De­tect­ing the source of home’s odour is dif­fi­cult

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - ARI MARANTZ

QUES­TION: Our home in River Heights was built around 1918. We have an aw­ful sewer smell com­ing from the base­ment and are at a loss try­ing to fig­ure out the cause. The smell gets worse dur­ing and af­ter a heavy rain and when we are away for a few days.

We had a plumber in and he thought the smell was com­ing from the weep­ing tiles. He sug­gested that we seal off our base­ment drain. We tried that and the smell dis­ap­peared for a few weeks but re­turned re­cently. The smell seems to go away on days that we do a lot of wash­ing clothes. Also, run­ning wa­ter and adding bleach through the laun­dry tubs and pour­ing bleach in the base­ment toi­let helps elim­i­nate the odour but that is only a stop-gap mea­sure.

Thank you. Linda and Dave La­lande

AN­SWER: One of the most dif­fi­cult things to deal with in prob­lem in­ves­ti­ga­tion in homes is odour de­tec­tion. That’s be­cause of the tran­sient na­ture of var­i­ous smells that may be highly de­pen­dent on weather and en­vi­ron­men­tal changes within the home.

I will of­fer some sug­ges­tions for pos­si­bil­i­ties, but with­out phys­i­cally vis­it­ing your home and smelling the stinky base­ment, I am only able to pro­vide an ed­u­cated guess.

There is a pos­si­bil­ity that the smell in your base­ment is com­ing from the weep­ing tiles, as sug­gested, but there are other causes that would be more sus­pect. Also, I would not de­scribe the smell em­a­nat­ing from damp weep­ing tiles as a sewer smell, but more like a musty, mouldy smell.

Un­less you have ex­pe­ri­enced sewer back-up, as many peo­ple have with the re­cent heavy down­pours, it’s doubt­ful that sewage would make its way into your weep­ing tiles. The other pos­si­bil­ity is that you are mis­tak­ing the smell of de­cay­ing or­ganic mat­ter, moulds or laun­dry de­ter­gent, for sewer gas.

Weep­ing tiles, es­pe­cially in older homes like yours, can be­come par­tially filled or blocked with soil, tree roots, or other de­bris. This ma­te­rial can give off sub­stan­tial odours when it is wet, which would cor­re­spond with your ob­ser­va­tions, but should not be overly no­tice­able ex­cept near the floor drain catch basin. This is likely what your plumber sus­pected.

A test for this, which may also help elim­i­nate the prob­lem, is to tem­po­rar­ily block the drain at the bot­tom of your catch basin with a com­mon toi­let plunger and pour in a large quan­tity of warm, soapy wa­ter. The wa­ter should be in­jected into the catch basin, of­ten with a hose from the laun­dry sink or washer sup­ply, un­til it al­most over­flows. That will en­sure that the weep­ing tiles un­der­neath the base­ment floor slab are filled and the soapy wa­ter should be al­lowed to sit for at least a half-hour or longer.

This process may have to be re­peated a few times, of­ten with a lit­tle bleach used in­stead of soap, to rid the drain tiles of the of­fen­sive odour.

If the smell goes away a day or two af­ter re­mov­ing the plunger and drain­ing the wa­ter from the weep­ing tiles, then that may be the source of your is­sue. If the smell does re­turn or is still no­tice­able with the catch basin full of wa­ter, then there is an­other cause.

The next most likely cul­prit is the plumb­ing drains. If the smell you have iden­ti­fied is in­deed sewer gas, then it must be com­ing from the plumb­ing drain pipes, in some shape or form. The dif­fi­cult next step is to lo­cate the prob­lem area, but the place to start is with the laun­dry drains that you have noted. Not only are they the most sus­pect, they are also lo­cated in the base­ment where the smell is most no­tice­able.

When try­ing to de­tect the cause of a prob­lem look for the most straight­for­ward and sim­ple an­swer, and go from there. My own ex­pe­ri­ence tells me that your laun­dry-sink drain and/ or your washer drains may not be prop­erly plumbed. If sewer gas is com­ing from the sink, it’s prob­a­bly be­cause the vent­ing or trap is done in­cor­rectly or missing al­to­gether.

It’s very com­mon to have laun­dry sinks in­stalled by amateurs who don’t know enough to prop­erly vent the drains. In that case, wa­ter can be si- phoned out from the trap be­low the sink, which will al­low sewer gas to en­ter the base­ment. In many homes a proper trap is never in­stalled at all.

Your prob­lem smell could also oc­cur if the washer drain and laun­dry drains are con­nected to­gether with an im­proper ar­range­ment. It would also ex­plain the lack of odour when you did lots of laun­dry, as the wa­ter would be con­tin­u­ously re­placed in the trap and the sewer gas would not be able to es­cape the drains if they are full or wa­ter drain­ing from the washer. When you leave the house for a few days, the trap may be par­tially empty and the sewer gas would en­ter the base­ment and have no place to go.

I would have ex­pected that the plumber you hired to in­ves­ti­gate this is­sue would have found this de­fect, if present, but it may not have been eas­ily vis­i­ble if the drains were hid­den in a base­ment wall or be­hind the washer.

If the washer or laun­dry sink is ruled out as the cul­prit, more thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be re­quired. There may be an­other sink drain, trap or vent that is im­prop­erly plumbed or a prob­lem with de­pres­sur­iza­tion within the base­ment that is caus­ing sewer gas to be drawn in to the liv­ing area from an un­usual source. In that sit­u­a­tion, I would rec­om­mend a dif­fer­ent jour­ney­man plumber, one with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in res­i­den­tial plumb­ing in­stal­la­tion and main­te­nance, or an ex­pe­ri­enced home in­spec­tor to in­ves­ti­gate the prob­lem.

Im­proper vent­ing of washer and laun­dry-sink drains may be the cause of sewer


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