Cheap Moisture Meters vs. High-Quality Moisture Meters
You want to save money.
But you don’t want to cut corners, so you’re left with a dilemma:
How much should you spend on a tool like a wood moisture meter?
Moisture meters come in a variety of prices and levels of quality. Is there that big of a difference between cheap ones and high-quality ones?
Yes, an inaccurate and poor-quality moisture meter could lead to hundreds of dollars of loss in labor, material, and time.
We’ll see the reason as we explore the following aspects of this topic:
- What are the differences between cheap and high-quality moisture meters?
- Why does moisture meter accuracy matter?
- How to determine a meter’s accuracy
As you research what kind of digital moisture meter to buy, these tips will be indispensable to you. Let’s go!
What are the differences between cheap and high-quality moisture meters?
If you thought that price was the only difference between a cheap moisture meter and a high-quality one, think again. Many factors distinguish the two:
- Accuracy and calibration
- Species correction features
- Temperature correction features
- Company reputation and customer support
To help you in your decision-making process, here’s a rundown of each of these factors. They’ll help you know what to look for and avoid when you shop. These factors will apply whether you’re shopping for a high-end or mid-range moisture meter.
Accuracy and calibration
Accuracy is one of the most significant differences between moisture meters of varying quality. A quality meter will be highly accurate and have a measurement range of 6 to 30%. It will also provide a way for the user to verify calibration.
Cheap moisture meters might promise accuracy, but they’ll lack the evidence for it. They won’t have any studies to prove their accuracy. And they probably won’t even have a way to verify calibration, so you won’t be able to trust that they are accurate.
For all you know, they could be many percentage points off from the actual moisture level of a piece of wood.
These meters may not even be able to give moisture measurements below 9 or 10%!
As a result, they won’t serve the purpose of serious woodworkers, flooring installers, or cabinet makers who need to be able to measure down to 6% or lower.
After all, accuracy matters most at the lower end of the range because many indoor wood projects have to be between 6 and 9%. A meter that can measure down to 5% will also help you to know whether your wood is too dry.
The best high-end and mid-range moisture meters will have ways to give evidence of their accuracy. More on that later.
A good moisture meter will provide consistent readings. You should be able to test a spot on the wood many times and get the same number with every reading.
A cheap meter may not give you the same results—which should cause you to question its accuracy.
High-quality moisture meters are made to last. They will likely have a rubber casing, or “boot,” to protect them if they fall or suffer some other impact. They will also come with a sturdy case that protects them when they’re not being used.
Cheap meters will probably not have this kind of protection.
Species correction features
Does the moisture meter have a way to correct for wood species?
Different wood species (whether softwood or hardwood) will result in different moisture readings, even if the moisture content is the same. Thus, a good moisture meter should have a way to correct for these factors.
Some meters will come with a list of wood species with a particular number for each one. The woodworker simply inputs that number into the meter, making for ease of use.
If a moisture meter doesn’t have this feature, it should at least have a chart that allows you to make the adjustment.
Temperature correction features
This factor matters when you’re shopping for pin-type moisture meters.
This is because pin meters are affected by changes in wood temperature, while pinless moisture meters are virtually not affected in most temperature ranges.
A high-quality pin meter will come with a chart that allows you to adjust the moisture reading based on the temperature.
A comprehensive manual says a lot about the quality of a moisture meter. It should provide all the information necessary to use the meter, verify its calibration, and make various species and temperature adjustments.
If your moisture meter doesn’t come with a manual, you may have reason to be concerned about its quality.
Company reputation and customer support
A high-end meter will come from a company that has a good reputation among woodworkers, flooring installers, and construction companies. It will be a company that stands behind its products and offers support to its customers—support such as troubleshooting, calibration, and repairs.
Cheap meters, on the other hand, may not even come from a recognizable brand.
And then there’s warranty.
Some cheap meters have hardly any warranty at all—perhaps 60 to 90 days at the most. On the other hand, a high-quality meter will often have a long-lasting warranty, typically, at least a year.
The longer the warranty, the more you can be sure that the company believes in its products.
Last but not least, we have to consider the price.
