A New Challenge

I stopped writing my blog when COVID-19 began spreading to become the pandemic that we all now know. My reasoning was that anything that I would write about paled into insignificance compared with the devastating effects of the virus. Looks like we are now in acceptance of a “new normal” and life goes forwards somehow. Two things have happened recently that I thought I’d write about to pass the time, using the power left on my Chromebook, as storm Francis has just taken out the electricity. One a change in lifestyle, the other a consequence of my last blog post “Life on Mars”……

Let’s start with the lifestyle change. On advice I bought some goats milk to try as a replacement for cow’s milk. Just the one litre carton to give it go. Much to my surprise I liked it. Yes, the fat content is higher at 3.8g per 100ml instead of 1.5g per 100ml in our usual semi-skimmed but that’s not something that concerned me. I’m now buying at least 4 litres a week. 

On the goat’s milk carton, I saw a competition to win a month’s worth of Glenisk products. Send your story and get entered into a draw. So, this is what I wrote:

“I am a fairly fit person in my 60s but was diagnosed with a lack of energy and digestive problems. A suggestion was to try cutting out dairy products. This upset me greatly as a life-long lover of milk, cheese and yoghurt. Another suggestion was to try changing to goat’s milk. I don’t know why but I thought goat’s milk was going to be disgusting. Anyway, I have just bought some Glenisk Goat’s Milk and tried it in my usual cup of tea. Surprise, no difference in taste. Next the big one. Goat’s milk with my regular morning porridge. Well, absolutely delicious! I realised then that your goat’s milk is pure whole milk making my porridge nice and creamy. Reminded me of when I was young and we only had full milk from the milkman, and I loved the cream on top of the bottle! I hope you like my story.”

So far, I’m not a winner. But customer service at Glenisk appreciated my story and sent some vouchers in the post. I asked her if there was anything they do where moisture would be important so that I can write about it on my blog. They came back with “I don’t think there would be much of a theme other than the rain that falls on our soil keeps it highly nutritious.”

Maybe taking goat’s milk products, or simply working at Glenisk, makes you prophetic but it’s less than a month since Glenisk customer service prophesied and we have since had storms Ellen and Francis, both with very heavy rainfall. To have this in August is unusual, but I suppose it’s been that kind of year. Plenty of moisture for your nutritious soil now Glenisk!

A prophesy of my own that I talk about in my eBook A Wetter Look at Climate Change is with a bit of knowledge about moisture and humidity, it was easy to predict that global warming would lead to more frequent destructive storms.

Elsewhere on the goat’s milk carton is a commitment by Glenisk to plant one million trees.

Another bonus from the goat’s milk carton is that it is easily compressed. We pay €5 to dispose of 3 recycle bags at the local civic amenity site. Have a look at this photo comparing our normal plastic 2 litre milk carton squashed to the goat’s milk carton compressed. 

So, on the road to better digestion and more energy in my life. Also, helping in a small way to increase the number of trees, as well as, reducing the plastic burden on the environment and saving a bit of money. Feeling good.

Onto my big challenge. Since we are going to have several months of staying at home in the “new normal”, I had a look at Open University courses. After a bit searching, I came across S283 Planetary Science. This is a module running from October to June and includes structure and origin of our Solar System, the layout of the planets and their physical properties; meteorites, asteroids and comets and the giant gas planets; processes such as impact cratering and volcanism shaping the surfaces of many bodies in the Solar System; and exploration of the processes at work in the atmospheres of both terrestrial and giant planets.

It’s hard to conceive, but the land around me sits on rock that was once at the South Pole. Plate tectonics I’ve known about since geography at school. Studying this is going to be fascinating.

The photo is taken from an information board at my favourite cove just along the Waterford coast.

One of the topics is an introduction to Astrobiology and looks at the conditions for evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets. In my Life on Mars blog post I write about talking to an Astrobiologist working in Spain, Armando Azua-Bustos. We had a Skype call and he enlightened me about the strategies that microorganisms use to protect against dehydration. This raises the possibility of life having survived the harsh conditions on Mars. Little did I think then that I would be studying this nine months later.

As part of registering as a student on The Open University they give you your own blog page. I will be writing about my progress and posting this on both the OU blog and this blog.

Welcome to my world of moisture

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Life on Mars

Being old enough to remember when David Bowie brought out “Life on Mars” and watching him on Top Of The Pops, it’s great to see the renewed fascination with this planet. We get headlines about the findings from the various missions circling around and landing on the Mars surface. Behind those headlines there’s a fantastic amount of science going on that we don’t hear about unless you’re really into space exploration. Astrobiology is the area of science I’m drawing from to write this blog post. Especially about the limits for microbes to grow and how they get their water…….

