Something is rotten in my state (not Denmark).
October 27, 2008 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Last Wednesday I was assaulted by a foul smell in my front (guest) bathroom. I have been trying to pinpoint the cause for several days. I'm about to go out of town and need advice on what to do, especially since I'm extremely broke and have tried all the usual methods of attack. Details inside...

Thursday I noticed there was a bit of a poo smell going on in the front bathroom. Often, it takes two flushes, and I assumed the toilet was clogged. I plunged, cleaned, plunged, etc. and then lit a candle. I never use those drop-in toilet cleaners.

Friday the smell was WORSE. It smelled like sewage. I did my due diligence; I read up as to what the various causes may be and bought every cleaner imaginable. I opened up the drains and did the vinegar/baking soda clean on all of them.

Saturday, the smell was better... I followed it along the ground until I realized it was emanating from the bathtub drain.

Once again, removed all fittings possible, dumped some special drain cleaner (a green product specifically for drains, no lye, no bleach) down the hole, several pots of boiling water, etc.

Went around and checked every other spot in the house; there is no smell except in the front bathroom. Ran water in every sink, tub, shower, etc. to ensure there were no dry traps.

The smell has now dwindled from a sewer-gas smell to simply a musty, sort of unpleasant dust-like odor. Stale, but not poo-ish or sewer-gassy. (To contrast, when I came home on Friday, when I opened the front door I SMELLED SEWER. FROM SEVERAL FEET AWAY, WITH THE DOOR TO THE BATHROOM CLOSED.)

My house was built in 2003. The drain is at floor level and the tub/shower are completely surrounded by stone and concrete. I have crawled, literally, with my nose shoved along the edge of the toilet, sink, wall, everywhere in that bathroom and it is coming up out of the drain. As of right now it smells musty and vinegar-y just a bit from all the treatments I've done. The smell is now confined to just the bathroom and is severely diminished.

I have no idea where the pipe is that goes to the roof. There is nothing under my house, it's on a concrete slab foundation. There are no signs of dampness or leaks anywhere in the walls, around the tub, around the toilet, around the sink, etc.

The shower liner is immaculate. I opened the closet door that shares the wall with the tub/shower. The inside of the closet is dry, smells pleasant, no dampness. I took a knife and pried up a bit of the carpet that runs along the wall that is shared with the drain... no dampness, nothing. Even shoved my fingers up under the wall right now where I'd pried the carpet; I feel/smell nothing. Flashlight showed everything is white and normal-looking just opposite the smell.

What I'm asking is... did an animal possibly get trapped somewhere and die? If so, can I just leave and come back assured that the smell will probably be gone? I'm in Texas and the temps are expected between 40-77F over the next week.

I really don't think it's mold. I am extremely sensitive to such things and take daily medication for allergies, and have yet to sneeze or itch at all, even with my nose shoved into the drain.

At this point were I not about to leave for 3-4 days and severely broke, I'd probably just call a plumber. My trip is non-refundable and was paid for in advance, so I can't change plans and use the money for a plumber. Also, I'm concerned that I'll call somebody and they will either tell me 1. I have something terrible going on and they have to tear the wall apart and the bill will be several thousand dollars, which I cannot pay or be here to supervise, or 2. it's nothing, a mouse died somewhere, I'll have to wait it out (plus pay $150 for a house call at a weird hour that resulted in nothing).

What say you, MeFi homeowners? What would you do?
posted by Unicorn on the cob to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I were that broke, I'd totally ride it out... It sounds like the worst that could happen has already happened, doesn't it? I'm no plumber (though I am a carpenter) but I'd say to just chill out on it and see how it smells when you get home...

I doubt it's something dead, though. If it were, all that crap you dumped down the drain would have melted it and sent it to the sewers :P
posted by Glendale at 5:57 PM on October 27, 2008

Either the smell is going to go away on its own or it's not.

Take your trip. When you come back if the smell is still there you'll at least know that it's a recurring problem and will then know to proceed with a professional.

If it's gone. It's gone.
posted by wfrgms at 5:59 PM on October 27, 2008

I'd probably call a plumber to check it out.

