Rosie on the House: Make your home smell sweet, clean

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

But homeowners aren’t shy about asking us that question. Actually, we constantly get questions, both in email and on our radio program, from homeowners seeking advice about bad odors. After all, no one ever wants to try to sell a house that has a troubling smell.

What follows are solutions to common household odor problems.


• To get rid of sewage smells in your yard or house:

This seems to be one of the most frequent problems of all. Sometimes that semi-permanent bad smell in your bathroom, kitchen or backyard really starts 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 yard. The wind can even swirl around and blow methane gas back into your house through a window or a bathroom vent.

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

But the situation 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

• To get rid of bathroom odors:

A problem with a vent can affect all the drains in your house, but if the smell comes from just 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 create a problem.

The solution is 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. We do not 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.

Sometimes, bathroom ceiling fans can help remove odors. But these fans wear out; if they sound as if they’re rattling, they probably need to be replaced soon.

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 electric 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.

• To eliminate stale cooking smells in the kitchen:

Cleaning grease filters on kitchen exhaust fans and cleaning the oven and the microwave will help. 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.

Even your dishwasher needs to be cleaned regularly to control odors. Place a cupful of white vinegar on the top rack of the dishwasher and run the otherwise empty dishwasher on a very hot cycle. The vinegar will cut through any leftover grease and grime and can neutralize odors. You can even buy bottles of special dishwasher cleaning fluid that you place inside an empty dishwasher that will do the same job.

Every few months, remove all the food from your 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.

• To provide cleaner air throughout the house:


Sometimes homes may experience what is called the dirty sock syndrome — a mildew-type odor you smell when your heat pump or air conditioner first starts. A bacterial bio-film that grows on coils of heat pumps and air conditioners is the reason why this is happening. Often it can be eliminated by a 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. The condensate pan is a drip pan in your attic that collects the water that condenses on the evaporative coil of the air condition. It eventually drains into a drip line that feeds into the pan.

So have the coils, drip line, hoses and pan inspected and cleaned. That can be done when you have your air ducts cleaned.

• To prevent odors caused by leaks and mold:

If you have a leak in water pipes or, 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.

Be sure to clean up immediately after leaks or floods. Mold can begin to grow in damp areas within 48 hours. You might also want to have your home tested for mold; you can even buy mold testing kits at the hardware store.


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