A fact that has been known for many years is that microbes do not grow when the relative humidity of the air gets below 60%. In the FOOD section of my eBook A Wetter Look At Climate Change there is a table that shows the lowest %RH for one of the organisms is 61%. The two organisms at the bottom of the table are Xerophilic, which means, high tolerance and able to survive in dry conditions. This is where “Life on Mars” is relevant.

Atacama Desert https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atacama.png

In South America there is an area that is the most “arid” place on Earth. An area defined as arid has little or no rain and is too dry or barren to support vegetation. The Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile, is accepted as being the driest and oldest part of our planet. Microbiologists have studied the bacteria and fungi from this region since the 1960’s. But in 2003, NASA published a paper describing Atacama as a model for Mars. That kicked off intense interest in engineering and scientific activity to mimic how to perform tests on the Martian terrain.

The big question “Is there life on Mars?”

Let’s start with “Is there water on Mars?” Pictures from the Mars missions compared to geographical features on Earth, indicate strongly that liquid water once flowed on the surface of Mars. Features that look just like riverbeds and erosion by water. We know for sure that water in the form of ice sits at the North and South poles of Mars. Also, there may be water deep underground. Future missions are planned to provide some answers.

Mars showing the ice capped poles https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars

Does water always mean life?

As far as we know, water is a prerequisite for life. On Earth no life exists that does not rely on water. Back to the arid Atacama Desert. Engineers and scientist have designed machines and testing techniques to detect the presence of microbes in this desolate part of our world. The technology will be placed on board Mars missions and the data from the tests will be beamed back to Earth.

All very exciting and high tech this stuff. In my reading of the published papers on the microbiology and molecular biology of the Atacama organisms, I went looking for evidence of microbial growth in an environment that is predominantly below 60%RH. I thought, if anybody can find such Xerophiles, these guys might.

I was encouraged when I found this statement in a review paper: “This work definitively validated the Atacama Desert as a Mars analogue and also as an unparalleled place to pursue studies on the dry limit for life.” In my mind, coloured by my quest for an explanation for the 60%RH microbial growth limit, I read this as a search for organisms that can scavenge in low moisture conditions. By low moisture conditions, I mean at a humidity below 60 %RH.

A problem with doing science outside of the laboratory is the things going on that are not under your control. Looking at the weather conditions for Atacama with less than 2mm annual rain and average %RH of 10, it is easy to classify this desert as the driest place on Earth. So, what can get in the way of looking for life in such a low moisture environment? Fog for one. Drifting in from the coast and around the coastal range of mountains into the desert this moisture can provide organisms with the necessary moisture to keep them alive. What the scientists observed is a fall off in the total number and different types of organisms as they went from the edges of the desert towards its middle.

Fog advancing over the coastal range on the Pacific Ocean side of the Atacama Desert
From: Life at the dry edge: Microorganisms of the Atacama Desert Armando Azua-Bustos, Catalina Urrejola, Rafael Vicuña

After my initial excitement of maybe getting an answer to the 60 %RH growth limit for microbes, I was becoming disillusioned. Seemed like the microbes were simply scavenging moisture when it was carried across parts of the desert by fog. Frustrated by not making progress on the 60 %RH growth limit question I contacted one of the authors of a review paper “Life at the dry edge: Microorganisms of the Atacama Desert”. His name is Armando Azua-Bustos, an Astrobiologist working in Spain. We had a Skype call in which, at last, I saw hope on the horizon.

Armando told me about controlled laboratory experiments where he studied the Xerophiles from the Atacama Desert. Under low %RH conditions mimicking the Atacama Desert he detected one of the key signs of a living organism. All living creatures must have an active metabolism to live and certain molecules are produced and used within living cells. Using sensitive probes for the molecules of life, activity was seen in the Xerophiles at 10% and 30% humidity. Well below the 60% limit.

My chat with Armando got even better. He told me about how cells can protect themselves against dehydration. Certain types of sugar molecules and proteins are produced by the Xerophiles. One of the key sugars is called Trehalose that can substitute for water molecules within the cell by interacting with other key molecules. I knew about Trehalose from my past where I used it to protect yeast from freezing when storing at -20°C. Another type of molecule mentioned by Armando is Dehydrins. These are small proteins that can also substitute for water molecules within the cell. Both Trehalose and Dehydrins are produced in cells that are under stress from dehydration. Armando described the inside of the cell becoming more like a gel rather than a watery soup.


