Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content – the Differences

Do you ever question why certain materials become moist or deficient in moisture retained over time, as opposed to others staying the same? The answer lies in understanding the concepts of moisture content and equilibrium moisture content. 

Moisture content is an indicator of how much water is present within a material, with equilibrium moisture content denoting the maximum amount that can be held based on environmental conditions such as temperature and relative humidity.

It is essential to distinguish between these two ideas as they can have a significant impact on the excellence and effectiveness of materials across numerous applications. For example, high moisture levels in wood flooring can lead to swelling, cupping, or even mold growth.

Furthermore, when working with materials like wood, understanding their equilibrium moisture content in drying wood is crucial because it affects their strength and durability.

In this discourse, we will explore the contrast between moisture content and equilibrium moisture and their paramount importance. Delve into why it is essential to understand the difference between these two entities.

This article will delve into the measurement of these two concepts and the influential forces behind them. By the end of this piece, you will be equipped with a comprehensive comprehension of both concepts and how to utilize them effectively.

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Explanation of Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content

The Moisture Content (MC) of a material is characterized by the mass percentage of water within it. It represents the total amount of water contained within a material at any given time.

Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC) is the maximum amount of water (mass) a material can contain at a specific temperature and relative humidity, without either absorbing or exuding any more dampness from its environment. At this point, there is an absence of net transfer between internal and external sources for moisture exchange, thus attaining equilibrium.

Importance of Understanding the Difference Between the Two

Gaining a comprehension of the disparity between moisture content vs equilibrium moisture content is pivotal in many areas of academia, including construction, food science, agricultural engineering, forestry, and materials science. The characteristics of most materials are significantly altered by their water content.

For instance, alterations in humidity can detrimentally impact the strength and lastingness of construction materials like wood or concrete. For food products like fruits or grains, high MC can lead to spoilage or microbial growth.

By understanding the importance of equilibrium moisture content, we can prevent damage caused by excessive expansion/contraction due to temperature fluctuations while maintaining optimal conditions for storage and transportation.

Knowledge about MC and EMC helps us extend the shelf-life of products while ensuring consistency in product quality throughout their lifetime.

Moisture Content

Definition and Explanation

The amount of water present in a material at any given moment is known as its moisture content, typically described as a proportion of its dry weight. Accurate measurement of MC is essential in multiple industries, including agriculture, food science, and construction.

In agriculture, it affects crop growth and storage periods while in food science; it influences food quality and shelf life. In construction, MC can affect the stability of structures made from wood or concrete.

When wood has high MC, it is prone to warping and rotting while concrete can develop cracks if it dries too quickly. Understanding MC is crucial in ensuring that materials perform optimally.

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How it is Measured

There are two primary methods for measuring MC: drying and weighing. The drying wood method involves removing all the water from a sample by heating it until there is no more moisture left. The weight loss from drying wood represents the amount of water that was present in the sample before drying.

The weighing method involves weighing a sample before and after exposing it to heat or microwaves for a specific duration. Weight loss represents the amount of water that evaporated during heating or microwave exposure.

Factors Affecting Moisture Content

The amount of moisture present in a material can vary significantly depending on the surrounding temperature, RH, and duration of exposure. Temperature affects how much water vapor air can hold at any given time; hence changes in temperature can cause variations in moisture levels.

When air cools below its dew point temperature, some of its vapor may condense into liquid form on surfaces causing them to become wet. Humidity gauges the amount of water vapor in a given atmosphere compared to its potential for retaining moisture at a definite temperature.

The air is thick with an abundance of water vapor, signaling an augmented humidity level and a heightened presence of moisture. Time is also a critical factor that affects MC since it determines how long a material has been exposed to environmental factors that can affect its moisture level.

The more prolonged a material’s contact with moisture, the greater its MC grows. Additionally, materials with high porosity like wood and concrete are susceptible to absorbing more water over extended periods.

Equilibrium Moisture Content

When materials are exposed to the atmosphere, they will take in or shed moisture based on the environment’s relative humidity. EMC alludes to the quantity of moisture a material can hold at a particular temperature and relative humidity.

