New research application for humidity monitoring: Pipe organs
Tuesday, Mar 12th 2013

University researchers know all about the necessity of humidity monitoring, as having non-ideal environmental conditions can wreak havoc on an experiment and make its results worthless. In a somewhat unusual take on this paradigm, one professor at Ohio's Oberlin College has applied this principle to restoring classic pipe organs.

In an effort to discover why and how historic pipe organs corrode over time, Oberlin chemistry professor Catherine Oertel and others around the world are turning to humidity monitoring and other environment control systems, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Pipe organs, large piano-like instruments that feature dozens of large metal tubes, have long been a staple of Europe's musical and religious tradition. However, due to their size and the number of parts used, old pipe organs are prone to breakage. Considering that even the smallest fissure can dramatically affect an instrument's sound, even minor issues can be majorly devastating. The Plain Dealer reported that while modern replacement parts can easily be installed on an antique organ, some scoff at this fix because it alters the instrument's sound and ruins its historic appeal.

"All these incremental changes take away from what was heard and composed for by historic composers," Oertel said, according to the news source.

How humidity monitoring helps
In order to get a better idea of what was causing problems with historic pipe organs, researchers from around the world have implemented humidity monitoring solutions to determine exactly where issues were first appearing and what the likely culprit was.

For starters, Oertel and others were able to determine that most issues were related to internal structural damage. In particular, the newspaper noted that as internal metalwork was exposed to various levels of humidity over time, certain corrosive physical qualities appeared in the pipes.

While external humidity was one source for this moisture, researchers discovered another surprising one: the wood used to make the instrument. As a natural material, the wooden frame used was found to be a source of moisture that was destroying pipe organs from the inside, the source reported. As fresh supplies and modern glues were used to repair old organs, the amount of internal humidity-related damage observed by researchers increased dramatically.

"We have a quite strong correlation between these problems and restoration and repairs 10, 20, 30 years ago, where new wood was introduced into the organ," said Carl Johan Bergsten, an organ players and a research engineer at the University of Gothenburg's Organ Art Center in Sweden, according to the newspaper.

Thanks to the research team's findings, pipe organ owners and players are now equipped with more actionable knowledge to keep their beloved instruments free from harm. For one, churches and other locations should use humidity monitoring to keep a close eye on internal conditions. In addition, the Plain Dealer reported that organists should not use humidifiers and that oak in particular should be avoided when building or repairing an instrument.

Oertel told the newspaper that while there used to be hundreds of pipe organs across Western and Central Europe, their numbers are diminishing rapidly. By using humidity monitoring technology, preservationists and music lovers can better maintain a piece of history.