The picture we now have of Xerophiles is that, when the environment gets drier, the protective molecules, Trehalose and Dehydrins, allow the cell to continue to metabolise with less water. However, further dehydration would stop metabolism completely, which means cell death. Armando suggested that Xerophiles have evolved biochemical pathways to counteract dehydration by producing within the cell a small amount of water for metabolism. This is what Armando and his colleagues are detecting using their probe for metabolic activity. In other words, the Xerophiles respond to drought by protecting themselves and then turn on a water production mechanism.

So, with my question answered about the 60% growth limit, what about the Big question, Life on Mars? Science is telling us that a key sign of life, metabolism, is looking feasible under the dry conditions present on Mars. Does that mean there could be the possibility of organisms growing in that environment? We don’t know yet.

Earth and Mars were created around the same time, about 4.6 billion years ago. Mars started to lose its atmosphere and ability to support liquid water about 4 billion years ago. But it took a further 0.5 billion years (3.5 billion years ago) for life to evolve on Earth. This raises the question of would there have been a sufficient time for life to have evolved on Mars before it became too dry? If life had evolved, is it possible that Martian Xerophiles would be able to sustain low level metabolic activity over the billions of years since it became dry? Armando and his fellow Astrobiologists will one day let us know.

NASA have discovered large underground lakes of water on Mars. One of these is frozen and is the size of Lake Superior, another is liquid. Also, it is possible that underground water could be warmed by the sun and trapped in caves where it could support life. This all adds to the thrill of there being Martians out there, albeit most likely micro-ones!

Welcome to my world of moisture

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Episode 4: Got there in the end!

A double meaning in the title. One, eventually after being very busy with Relequa I’ve found a little bit of time to publish the last episode. Two, we have completed the home for Relequa.

Back to the story. After we had thawed out after the Beast from the East the lads were back on site. Michael the Carpenter finishing off the roof, Eugene the Strong finishing off walls. In this blog, the fourth and last episode of finding Relequa a new home, I’ll take you to completion of the build to our fitted out “Alternative Alpine Lodge”.

The lads had recommended Munster Joinery, an Irish windows and doors company, that has built itself from a start-up in Munster to a large international company, supplying and fitting their products across Ireland and the UK. We were soon ready to act upon the quote from Munster Joinery. The Beast from the East did set a lot of people back and we had to wait longer than we expected for the windows and doors to arrive. But, arrive they did, and no problems with fitting. Surprisingly quick actually, with the fitters going off to another job on the same day.

Windows and doors in place we were on another cycle of Michael the Carpenter, Kieran the Plasterer and Mícheál the Electrician. Time now to introduce you to our last character, Gregor the Tiler, a giant of a man from Poland. Gregor the Tiler didn’t talk much. Three areas were planned for tiling; reception, toilet and my office come “sun” room.

The next sequence of events within my “sun” room was more or less the same as the garage refit with timber, plasterboard and plastering stages. While this was going on, I started painting the ceiling of what was to become the meeting room. After three coats of paint I surrendered and we got in painters. Apparently, I was using the wrong paint for the light in the room!

Apart from drying plaster that I talked about in Episode 3, there was nothing inside or outside relating to moisture to explore further in my “world of Moisture Matters”. Not until we were fully fitted out did an interesting moisture issue arise.

As well as making our Relequa Moisture Profiling System, we also get involved in project work. Our first project was for a company called Sepha who make small scale pharmaceutical equipment for R&D laboratories and Clinical Trial manufacture and packing of tablets and capsules.

Sepha had just launched their new invention for testing how good the foil seal is (“integrity”) on blister packs. Up until this invention, pharmaceutical manufacturers had to take a statistical sample of blisters from a batch and test the “integrity” of the seal using a machine that forces dye into the blister pockets. Blister pockets picking up the dye would fail the test. This dye test, used for many, many years, works on the principle of having a significant fraction of the batch of blisters not failing, and so the rest of the batch is passed for use. Sepha’s new machine called VisionScan, uses a technique which allows 100% of the blisters in a batch to be checked for leaks without damaging the tablet or capsule in the pocket, or the blister pack itself.

The project with Relequa was devised to use moisture movement as a way for testing the “integrity”  of blisters after treatment with VisionScan. If treatment affected the “integrity” of the blister seal then moisture would be taken up by a tablet inside the pocket. A gain in moisture of a tablet is easily detected using our Relequa Moisture Profiling System. Moisture Profiling of tablets was done before and after VisionScan treatment and then over a period of several weeks after storing the blisters at high humidity.