Understanding the EMC of materials, like food, wood, textiles, paper products, and pharmaceuticals, is an essential property that requires measurement and analysis. Relative humidity and temperature are just some of the numerous influences on this balance.

The hygroscopicity, porosity and surface area of a material dictates its capacity to absorb and release water. For example, highly porous materials such as paper can absorb more water than dense materials like metals.

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How it is measured

The EMC of a material can be determined using various approaches, depending on its attributes. Two common methods of measurement include:

Weighing method

This method involves weighing a sample of the material before drying it in an oven at a specified temperature until it reaches constant weight. Through the comparison of starting weight and ending weight, one can approximate the amount of water in the sample.

Electronic moisture level meter method

Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content - Moisture meter by wagner meters
Moisture meter by Wagner meters

This method uses specialized equipment known as electronic moisture meters to measure the electrical resistance or capacitance changes in a material caused by variations in its MC. Electronic meters are quicker than weighing methods but may not be suitable for all types of materials.

Moisture level meters come in 2 different types:

  • Pin-style moisture meters
  • pinless moisture meters

Pin style moisture level meters have two small pins that have to be pushed into the wood in order to measure the moisture level. Because of this, they leave damage to the wood surface, but they are cheaper than pinless moisture level meters. Go to my article Top 5 Best Moisture Meters on the Market: The Ultimate Buying Guide to find the one you need.

Pinless moisture levelmeters on the other hand will use an electromagnetic field to measure the amount of moisture. They will not leave marks in the wood, but are a little more expensive. Go to my article The 5 Best Pinless Moisture Meters for Your DIY Projects (Expert Tips) to find the best pinless moisture level meters to choose from.

There is also the equilibrium moisture content formula where you have to divide the percent RH by a factor of 5. So for example, for a relative humidity of 75%, the estimated EMC would be 15%.

Factors affecting equilibrium moisture content

The EMC depends on various factors such as:

Relative humidity

The relative humidity (RH) of the environment surrounding the material affects its EMC. When the RH is high, materials tend to absorb more moisture from the air and reach a higher EMC.

Conversely, when the RH is low, materials tend to lose moisture and reach a lower EMC.


The temperature of the environment also affects the EMC of a material. Higher temperatures generally increase the ability of materials to absorb moisture from their surroundings and reach a higher EMC.

Gaining an insight into the elements that alter EMC is essential, as they can substantially influence material properties like strength, resilience, and dimensional steadiness.

A thorough understanding of these factors can help in selecting appropriate materials for specific applications in different environments.

Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content - Equilibrium moisture curve
Equilibrium moisture curve By Hankwang – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Differences between Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content

Moisture Content vs. Equilibrium Moisture Content: Definitions

The main difference between moisture content and equilibrium moisture content is their definitions. The MC of a material refers to the amount of water it contains at any given moment, whereas its EMC indicates the maximum amount of water it can retain at a specified temperature and relative humidity.

For instance, if a wooden table holds 12% MC, it means that 12% of its total weight is made up of water in that exact instant. However, if we expose this table to different environmental conditions of temperature and relative humidity over time, its EMC may change accordingly.

Measurement Methods for Moisture Content and Equilibrium Moisture Content

Another significant difference between these two concepts is their measurement methods. Traditionally, the MC is measured by drying or weighing; either method aims to determine the amount of water present in the sample after either removing it completely or comparing its current weight with its original dry state’s weight.

On the other hand, EMC requires specialized equipment such as electronic meters to measure accurately. These meters measure the electric conductivity or capacitance changes in materials due to variations in their moisture levels.

The Importance of Understanding the Differences between MC and EMC

Knowing about these differences is essential for several reasons. For instance, when designing products that require precise specifications regarding environmental exposure (e.g., furniture), manufacturers must consider EMC instead of MC since it accounts for possible future changes in ambient conditions.

Moreover, understanding these differences can help prevent damage caused by excess or insufficient amounts of humidity in certain materials—for example, wood can crack or warp if too dry or rot if too wet.


Grasping the contrast between moisture content and equilibrium moisture content is critical when dealing with materials prone to environmental fluctuations. By measuring and managing these levels correctly, we can help ensure the longevity, quality, and reliability of such materials in a variety of industries and applications.

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