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Bad Odors: How to get rid of them

Odors are generally something we avoid in polite conversation. You’re not likely to walk into your neighbor’s house and ask, “Wow, what is that smell?”

Homeowners aren’t shy though about asking us that question. We have dozens of ideas on our Rosie on the House Web site about how to get rid of this or that odor – every place from the bedroom to the laundry room to the kitchen and more. To tell the truth, we get more homeowners emailing us for advice about bad odors than about any other subject. What follows are some possible solutions for what you’re experiencing.

For sewage smells in your yard or house:

Sometimes that semi-permanent bad smell in your bathroom or kitchen or backyard is really a problem starting on your roof where your plumbing system has a vent. In many cases, the vent isn’t tall enough. When a gust of wind comes along – our southwest wind blowing up from the Gulf of California – it blows those smelly gases across your roof and into your north or east facing yards. The wind can even swirl around and blow methane gas back into your house through a window or back down the vent.

This isn’t just a problem for older homes; in fact, it can happen in new construction. We have actually seen this in multi-million dollar homes in pricy neighborhoods.

But it can be fixed with minimal expense and effort. First, you need an extension on that vent pipe. That should do the trick, but if not, add a charcoal filter to the vent to absorb the gases or an inline powered ventilating fan to blow them away or do both. If you want to know more about this topic, you can check out

For bathroom odors:

A problem with a vent can affect all the drains in your house, but if the smell comes from one sink, then your P-trap (the U-shaped pipe under the sink) may be clogged or lined with years of accumulated stinky gunk. The pipe under that fragrant sink drain could be obstructed with hair, toothpaste, dirt and soap scum that begins to reek. You need to remove the P-trap and clean it out or use a drain cleaner daily until the enzymes can eat away at the trapped organic mess. By the way, we never recommend using highly corrosive liquid drain cleaners or drain cleaning crystals.

Special warning for snowbirds: If you leave your house untended for months and no water runs through the drains, you can have bad odors coming out of any or all of them. So have someone turn on the water once or twice during your trips up north. The water is a seal in the pipe under the drains that prevents sewer or septic gases from entering your home.

In general, bathroom ceiling fans can help remove odors. But these fans don’t last forever; if they sound as if they’re rattling, they’re probably not doing their job and need to be replaced before burning out.

You can easily remove a fan after turning off power to the room at your electrical panel. After taking off the cover on the old fan, unplug the electrical cord; then find the screws securing the fan unit to the ceiling. Use a flat-head screwdriver to remove the screws, pull out the fan, and take it to the store to help you choose a replacement that fits.

For cooking and garbage-type smells in the kitchen:

Cleaning grease filters on kitchen exhaust fans and cleaning the oven and the microwave will help. Clean fan filters every month or so in hot sudsy water. Wiping up spills on the walls and floor of the oven will prevent odors; as a result, you might not have to use the self-cleaning option as often.

Hard to believe, but you’ll want to clean your dishwasher regularly to control odors. Place a cupful of white vinegar on the top rack of the dishwasher and run the otherwise empty dishwasher on its hottest cycle. The vinegar will cut through any leftover grease and grime and can neutralize odors.

Every few months, take food out of the refrigerator and wipe down walls and shelves. Move the refrigerator once in a while to clean under it. Some older refrigerators have drip pans; clean those, too.

And what about that garbage disposal? If you can pull off the splash guard on top, wash it with soap, water and a little vinegar. If not, carefully reach under the splash guard with a wet paper towel to wipe it clean. Also freeze some ice cubes using water plus a splash of vinegar – about one part vinegar for two parts water. Don’t use straight vinegar; it will not freeze. Then throw the cubes down the disposal and chop them up. You’ll help kill odors and also sharpen the blades.

For smelly laundry and laundry rooms:

Mold and mildew don’t seem as if they’d be problems in Arizona, but they are. All those damp swim towels piled in the utility room for a couple of days are a great example. Even older bath towels pick up odors that linger after normal laundering. Soak white towels in the washer in hot sudsy water plus a cup of bleach for 20 minutes. Then launder them. For colored towels, use two cups of white vinegar instead of bleach; soak and wash. Dry all towels thoroughly in the dryer; better yet hang them outside in sunlight; then run them through the dryer one more time.

Then there is that moldy smell in washing machines. It can be caused by overusing detergents or liquid fabric softener. The suds or softener make a gunky layer inside the machine. To kill it off, run an empty machine on the hottest setting with 1 cup of bleach or 2 cups of white vinegar in the water. This should deodorize and disinfect your machine. Leave the door open on the washer when not in use.

For odors caused by leaks:

If you have a leak in water pipes or a worse yet a sewer line under your house, your home can take on an odor; you can even experience a raw sewage smell. If you know about the leak and do nothing, it can lead to serious mold problems, health hazards or damage to floors or walls. If you suspect a problem, call a plumber to investigate problems under your slab and fix leaks in walls. A neglected ceiling leak could result in mold problems as well; call a roofer.

For clean air throughout the house:

Have you ever heard of the dirty sock syndrome? Air conditioning and heating professionals say it’s a mildew-type odor you smell when your heat pump or air conditioner first starts. It’s caused by a bacterial bio-film that grows on coils of heat pumps and air conditioners. Often it can be eliminated by thorough cleaning of the evaporative coil on your system.

Other odors can stem from built-up dirt, water and mold in the condensate pan of your air conditioner. Condensate pan? Like most homeowners, you may never have heard that term before. Generally, it’s a drip pan in your attic that collects the water that condensed on the evaporative coil of the AC and then drains into a dripline that feeds into the pan.

To combat these problems, have the coils, dripline, hoses and pan inspected and cleaned, according to Sharon Altenhoff of Air Quality Specialists in Glendale. That can be done when you have your air ducts cleaned.

Next week we’ll talk about how to get more storage space out of a house that has none to spare.

For more do-it-yourself tips, go to An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert for 35 years, Rosie Romero is the host of the Rosie on the House radio program from 8-11 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR-FM (92.3) in Phoenix, KQNA-AM (1130) in Prescott and KAZM-AM (780) in Sedona, KAFF-AM (930) in Flagstaff and KNST-AM (790) in Tucson. Call 888-767-4348.

Rosie on the House