We showed that the tablets we chose could easily pick up moisture and this, if occurred, would be detected in tablets from VisionScan treated blisters. No difference in tablet moisture was seen between the tablets from blisters treated by VisionScan compared to untreated blisters. The conclusion was that the VisionScan treatment had no impact on the “integrity” of the seal. This project was written up by an independent author at Ulster University as a whitepaper in the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Science and is free to download.

Earlier I mentioned an interesting issue that came up. Due to technical reasons around making tablets, that I’ll not go into here, we chose to make the tablets for the Sepha project from a sugar called Xylitol. When the Sepha project was completed, I obtained the bulk of the tablets that were not packed into blisters. My intention was to use these for calibrating the MP-1000, our new Relequa Moisture Profiling System.

Customers who have bought an MP-1000 can check if the system is functioning as it should. To do this we supply them with tablets from a batch that we have already tested. These tablets are sealed in a moisture resistant pack. The pack is a bag made with a high moisture-barrier material. We put in a number of tablets and heat seal the bag.

Before releasing the calibration tablets for use, the sealed bags were put into high humidity conditions and at weekly intervals a bag was removed, the tablets taken out and immediately checked on the MP-1000. What happened next was unexpected.

Using my many years of experience working with moisture issues, I knew from i) the starting condition of the tablets, ii) the quality of moisture-barrier material of the bag and iii) the ambient humidity, that no moisture transfer should occur over the time the bags were stored. However, I couldn’t argue with data that clearly showed that the tablets from the sealed bags were picking up moisture. So what on earth was going on?

At times, to solve a problem, it’s only about using “all” the information that’s available to you, even when it’s not directly related to the thing you are investigating. When you hear the answer, you’ll probably think “of course it’s related” but that is the power of hindsight.

Back to the Sepha project for a clue. As part of the testing protocol I built in what is known as a “positive control”. Using a hypodermic needle, a tiny hole was put into some of the blister pockets of the packed Xylitol tablets. These were placed, along with the other blister packs, at high humidity. After a week the tablets from the pockets with a hole had dramatically picked up moisture. Other tablets from intact pockets were unchanged. When attempting to test the tablets from the pockets with a hole that had been at high humidity for two weeks, no testing could be done because the tablets had turned to mush!

That mush was the clue. Our Xylitol tablets were undergoing deliquescence, a property of salts and sugars that I’ve talked about before on my blog posts. These tablets were chosen because of their ability to take up moisture. Where this was an effective property for the Sepha project, it was too effective for using the same tablets as a stable source of moisture calibration material.

The moisture barrier bags, in which the Xylitol tablets were packed as calibration tablets, are only moisture resistant and not an absolute barrier to moisture transfer. With the external humidity fluctuating around 65% RH a small amount of moisture passed through the material of the bag. The driving force for this to happen is that the tablets are continuously absorbing moisture as they move towards deliquescence.

My only option was to have different types of tablets prepared and start again with a moisture testing time course experiment.

Welcome to my world of moisture

Next topic: Life on Mars.

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Fearing The Beast From The East

Episode 2 gave us a new roof and concrete floor for Relequa’s new home. Inside things began taking shape with the timber stud partitions erected. A skeleton appeared from the hands of Michael the Carpenter turning our layout plan into a 3D reality. Next we bring into our story two new characters, Mícheál the Electrician and Kieran the Plasterer…..

The Electrics

I got on with extremely well with Mícheál (pronounced MeeHall) the Electrician. My dad was an electrician and in my teens I would help him out on various jobs. So, every now and then, I gave Mícheál the Electrician an extra pair of hands. Nothing too technical, just pulling through cables so he didn’t have to go back and forward between areas and up and down his ladder so many times.

Once the cabling was done, Michael the Carpenter came back on site to fix the plasterboard. This was done incredibly quickly and the place was really taking shape. Kieran the Plasterer arrived to do the “bonding”. Because of the decision we took on the design of the ceiling, the curved edges had to have extra plaster put on first to create the shape. Other edges, like the archway we wanted going from our meeting room through to the door of the toilet, needed bonding too.

The Plaster

Plaster comes as a powder that is added to lots of water and is applied wet. If you have ever used Polyfiller then you’ll know that adding the right amount of water makes it workable. It’s much the same approach with plaster. Key to plaster working is of course the water. After plastering walls and ceilings, the water must be left to evaporate until the plastered surface is dry. Drying plaster is a case of where “moisture really matters”. And that’s where also we had a problem.

