basements are notoriously damp and musty around here. I have owned this house for about 18 months. The basement is poured concrete, about 1,000 square feet, with about 2/3 of that finished space and the other 1/3 storage/mechanical/etc.

    When I bought the house, the basement was damp, but not wet. It had a musty smell but on a scale of 1-10, I would give it a 6 at the time of purchase, which is much better than average around here. They had one of the walmart special dehumidifiers running...the type that costs $150 and needs to be manually emptied and always freeze up when not summer time.

    I installed an Aprilaire 1830 dehumidifier after a lot of research. I have it set up so that it circulates the air all the way through the basement (expels dry air into the finished area, air intake into the unit is from unfinished area, circulation vents between the two spaces). I have the humidity level set at 45% RH. It has a digital hydrometer read out and does an excellent job keeping the humidity at the set point. Since install, the air never ever feels even remotely moist. It runs a lot when it is humid outside and only occasionally when it is dry out. I have high confidence there is very little moisture in the air...the only downside is that when it is running a lot, the basement gets hot. I also added a Whirlpool WPT80 HEPA air purifier.

    I was hoping this would solve the smell issue and get it down to a "1" on a scale of 1-10. It definitely helped...I would say it brought it from a "6" to a 2 or 3. I am sensitive to the smell of mold (or whatever that musty smell is), so I was ok with this but still a little disappointed. Well, recently we were away from the house and had the basement totally closed up for 7 weeks. Both the air purifier and dehumidifier were running the whole time. Wow...went from a 2/3 to a 5 I would say. There goes the big improvement. My kids like to play in the finished area (they never seem to mind the smell and my wife thinks I'm just being picky as she couldn't smell it after the fixes and thinks it's OK now).

    I want the musty smell gone! I'm torn between how to get there. Here is what I'm tossing around as next steps:
    -Bigger air purifier
    -Add an air exchanger (ERV???)

    I'm not sure if the increase in smell is more due to the stagnant air (nobody going into the basement for 7 weeks) or maybe the HEPA air filter on the purifier just needs to be changed? I do not mind spending the $$ on solutions that will work but do not want to throw money away.

    I also want to add a mini split (more to address the heat in the summer than anything but would also be nice for reverse cycle heat in the winter as the basement has electric heat $$ now), but I guess that is another topic.

    What do people think the best next step is here? Replace HEPA filter? Replace air purifier with something much bigger? Add an air exchanger (what kind?)? Something else?

    THanks for any input!
    PHM
    --------
    The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.

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  7. #5
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    Thanks very much for the replies.

    As far as the fresh air...thanks for the specs on the needed cfm. What about these ERVs? Are they worth the extra cost? are there particular models to look at? I have had it in my head that getting some fresh air in there is going to help a lot so this suggestion resonates with me...I just need details on what to buy to make this happen.

    As far as the cleaning...that makes sense. Have painted some of the (drywall) walls just to change color. Have never seen any evidence of mold anywhere in the basement. But if the smell is there I guess it has to be somewhere. I guess it cannot hurt to wash everything down.

    I do fear that if I can't see the mold but can smell it (I'm assuming what I smell is mold) then it is behind the walls/under the floor. As I am the only one it bothers, I honestly will continue to try to minimize it but I'm not tearing out any walls or floors to solve the problem. Oddly the odor seems worst at the top of the stairs. Not sure if that is because mold smell rises? Because it just hits me when opening the door? Or? area seems totally free from any indications of dampness or water damage and I actually had one of these two walls open for other reasons (construction) and saw no evidence of mold anywhere. I'm going to start by washing this area down as suggested.

    Seems like no love for the HEPA air purifier? I could never tell for sure if it did anything...but I think the model I got was only rated for 200ft2 or something so I thought maybe it was just too small to make an impact.

    It is a vacation home so this time when I left, I left the basement door open. Hoping it helps the smell of the basement more than it hurts the smell of the rest of the house

    Again, thanks for the input.

  8. #6
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    Fresh air is nice - and quite necessary overall. But I am also a lifelong fan of electronic air cleaners. The kind which are mounted in the building's air ducts. They seem to be able to clear even smells from the air.

    I imagine this is because in humans 'smell' is primarily 'taste' - you actually 'taste' the particles from the air you breathe but perceive it as 'smell' because you are breathing it in. Which, incidentally, always conjures up an interesting thought sequence every time someone farts nearby. <g>

    But anyway; EAC's remove something close to 99% of all particles out of the air - so you are no longer 'smelling' them. <g>

    PHM
    ---------


    Quote Originally Posted by capecrusader View Post
    Thanks very much for the replies.