Can you get onto the roof and confirm that the vents do exist?
posted by winston at 5:59 PM on October 27, 2008

This is a long shot since you seem convinced that the drain is the source, but check your exhaust fan ducts. I've heard of small birds/mice getting trapped in the ducting and dying. A $10 pipe cleaner should push out any offending critters.
posted by VTCarl at 6:05 PM on October 27, 2008

I'd suspect that what happened is the water in the trap evaporated and let sewer gas into your home. This would be pretty likely in a guest bathtub or shower that didn't get used often. Once the water in the trap is gone, there's nothing stopping these fumes from backing up into your house. The water you poured down the drain should be enough to fill the trap back up and I'd assume that the remaining smell is just that, a lingering remaining smell.
posted by advicepig at 6:12 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a small, localized really bad smell in my bathroom for about a week -last week - right near the toilet (and shower drain I guess, although I only noticed it when I was using the toilet). I live in a foreign country where calling the landlord is even a huge pain in the ass, and I also would forget about it almost immediately after leaving the bathroom. I asked a friend about it at one point and he did the typical 'shrug' maybe something died 'shrug', and that was that. I had completely forgotten about it until this question came up. It's gone, and if it was something dead, I assume that it either worked it's way through the pipes or got um...decomposie stop the stank.

I'm not saying yours is similar, but leaving for a while may lead to you coming home to a stink free home. Wost that happens I would think is that you deal with it when you get back. Have a nice trip.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 6:15 PM on October 27, 2008

have you asked others if they smell what you smell? This may sound weird, but your nose hairs usually trap tiny particles to filter the air so the smell might still be in your nose...

just a thought.
posted by girlthursday at 6:20 PM on October 27, 2008

I'd bet it's a dried-out trap. We get that smell in our seldom-used guest shower. Running the water for a minute every month or so fixes it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2008

Nthing advicepig and MrMoonPie. We have a guest bathroom upstairs that never gets used and occasionally I will go up there and the most retched smell will be coming from there. If I flush the toilet and then run the water in the tub for a few minutes it will go away (of course it takes longer for the smell to truly disappear). It threw us off at first when we moved in (first time homeowners) but now we're used to it and try to remember to run some water up there every so often to keep the sewer gas at bay.
posted by genial at 6:56 PM on October 27, 2008

And again on the dried out trap. While shopping for houses we went into one that was vacant for a while and had a smell like getting hit in the face with a sewage treatment plant.

If you rarely use that shower add a few drops of mineral oil to the drain to prevent evaporation of the water in the trap.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:28 PM on October 27, 2008

It's almost certainly a trap (U-bend) without enough water in it. That can happen for three reasons:

1. If it's unused for any length of time the water simply dries out, as people have already suggested. The simple fix for this is just to fill it up again. Since pots of boiling water do this just as effectively as cold water does, and since you've already done that and found no improvement, this is most likely not the cause of your trouble.

2. The shower drain shares a vent with some other drain, and the vent has become blocked. What happens then is that when you use the other drain (say, by flushing the toilet), the water leaving the toilet causes a partial vacuum in the drain line, and that sucks the water out of the shallowest U-bend in the rest of the system which could well be the one under your shower. The temporary fix for this is to pour a pint of water down the shower drain after each use of any other drain on the same vent. The permanent fix is to find the vent, remove the critter's nest that's blocking it, and repair the vent cap so no more critters can get in.

3. The U-bend under your shower is leaky, and the water is simply dribbling out. In older houses this might have been due to rust and/or overzealous use of drain cleaners, but in a house built in 2003 it may be that the drain was put in without a foam collar between the pipe and the slab, the slab has now floated quarter of an inch sideways due to changes in ground moisture, and the plastic drain pipe has cracked. Fixing this is a pain in the arse.

Of these causes, I think the second is the most likely.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 PM on October 27, 2008

Response by poster: I'm just here to chime in that the mysterious smell is apparently going away... should it be back with a vengeance when I get home, I shall seek out flabdablet's suggestions next.

Thanks for everybody who offered suggestions towards my de-stinkification!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:15 AM on October 29, 2008

I left out one other thing that can happen sometimes with a blocked vent. When a great gout of water suddenly gets dumped into an unvented drain, the very first thing the drain line sees is a sudden increase in air pressure. The subsequent partial vacuum following the draining-away of that water usually sucks harder than the initial pressure blows, and is usually what sucks traps dry; but sometimes that initial pressure is enough to push a big bubble of pre-brewed stink straight past another trap, even if that trap has water in it.

So if you get a sudden burst of stink in that room right after you've flushed a toilet, you can be pretty sure you're looking at a blocked vent. Stink that leaks in via a dry trap usually takes a bit longer to make its presence felt.
posted by flabdablet at 7:58 PM on October 29, 2008

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