Being winter it was both cold outside and inside our new building which had no heating. As I describe in Chapter ? of my eBook A Wet Look At Climate Change, when the temperature falls, relative humidity increases. Why is that important? Because you cannot dry something like wet plaster in air with high humidity.

“So”, I was speaking to Keiran the Plasterer “how long will it take for the plaster to dry so we can begin painting?” With an air of confidence that spoke experience “Sure, usually a few days, but with the bonding, could take a week” “What?” I said. Michael the Carpenter pitched in “Yeh, that amount of plaster……mmm….don’t know, could be couple of weeks or longer, it’s cold enough in here”. You know that feeling when you think you’re just getting to the end of a project or job then people and events gang up against you?

One week later there did not seem to be much drying going on. To hell with this, I’m bringing our dehumidifier in. I had to run an extension lead from the house as the electrics was not connected up yet. “You don’t want to dry the plaster out too quickly” says Michael the Carpenter. “Michael, it’s b…… freezin in here. This is only a domestic dehumidifier. There’s a relationship between temperature and humidity, I wrote a book about it, it’’ll be fine” Do you sense my frustration?

Feeling back in control of events now. But there was something looming in the East.

Around the time Kieran the Plasterer was doing his bit, John the Builder appeared with Michael the Carpenter “We’ve been thinking”. We saw from the house, peeking out through a window, a Spade Meeting going on and wondered what the problem was now. Some background first to the conversation about to take place. Because John the Builder was on-site we asked him, just out of interest, what a conservatory would cost. We had a quote for adding a conservatory onto the house from a local windows and conservatory company and wondered how the cost would compare.

The Extension

“We’ve been thinking. Because we have taken out the window at the back of the garage, we could drop that opening to the floor and make a door into a ‘sun lounge’ built onto your new place”. Out we all go with John the Builder and Michael the Carpenter to meet up with Eugene. “It’ll come out to here, with a wall so high” says John the Builder indicating the height with his hand. Michael the Carpenter continues “on top of the wall there’ll be windows all round to a double door which will come out this way onto your patio”. John the Builder and Michael the Carpenter now in full flow “there’s different ways for the roof”: a piece of offcut wood, commonly used by Michael the Carpenter’s version of scrap paper, is picked up from the ground and roof types are sketched. “We think a ‘hipped roof’ would be grand”. “A what?”. Michael the Carpenter look around, “see that house over there and the roof coming out the back? well like that”.

“Ok lads, bottom line, how much?” Including a rough guess for the windows from Munster Joinery, it came in at under a third of the quote we got for adding a conservatory onto the house. The deal was done.

Here we go again. Eugene started with his Kango, John the Builder with his pickaxe, Michael the Carpenter disappeared to order timber, roof felt and the same type of roof tiles. Apparently, after the previous roof tile delivery failure, Michael the Carpenter stood over the chap and watched while he placed the order.

The Base

A couple of days later a cement mixer arrived. Not so big as in Episode 1. But this time the concrete had to be wheelbarrowed to get to where the base for the sun lounge needed to be laid. I talked about the concrete curing process and the need for high humidity in Episode 1. Since this concrete base was outside, John the Builder and Eugene covered it with thick polythene to keep in the moisture, and of course the Irish weather out.

The Frame

Steel girders arrived to be dumped in the front garden, now with less and less grass visible. These had to be man handled to the back of Relequa’s future new home. A frame was erected to support the roof. Michael the Carpenter returns and sets to work on that.

The Cat Flap

Eugene the Strong, I think we’ll call him from now on: he picks up heavy breeze blocks two at time, one in each hand. “Eugene, would you do us a wee favour?” we ask. “We want a hole for a ‘Smart Cat Flap’ for Watson”. “Sure, where, what size?”. We gave him the instruction booklet from the box and off he went. It was something different. A little project that he took to heart. Eugene the Strong and Watson got on well together.

He took pride in explaining to us how the tunnel of the cat-flap was going to be angled so the rain water would run out; how he would seal it to finish it off, outside and inside, when the build work was done.

The Roof

Next, concrete window sills arrived on a pallet that was lifted by a crane attached to the delivery lorry over the front wall. No grass left now, but that was only temporary, as they were the wrong size and were picked up again and replaced 2 days later.

Fantastic! A building materials supplier actually managed to deliver the right type of tiles, the right number of tiles, AND, on time! So, Michael the Carpenter on the roof, Eugene the Strong building walls, everything hunky dory.

The Beast

News from the East, the Beast has arrived. Sure enough, from beautiful blue skies to the worse snow and blizzard I have seen in the 25 years I’ve been here in Ireland.

