Household questions asked and answered | My House & Yours

How to banish the sewer smell

Q: Hi Steve, occasionally we get strong sewer fumes that seem to come from the basement bathroom. Any ideas what this could be? Any insight would be most appreciated. Thanks, Ann.

A: The first thing that comes to mind is a dry shower drain. You said the bathroom would be used only for TV room use — if the shower hasn’t been used for a while, start there. When water in the drain’s P-trap evaporates, it allows sewer gases into the home.

All sewer drains have a P-trap — the U-shaped drainpipe fitting that we see below our sinks. These are intended to hold water and block the sewer odors from entering our homes. Toilets have them built-in, and floor drains, showers and bathtubs have them below the floor level.

My guess is that the shower is rarely used and the drain has dried out. (This can happen even faster in warm weather.) Pouring a couple cups of water into the drain should re-charge the trap and block the smell. Keep in mind that all unused plumbing fixtures can create this same experience. The forgotten wet bar, the unused basement floor drain, or the unused washing machine drain connection; a little bit of water should clear the air.

Do I need a new vapor barrier in my crawlspace?

Q: You did an inspection for my clients in 2008. They are selling it, and we just went through an inspection from their buyer. There is clear plastic sheeting as the vapor barrier in the crawlspace and you had noted it as “satisfactory.” Their inspector is telling them that it should be black 6-mil plastic. Is there a code to be followed? I wouldn’t think color would be an issue?

As always, your expert opinion is valued. Diane.

A: The early requirements for a vapor barrier in the crawlspace did not require black. We have learned, and the code changed, to require black to prevent organic growth under the plastic sheathing.

The home was built in the ‘80s and the code requirement didn’t take effect, in most jurisdictions, until the mid ‘90s. If the crawlspace doesn’t have high moisture issues and is still dry, there is no need to change it out.

The clear plastic sheeting will continue to function well and perform its required and needed function, to prevent ground moisture from raising the crawlspace humidity level and migrating into the home.

It met the code at the time that the home was constructed, and if there are no new moisture problems, it is fine and doesn’t require replacement.

Give your hands a break

Dishwashers can be easier on Mother Nature and our hands, but we need to let them do more of the work. They use less water and energy than hand-washing. 1 1/2 tablespoons of detergent is plenty to clean a load; more shortens the life of the dishwasher and pits our glassware. Also, let the machine do all of the washing; less prewash rinsing and full loads use less water.

Q: Help, my sink is seriously clogged! What’s the best way to unclog? Drano is not working. Chris.

A: Most drain cleaners only help slow drains, and the ones that open clogged ones are bad on the pipes and Mother Nature. Taking the drainpipes apart is the trick. The P-trap has hand-tightened fittings to remove and clean.

The real fun starts with cleaning the drain. Put a bowl under the P-trap part of the drain, keep the rags handy and disassemble the fittings. Usually, the fittings are hand-tightened, but sometimes they need some help. Keep track of the gaskets and the way they face to reassemble after cleaning it out. Rubber gloves will make the job a little more palatable, and the debris should be fine going down the nearest toilet.

Fall is here

The temperature is dropping; we’re putting on more clothes and reaching for the thermostat. It is time to change the furnace filters, install carbon monoxide detectors and make sure that we have smoke detectors on all floor levels and in all sleeping rooms. With gas and oil appliances in our homes, we all need carbon monoxide detectors — buy them anywhere, at your local hardware store, lumber yard or drug store. Protect our families with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, change the batteries twice a year and test them regularly.

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