    As far as the fresh air...thanks for the specs on the needed cfm. What about these ERVs? Are they worth the extra cost? are there particular models to look at? I have had it in my head that getting some fresh air in there is going to help a lot so this suggestion resonates with me...I just need details on what to buy to make this happen.

    As far as the cleaning...that makes sense. Have painted some of the (drywall) walls just to change color. Have never seen any evidence of mold anywhere in the basement. But if the smell is there I guess it has to be somewhere. I guess it cannot hurt to wash everything down.

    I do fear that if I can't see the mold but can smell it (I'm assuming what I smell is mold) then it is behind the walls/under the floor. As I am the only one it bothers, I honestly will continue to try to minimize it but I'm not tearing out any walls or floors to solve the problem. Oddly the odor seems worst at the top of the stairs. Not sure if that is because mold smell rises? Because it just hits me when opening the door? Or? area seems totally free from any indications of dampness or water damage and I actually had one of these two walls open for other reasons (construction) and saw no evidence of mold anywhere. I'm going to start by washing this area down as suggested.

    Seems like no love for the HEPA air purifier? I could never tell for sure if it did anything...but I think the model I got was only rated for 200ft2 or something so I thought maybe it was just too small to make an impact.

    It is a vacation home so this time when I left, I left the basement door open. Hoping it helps the smell of the basement more than it hurts the smell of the rest of the house

    Again, thanks for the input.
    PHM
    --------
    The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.

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  10. #7
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    I agree with the recommendation to do a detailed clean/wash. Mold not only needs moisture, it also needs food. And dust has sufficient nutrients for many species of mold to grow.

    If that doesn’t work, mold could be growing behind drywall, especially if there is a crack in the wall or more general seepage.

    If you can stop the mold from growing by starving it of the moisture it needs, you will stop its production of mVOCs, which are the musty odors you smell. However mVOCs can embed into porous building materials and furniture and take time to dissipate; this is where more fresh air will help. Think of it like someone regularly smoking in your basement; he’s now gone but the lingering odors will take time to dissipate.

    And the odor being at the top of the basement stairs? That’s where it first hits you and almost never the location of the actual problem.

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  12. #8
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    So I know nothing about mold.

    With that said, how does it grow behind walls or under floors if it needs food? Are the building materials the food?

    There is a built-in entertainment cabinet in the basement. It is made of oak. the inside of the cabinets have a musty smell. we have cleaned that several times (ok my wife has at my request) and while it has helped, it is still there. She used Spray Nine cleaner which I use on the boat with great success. I guess I have to break out the bleach.

    I (we) are going to go to town cleaning.

    I will add an air exchanger (would really really appreciate guidance on brands/models). I understand it can be tied into the dehumidifier (I believe it even has connections to open/close dampers)...but why would you do this? That is an honest question as I just don't understand the advantage of that as opposed to just having an exhanger on a timer that isn't tied into the dehumidifier.

    I will replace the HEPA filter in the air purifier (and could easily be talked into replacing it/supplementing it with a larger one)

    I will try to remember to report back in a few months (I hate when threads like this die without a conclusion).

    And the odor at the top of the stairs...I think certainly some of it is tied to the impact of opening the door but it seems worse there even coming up the stairs. As I think about it, the stairwell is the only wall area that hasn't been painted. I think I'll clean it real well and then paint it. Come to think of it, ceilings haven't been painted either. Is cleaning painted surfaces and then re-painting a good mitigation plan?

    thanks for the valuable input

  13. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by capecrusader View Post
    With that said, how does it grow behind walls or under floors if it needs food? Are the building materials the food?
    In general, mold needs carbon-based ("organic") materials for growth; something that was biological in nature. The paper-facing found on drywall (which once was a tree) has nutrients for growth, but not the gypsum core. Even dust has enough organic content to support growth. Technically, all this is species dependent (e.g. the species that loves to grow on dust may not have the enzymes to digest the nutrient on drywall paper).

    I don't see getting a larger HEPA filter as being beneficial. You want to keep it dry to prevent the mold and keep it well ventilated to get rid of the residual musty odors. Painting a wall/ceiling may provide some improvement on the embedded odors.
    Ian Cull, PE, CIH
    Indoor Science
    Chicago, IL

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  15. #10
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    OK, so I just returned after 4 days with the basement door open. The smell has decreased dramatically...probably to a '2' on a 1-10 scale. Only the pickiest/most olfactory sensitive would likely notice the smell (e.g. me). No noticeable smell has come up the stairs during this time. This gives me hope that an air exchanger will help dramatically as well as this is all the 'door open' has done, at least by my way of thinking.