When I was writing my eBook, A Wet Look At Climate Change, I had in my mind as a running theme and a subtitle to the book, the consequences of climate change. Whatever the cause, climate change has consequences. For us in this story of Relequa’s new home, it meant no progress for well over a week and a knock-on effect for launching our new product.

Coming next: Episode 4 ……….

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Welcome to my world of moisture

Episode 2

In Episode 1 of A New Home for Relequa we ended up with a shell of block walls as the canvas for the layout of our new facility. Episode 2 takes us to a new roof and a concrete floor. Of course, this is a blog about my world of moisture and not something more suited to Builder’s magazine.  Without being at all contrived, there is an interesting moisture aspect to the next stage of the garage renovation…..

The logic to the next stage of the build was to put on the roof timbers and roofing felt, followed by laying of the concrete floor. Michael the Carpenter, with circular saw set up in the driveway and nail gun in hand, set to work on the timbers. Things were going well and I was amazed how quickly the roof was taking shape. Then, there was the knock on the door, “We’ve been thinking”.

As I explained in Episode 1, the other part of ‘we’ is John the Builder. So off we go round to have a wee discussion with all of us staring up to a row of timbers. “We were thinking that instead of having two tunnels coming down from the Velux windows, Michael can put the Velux windows flush with the slope of roof, raise the ceiling and fix the plasterboard directly to the roof timbers giving a high and interesting shape to the room. What do you think?”

A decision above our heads

“Sounds good, go ahead”. That got us to completion of the roof timbers and then it took only one more day to attach the roofing felt. Now it would have only taken another day to fix the roof tiles, but there was that knock again on the door “We have a problem”. Michael the Carpenter explained that the building materials supplier had said “yeh, we have enough of those in stock”. Often they say this when they haven’t, but know that going by the delivery date they will have them ordered in with time to spare. You’ve guessed haven’t you? Yes the chap behind the counter at the builder’s supplier forgot to order the extra amount of tiles. They offered to deliver what they had, but Michael said that wasn’t any good to him as he can get all the tiling done in one day. So off Michael the Carpenter went to another job and we waited a week for our tiles.

Meanwhile, John the Builder appeared with Eugene, a younger and fitter helper, who seems to know no pain. Eugene got to work on the garage floor with a Kango Hammer Drill. After several wheelbarrow loads of rubble had been dumped on the front lawn, the floor was level. Massive sheets of thick plastic were laid for the damp-proof course (DPC). A DPC prevents moisture movement known as rising damp. You may be thinking, “ah this is the bit where moisture comes into the story”: it does, but not in such an obvious way.

The spade meeting

Next to arrive on site was the most enormous cement mixer ever! Talk about overkill. This is good time to introduce the “spade meeting”. An important moment in any building work is where the work stops and everybody gathers together, rests on their spades, and discusses what happens next. Our participants for this vital meeting were John the Builder, Eugene and Cement Mixer Driver. Finally, after a nodding of heads, John the Builder comes over and says, “We’ve been thinking. Because it’s a lot of concrete, rather than use wheelbarrows, we want to use ‘the shoots’. But the mixer, being out on the road, is too far from the garage, so the driver thinks he can back the mixer in”.


So, we had Cement Mixer Driver in his cab, John the Builder directing from the road, me watching the clearance to the walls in the driveway, and Eugene directing from the rear. Eugene’s main function was to make sure the mixer didn’t take the roof of the house……it was a close thing.

Mixer was now in place, the shoots were set up and the concrete was run onto the DPC and levelled by John the Builder and Eugene. The openings to the garage shell were boarded up to keep any rain out and the concrete was left to set, or as they said “to go off”, a strange term to use, I thought.

Now this is where the moisture bit comes in. I’d always thought that with concrete, when you add water a chemical reaction takes place, then it dries hard. Which, on the face of it, that’s what you see happening, apart from the chemical reaction of course. There are different ways of working out when concrete has set. One way I heard about a long time ago, was that moisture in the concrete can be measured by placing a Water Activity meter onto the surface of the setting concrete. When the Water Activity value gets below a specific value the concrete is ready to be built on. I’m just mentioning this method because another name for Water Activity is Equilibrium Relative Humidity, something I described in Chapter 3 of my eBook A Wet Look At Climate Change.