Though it shouldn’t be our only consideration, the price can also be an indicator of quality. As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”
Yes, you can get a moisture meter for $40–60. But it may not have the other factors mentioned above—a way to show accuracy and verify calibration, consistent readings, species and temperature correction features, and a good warranty.
For a good mid-range moisture meter, you can expect to pay somewhere in the $100–300 range. Higher-end meters can cost significantly more. Though the amount may seem steep, it’ll be worth it in the long run.
Because you won’t have to worry whether you’re getting accurate readings. You’ll have the confidence that the number on the screen reflects the actual condition of the wood. And you’ll be able to make good decisions based on those numbers.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk a bit more about why accuracy matters so much.
Why does wood moisture meter accuracy matter?
Accurate moisture measurements can make the difference between success and failure in your wood project.
You will base important decisions on the data you get from your moisture meter. It will tell you whether your wood has acclimated enough and reached its EMC (equilibrium moisture content) so you can use it for a wood project.
But what if you think you’re getting an accurate reading when you’re really not? You may think your wood is ready to go, but what if it has too high of a moisture content? The result could be a damaged project.
Here’s an example:
Homeowner Tom is a DIY handyman who decides to install a gorgeous oak floor in his kitchen. He receives the shipment of wood boards and allows them to acclimate.
When he checks them with a $50 moisture meter he bought at his local hardware store, they are at 8% moisture content—just about the EMC in his area.
Thus, Tom assumes that the floorboards are ready for installation. But he doesn’t realize that his meter gives him inaccurate readings—it’s 4 points off the actual moisture content. His wood boards are really at 12%.
But Tom proceeds with the project, installs the flooring, and everything seems great—until a few months later. That’s when he starts to see gaps between the floorboards as they’ve dried and shrunk to the EMC.
Now, he’ll have to put in extra work and money to fix this problem.
So, let Tom’s experience remind you: Your wood won’t care how much confidence you have. You may be convinced of your moisture meter’s accuracy, but if you don’t have a quality meter, that confidence may be unfounded.
How your wood responds when used will be the telling factor.
Now, we should note that there are certain situations in which accuracy may not matter to you. If you’re testing whether your firewood is dry (under about 20% moisture content), it may not matter if the moisture reading is a few points off. And you may not need a moisture range that reaches 6%.
Or, if you’re using a moisture meter to detect a water leak, you won’t care about exact numbers as long as you can tell which areas are higher in moisture.
But in most cases—home construction, furniture building, cabinetry, wood flooring installation, and lutherie—accuracy will make a big difference.
So how can you know your meter is accurate?
How to determine the accuracy of a moisture meter
The best way to know the accuracy of moisture meters is to find an organization that tests them and compares them with the oven-dry method of determining the moisture content of wood.
This method, specified by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) D4442, is the primary method of determining moisture content for research.
It involves taking a sample piece of wood, weighing it, and then drying it in a kiln until its weight no longer changes. Once the wood is dry, the current weight is compared with the original weight. The difference indicates the amount of moisture that was in the wood.
But most individual woodworkers won’t have the time or tools needed for this kind of testing, which is why finding an organization or third party that can do it for you is the next best option.
And again, the factors mentioned above will go a long way in ensuring that a meter is accurate.
If it has a way to verify calibration and correct for species and temperature; if it comes from a company that offers good customer service and warranties; if it has a thorough manual—these are all signs that the meter is going to provide accurate results and help you avoid moisture problems.
Skip the cheap meters and go for the best moisture meter for your project.
When one tool could make all the difference in the outcome of your wood project, you’ll want to be sure it’s accurate and high quality. Wood moisture meters are no exception.
To be sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck, you’ll want to look for a moisture meter that meets the following criteria:
- It has a way to verify calibration.
- It provides consistent results.
- It’s durable.
- It has a species correction feature.
- It has a chart or feature for adjusting for temperature (pin meters only).
- It comes with a manual.
- It has a good warranty (at least one year).
- It comes from a reputable company that stands behind its products.
With these factors in place, you’ll know you’re getting accurate results—an investment that’s totally worth it in the long run.
Wondering what type of moisture meter is right for you? Our buying guide can help with that!