    So I am going to wash this weekend and then get an air exchanger installed. Would still truly appreciate any guidance on the pros/cons of different air exchange systems, especially with regards to the ERVs and whether or not they are worth the cost?

    I also bought a larger HEPA purifier. Perhaps it was a waste of money but I bought it so will plug it in. Below is a picture of the HEPA filter from the existing purifier. Obvious 'stuff' caught in the filter. Does the condition of this filter tell anyone anything? This has been running essentially 24/7 for 14 months. Again, thanks for the responses, they are appreciated.
    Attached Images Attached Images  

  16. #11
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    Fresh air when unoccupied is of no value and will require the dehumidifier to remove the moisture in the fresh air.
    One more time,--Bring in fresh air with the dehumidifier when occupied. You need air for the exhaust equipment like kitchen hood and clothes drier.

    pressurizing the home with the fresh air via the dehumidifier will reduce the moisture that comes into the home via wind.

    Regards Teddy Bear
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

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  18. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by teddy bear View Post
    Fresh air when unoccupied is of no value and will require the dehumidifier to remove the moisture in the fresh air.
    ...
    Thanks for the reply.

    I now understand why bringing the fresh air in through the dehumidifier makes sense...thanks for that explanation. My hesitation to setting it up this way is that I believe it will be much more complicated and expensive to install compared to just having the exchanger dump fresh air into the space. But it sounds like that additional complication & expense is worthwhile, and the explanation does make sense to me.

    however, I'm having trouble with the snipet above. I had the basement closed-up for 7 weeks as it was not occupied and wow did it get worse. It has taken a long time to get it back to where it was prior to that 7 week shutdown. I'm having trouble understanding how having that stale air, which seems to build up residual musty odor, sit without being 'rinsed' or exchanged with fresh air is a good idea? Even in your previous reply you seemed to imply that the air exchanger should run continuously, even when unoccupied, until the musty odors have subsided to an acceptable level.

    I'm probably just misunderstanding you. Thanks for the input, I do appreciate it!

  19. #13
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    Its you home and you live there. Do what you want.

    I have got about 25 year of this and learn every day.

    One point I must make, basement with drywall on spacers on exterior concrete walls have the possible chance of high humidity between the drywall and the concrete. The Fix for this a closed cell foam on the concrete and a vapor seal on the warm side of the insulation. Foil faced closed cell foam glued to the concrete wall and the foil to the warm side with drywall inside facing the basement space. This eleminates any space for the moist air to grow mold.

    Carpeting on concrete has the possibility of moisture between the concrete and carpeting. The fix is to reduce the dew point of the basement air below the temperature of the concrete under the carpet.

    Keep us posted on how this all works out.
    Regards Teddy Bear
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

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  21. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by teddy bear View Post
    Fresh air when unoccupied is of no value
    In this context, I would say the value of ventilating continuously is that it will help remove the embedded musty odors, which was one of his primary goals. Ventilating unoccupied rooms helps dilute contaminants.

    I realize it will increase energy costs and pose some humidity risks if it is a hot & humid day, but I think it is worth it.

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  23. #15
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    I have been leaving the door open when not present at the house and have added a 2nd air purifier. It has never smelled better. I doubt it is the air purifier. I believe it is just the 'fresh' air exchanges that is occurring due to the door being open.

    I have ordered a Panasonic FV-04VE1 ERV. This is a small, self-contained ERV that is designed to be run continuously whether or not the room is occupied. I will install it in the ceiling between the joists in the unfinished area. It will bring a constant flow of fresh air from the outside at a selectable rate--either 10, 20, or 40 cfm. It has the added benefit of recovering energy (cooling or heating) from the outgoing air and 'adding' that energy to the incoming air (cools incoming air in the summer and warms incoming air in the winter). It also removes humidity from incoming air in humid weather (transferring it to the dry/conditioned outgoing air) and adds humidity to incoming air in dry weather. I based this selection on research on other sites. I will program the dehumidifier to run in 'vent' mode about 20 minutes of every hour so the fresh air is distributed throughout the basement even when the air doesn't need dehumidification.

    Once installed I will experiment with running it continuously at different speeds, with and without the door open, with different vent duty cycles, as well as experimenting with running it only when the room is occupied. I will try to remember to report back here in a couple months with results...I hate when threads like this go without a conclusion.

  24. #16
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    LIke peeing on a forest fire! You need a fresh air change in 4-5 hours minimum. ERVs will reduce a small amount of moisture in fresh air provided the exhaust air is dry. This is nice but will not control indoor moisture.
    You need 80-100 cfm of fresh air. You need 50%RH in the space.