What I didn’t know, until researching for this blog post, is that it is not simply a matter of concrete drying off for it to set. The chemical reaction depends on a high level of moisture remaining in the concrete for a length of time. If the wet concrete dries too quickly the bonding of the materials is incomplete and the concrete is “weak”. In the situation of our garage floor keeping the humidity high for several hours was not difficult. The wet concrete would have released moisture into the air as it was laid. By sealing the garage shell openings the moist air was trapped inside above the concrete.

Water cannot evaporate from a damp material into the surrounding air unless the relative humidity of the air is below a certain level. So just like where I talk about drying clothes on a damp day in Chapter 2 of A Wet Look At Climate Change, a high level of moisture will have stayed in the concrete. The level of humidity needed to get something dry depends on the type of material and how much moisture it contains. So the wet concrete was left to “go off” doing its own chemical thing in a world of moisture.

A base to build on

By the following day the concrete was hard enough to walk on. Now we were moving to next phase of the renovation. During this phase the garage shell was opened up to work on various other parts. When the weather allowed, the opening was left open to dry the concrete. It would be some time before a floor covering was to be laid, and for that to be done the concrete cannot be releasing moisture. If a floor covering is put onto the concrete too soon, moisture would build up under the covering, causing mould to grow and other problems.

Watson’s thinking that somethings changed…….

Coming next: Episode 3 ……….The Beast from The East

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Welcome to my world of moisture

Episode 1


A big hello to my follower in the UK after my very long absence from blogging. She says my next blog is eagerly awaited. I hope this one doesn’t disappoint. Before I launch into the next episode in my world of moisture, there has been a reason for my lack of regular insights into moisture. About a year ago, building work started on our old garage. Window frames were rotting and gaping holes were regularly appearing. Panes of glass were falling out of the door. Actually, we had lived with our ever-disintegrating garage, a home to local wildlife, since moving into the house 16 years ago. Circumstances over 2017 kind of dictated that we should do something useful with the garage…..

All the preparation and ongoing decisions on the garage renovation needed a lot of focus. I just didn’t have the time to attend to my bog. So it’s a happy return and to a topic I’ve covered before: “deliquescence”. It’s a natural process involving moisture that fascinates me. Indirectly, it was a consequence of renovating the garage that led me to stumble upon another example of deliquescence.

My obsession with moisture goes a long way beyond just writing a few hundred words every now and then. In 2007 I came up with an idea for a business and we gave it the name “Relequa”.  A name extracted from Relative Humidity and Equilibrium.For the uninitiated, I describe what these terms mean in my eBook A Wet Look At Climate Change.

But what circumstances in 2017 caused us to start thinking about doing a garage makeover? Around about the middle of 2017 we started to look locally for premises for Relequa in order to assemble and package my new invention called the MP-1000 (watch a video). It is a precision built machine involving electronics and electromechanically controlled parts for measuring the moisture status of materials. Our first instrument developed during 2007-2009 taught me in the intervening years a lot about the way materials interact with moisture. I developed a technique called “Moisture Profiling” and built the MP-1000 around this.   

A home for Relequa

No suitable commercial business premises were available, but, it just so happened, that the Enterprise Centre had a room about the right size for our needs. As a Government funded establishment the Enterprise Centre had its own set of rules and board of management. When the Centre manager told us that we were an ideal company for tenancy we thought it was a shoo-in.

An application to the Enterprise Centre was carefully crafted and answers to the difficult financial questions, such as,“how are you going to pay the rent?”, were prepared. A wait of four weeks ensued. Eventually The Board got their act together and the call came from the Centre manager, “I’m sorry, we cannot offer you a place because of the Five Year Rule”. We knew about the ‘five year rule’ but were led to think that this could be waived. Basically, if a company has been established for more than five years then they cannot be offered a place in the Centre. Thanks lads.

The not so Alpine Lodge

Our electronics engineer who was working on the final bits of the MP-1000 suggested looking at a new style steel framed shed.We located a supplier just outside Dungarvan and went to look at their show sheds. Immediately we set our hearts on an “Alpine Lodge”. The company suggested we demolish our old garage and they erect our “Alpine lodge”. This could be done quickly and without planning permission. Just the one hitch, we’d need to get someone in to lay a concrete base to pin the supports for the “Alpine Lodge”.

The steel shed people gave us the name of a builder they worked with who would demolish the old garage and lay the concrete base. Enter onto the stage a really nice man called John. After taking measurements and having a look around, John says “I wouldn’t demolish this……the walls are double blocked with the required airspace between…..and then there’s the cost of disposal of the rubble”.

