The stench of winter is upon us.
November 23, 2008 10:03 AM   Subscribe

How can I identify a bad sewage smell in my living room?

Every winter my rented apartment smells like feces, in my living room. The apartment is an all-ground-floor place, stand-alone shack of a house; it's old; the bathroom is behind the living room; we have radiators with an old gas-burning furnace; the drains back up easily.

I don't know much about houses but my four guesses are:

1. A squirrel happens to die in the wall every winter.

2. The drains / septic thingies stink and we can smell it through the foundation somehow???

3. The gas heater which is on the other side of the house is magically pumping gas stink along the pipes ??? No, that doesn't make sense.

4. The radiators have gross stuff on them that stinks when they get hot? But only in the living room.

I'm puzzled because I only smell the smell in the winter, causing me to suspect it's heating-related. My girlfriend smells it too. The landlord says he doesn't smell it. In the summer, fall and spring (when the heat is off), no smell.

Why just the winter? Why???
posted by metajc to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
You should be able to tell the difference between the feces smell, which likely derives from sewer gas, and a dead squirrel, which is more like rotting meat. And if there's gross stuff on the radiators, well, clean it off. So let's discount those theories and focus on sewage. Chances are, you have a faulty trap in one of your drains, a plugged vent pipe, or an installation with faulty or missing vent piping. Any of these conditions will cause sewer gas to come out of one or more of your drains. The reason it happens more in the winter is that you shut your house tight, and when the gas heater runs, it sucks air out of the house, therefore pulling the sewer gas in. In the summer, you've got more ventilation going on and the pressure differentials may not be great enough to pull the gas into your living space. Basically, this stuff is not good for you and if enough of it builds up, it will explode. Entire houses have been blown to smithereens in this kind of explosion.

For tips on how to track down specifically where this is coming from and how to fix it, check this Ask The Builder page.
posted by beagle at 10:39 AM on November 23, 2008

Some diagnostic tips here.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:41 AM on November 23, 2008

It's possible that your apartment is just better ventilated in non-winter months. Windows are open, etc., so you just don't smell it until winter.

If the drains back up easily, there is probably a blockage somewhere and you are smelling dangerous sewer gasses. Have your landlord look into this. If you are on a septic system, the tank may be full. If not, you could have blockage in the sewer line, or even a collapsed sewer line.

Another thing I would check is whether all your drain traps are working properly. Sometimes, the vent stack gets plugged (or was never done properly in the first place), which turns the traps into siphons. The trap is meant to keep water in it to prevent sewage gasses from coming back up. Again, this is dangerous, so it's important to fix it, if thats the problem. Since you are in the basement, it may be a floor drain that's the culprit.

Good luck.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:50 AM on November 23, 2008

Can you invite over a friend with a dog or cat? Once the animal has gotten comfortable in the space, I'd expect him to track the smell to its source and stand there sniffing at it for a minute or so. At least that's how I found the dead mouse in my closet last summer.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:06 AM on November 23, 2008

Is there anything with a drain that you haven't used for a while? The water in the U-trap might have evaporated.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:05 PM on November 23, 2008

Thanks for all the replies. I think the first answer has it.

I'd somehow forgotten that I'd sealed all the windows in my house, duh, and the furnace definitely sucks air.
posted by metajc at 2:59 PM on November 23, 2008

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