    What you have is device that has the words you want to here. Keep us posted on this works. It helps others to avoid doing the same thing. Do not feel bad, i have tried the same fix.

    During winter, the outdoor air dries out and will dryout the home. This should give you relief until spring.
    Again keep us posted.

    Regards Teddy Bear
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

  25. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by teddy bear View Post
    LIke peeing on a forest fire! You need a fresh air change in 4-5 hours minimum. ERVs will reduce a small amount of moisture in fresh air provided the exhaust air is dry. This is nice but will not control indoor moisture.
    You need 80-100 cfm of fresh air. You need 50%RH in the space.

    What you have is device that has the words you want to here. Keep us posted on this works. It helps others to avoid doing the same thing. Do not feel bad, i have tried the same fix.

    During winter, the outdoor air dries out and will dryout the home. This should give you relief until spring.
    Again keep us posted.

    Regards Teddy Bear
    40cfm running 24/7 is peeing on a forest fire but 80-100cfm only while the space is occupied (about 4 hours per week on average or ~2% of 24/7) will work? I don't think you're correct (and honestly you have contradicted yourself a few times in this thread). The best part is that we will get to find out! And your math seems off...the space is approximately 8,000 cubic feet. 8,000 cubic feet/40 cfm =200 minutes=3.3 hour 'changeover'...hardly 'peeing on a forest fire' compared to your 4-5 hour recommendation. And in one of your posts you recommended as low as 50cfm. That statement was a small part of deciding the 40cfm would be sufficient. Whoops.

    I promise to report back and I for one have absolutely no problem admitting when something I have said or thought or done turns out to be incorrect (or acknowledging when I contradict myself)...so the truth will be written eventually. If it doesn't work as I hope it will, I will say so.

    Keep in mind that leaving the door open has made a DRAMATIC impact in a very short period of time (2 weeks) and that is only a passive exchange of air within the house. Furthermore, this impact has been made when basement/main floor temps are about even due to the time of year so any stack effect is minimized. I will admit I do not have a clue how much air is being exchanged with the door open (in cfm's). Perhaps it is a lot more than 40cfm. However, if it is a lot more than 40cfm, then it proves that a lot more than 40cfm only while the space is occupied will not work (contrary to your statements). Why? Because I have often left the door open while down there (and the kids ALWAYS leave the door open--every door for that matter!), and it has had NO discernable impact on the odor. So it is either EQUAL TO OR LESS than 40cfm and makes a big impact when left open most of the time (contrary to your assertions), or it is MORE than 40cfm and does NOTHING when only left open while occupied (also contrary to your assertions). What you're saying just simply does not add up. It may be that I end up needing both more than 40cfm and need it all the time. But I am certain that whatever it is needs to be all the time, at least until the residual odors are flushed out of the room.

    Also with regards to your comment about still needing to control moisture when using an ERV...yes, that is correct (actually there will be more moisture to remove in humid weather because you're bringing in more outside air). The dehumidifier will stay put and continue to do that. The point of the ERV as opposed to a normal fresh air intake is not that it replaces the need for a/c, heat & humidification controllers but rather reduces the energy these systems use by helping them, to varying degrees, do their jobs (as compared to an air exchanger without the energy recovering core). As far as having the words I want to here [sic], yes, I do like the words Energy Recovery Ventilator...and that is precisely what it does. To imply otherwise is strange to me. Seems someone feels his toes are being stepped on and for that I feel bad as it was not my intention.

    While I absolutely do not agree with your main assertions that 40cfm running continuously will do nothing and that 50-100cfm running only when the room is occupied is sufficient (wow do those statements strike me as 'out there'), I nevertheless appreciate the participation in the conversation and believe the conversation in this thread has forced me to think and learn and make the decisions I did...so that is good. We'll see how well it works.

  26. #18
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    Controlllng musty odors are more dependent on low %RH than ventilation. Maintain %RH low enough to prevent mold growth is the key. This also includes damp spots that may be more about water leakage than %RH. And you right, 40 cfm of ERV plus natural air change will improve conditions even through short of the fresh air change in 3- hours suggested by some.
    I did not know you would be so sensitive about salty comment, sorry.
    Most important to understand that low humidity controls biological growth like mold and dust mites. Air change purges indoor pollutants and renew oxygen.

    Keep us posted on how it all works out.
    Regards Teddy Bear
    Bear Rules: Keep our home <50% RH summer, controls mites/mold and very comfortable.
    Provide 60-100 cfm of fresh air when occupied to purge indoor pollutants and keep window dry during cold weather. T-stat setup/setback +8 hrs. saves energy
    Use +Merv 10 air filter. -Don't forget the "Golden Rule"

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