We had in hand an outline of how we saw the layout for the “Alpine Lodge”. John got his tape measure out and we planned what came to be known as the “Alternative Alpine Lodge”. Just one little hiccup, the roofing felt was crumbling to bits. Introducing the next member of the cast, ‘Michael the Carpenter’. Michael was contacted by ‘John the Builder’ to come round and give us an estimate. So far, so good: we agreed with Michael about replacing both the roofing felt and the old tiles that were from the 1970s.

“We have a problem”

First things first, the roof had to be done before the concrete base was laid. Less risk this way with the Irish weather being what it is at that time of year in November. Michael the Carpenter was onsite to begin work one fine day and after not more than ten minutes there was a knock on the door. I heard one of the two phrases to which I was about to become accustomed: “we have a problem”. The other phrase is “we’ve been thinking”, the ‘we’ being John the Builder and Michael the Carpenter. A dynamic duo! Well one not quite so dynamic due to his age and dodgy hip.

So back to “we have a problem”. This required a demonstration at the roof. Michael took a hammer and banged one of the rafters where he’d started removing the soffit. A cloud of dust surrounded him. “That”he said “is woodworm”. Thanks to the work of hundreds of little beetles and their progeny the whole roof had to be replaced. Every cloud of dust has a silver lining and that’s where “we’ve been thinking” comes into the story, but that comes later.

So we were left with a shell.

I’m leaving the story of the “Alternative Alpine Lodge” here and will continue in my next post.

Silver Spoon but other makes are available

Getting back to deliquescence and where it fits into this story. In preparation for the garage revamp, we had to sort out a lot of stuff. Most of it was focussed on the garden tools and the usual junk that accumulates. A freezer and tumble dryer had to be relocated into the house.Generally things were moved into new places or dumped. Taking this opportunity to organise our stuff better, we emptied a cupboard that had in it, hidden behind other containers, a bag of jam sugar.

We use standalone open wire shelving in the cupboard. Our forgotten about jam sugar was on the second top shelf of four tiers:well, most of it was. Some sugar had made its way over the contents of the lower shelves and all the way down to the floor. You know when a simple job turns into nightmare?

This particular cupboard was built against an outside wall and it’s in a kitchen. Every time its door is opened, warm moist air enters in from the kitchen. During winter the wall is cold all of the time and it cools the air inside the cupboard. Moist warm air, that has arrived and closed in, cools and the relative humidity shoots up. Just like the sugar in an open sugar bowl, high humidity caused the jam sugar to take up moisture.Eventually over time, including an usually cold winter, enough moisture had been adsorbed to cause the sugar to dissolve into a sticky liquid at the walls of its paper wrapping. “This” I’m telling you “is deliquescence”.

You probably haven’t thought about this, but the paper around bags of sugar is not meant to hold liquids. After soaking through the paper this sticky liquid dripped down over whatever was underneath and then dried. No matter three hours later, what was cleanable was saved, what wasn’t, was dumped.

So there we have our story of consequences, anew home for Relequa Analytical Systems Ltd., a garage renovation and deliquescence of jam sugar. More to follow……

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Welcome to my world of moisture

Candle in the Moisture

I always finish at the end of my blog posts with the words “Welcome to my world of moisture”. A simple thing happened in my world of moisture that would have most people guessing “what’s gone on here?” or maybe “who’s done this?” That thing was a pool of clear liquid around a candle holder, shown in the picture, which was sitting on a glass table. Where had this liquid come from? Who had split water or something on the table? Nothing had been split. The candle holder had been left untouched for weeks. Magically this liquid had appeared out of thin air! A mystical apparition materialising from the ether? Help, somebody call a medium. A “sign from above” warning of looming storms and flooding. Or maybe we can find an answer from science….. Continue reading

World’s first moisture specific seminar?

“The impact of moisture on yield & quality”

This could be the first ever moisture seminar that is not focussed on a particular analysis technique or application area.

I’m giving two talks!

A brief introduction to relative humidity explaining some of the terms and concepts for an understanding of how humidity works.

The story of the progress made at key points in our understanding of the way materials interact with moisture. This leading to my development of Relequa’s Moisture Profiling.

To view the moisture seminar flyer click on MORE Continue reading

Water Mining – Something in the Air

I could have predicted writing about this topic on my blog. In fact I kind of did see into the future. One of the last topics I came across for my eBook “A Wet Look At Climate Change” was a new piece of technology developed at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. The scientists at Frankfurt built an instrument running on solar power that removes water from air, turning it into drinkable water. One possible application was to generate a source of water in a desert. I’ll explain how this works below but before I do, let’s think about new discoveries and the technology of “nanomaterials”……….. Continue reading