How to mask a mildew smell
March 17, 2011 5:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I mask a mildew smell completely for a day or two?

Three days ago, our washing machine flooded our floors, including a carpeted area in the hall. It has still not dried out completely, despite lots of towels and a fan constantly blowing on it. Worse, it has developed a distinct mildew smell.

Now, I don't actually care that the carpet is going mouldy. When we moved into this (rental) property four years ago, the real estate agent said the carpets needed replacing, yet the landlord has never done it. Nor has he made any of the many repairs that the place needs. If he doesn't care about his own property, I don't see that I should. We will be moving out in the next month, and the landlord would have had to replace the carpets anyway before getting new tenants in, so mould damage isn't going to cause him any extra expense.

However, we don't want him to use it as an excuse to keep our deposit, especially considering that the carpets already needed replacing due to normal wear and tear. So when we have the final rental inspection, we don't want the place to smell like mould. The smell is currently quite distinctive.

So how to mask the smell for 24 hours or so for the inspection? We have tried baking soda (a full packet of it spread over the area and left for 12 hours) and it did nothing. We can't really use pot pourri or baking or coffee brewing or anything like that since the place has to be emptied completely before the inspection.

Or is it possible that the smell will at least temporarily go away once the carpet is completely dry?

(I'm happy if you have an inexpensive solution for getting rid of the mildew entirely, too, of course.)
posted by lollusc to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Rent or borrow a dehumidifier and leave it running right up until the inspection. If possible close off the area so that you are not sleeping and living in the very dry air.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:26 AM on March 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Fresh paint. Not to cover the mildew per se, but to mask the odor.

You don't even have to paint very much. Leave the can open overnight. The impression will be that you have been touching up.
posted by three blind mice at 5:31 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about one of those motion sensor air freshener. Set it up one or two in the area and overwhelm the oder when the inspector walks through.
posted by wrnealis at 5:41 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: My useless superpower is that I'm able to smell mildew long before other people can.
The only thing that can mask the smell for me are strong chemical smells. Most industrial strength cleaners will do the trick, but three blind mice's suggestion for paint will do the trick as well.
posted by Sourisnoire at 5:53 AM on March 17, 2011

Odoban is awesome for these applications.
posted by labwench at 6:24 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The old house-seller's trick is to bake fresh bread.
posted by Namlit at 6:28 AM on March 17, 2011

Have you tried lysol spray? It is meant to kill mildew, I believe, and if your carpet is still a bit damp it won't hurt it to make it a bit damper with lysol. If nothing else it has a strong odor itself and can mask smells somewhat, but with any luck it would actually deal with the root cause.

Then refocus on drying the rug out, towels, dehumidifier, etc.
posted by acanthous at 6:34 AM on March 17, 2011

A good trick is to spread a few dryer fabric softener sheets on the carpet for a day or so beforehand.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:17 AM on March 17, 2011

Febreeze won't solve the problem, but it works better than baking soda, and might be a good middle-step. Those are some great ideas upthread.

So dry everything out as well as possible, keep the fans/towels going over the next weeks.
If possible, run a dehumidifier, that will help. (Electricity bill will go up, this is approx equivalent to a window unit AC.)
When you get up to 48 hours beforehand, turn the humidity setting on the dehumidifier way down, and really suck the moisture out of the air.
24 hours ahead of time, liberally coat everything in Febreeze.
The night before, paint a piece of plywood and leave it in the hall to stink. (or maybe a patch of white on the white ceiling or something unobtrusive). Maybe do a second coat the morning of.
You might also check whether opening all the windows, and turning on fans ("to help with the paint smell") basically keeping a constant flush of fresh air, will keep the lingering mildewness from settling in, or from being locateable. This kind of counteracts the dehumidifier, though, depending on the weather, so maybe not.
posted by aimedwander at 7:19 AM on March 17, 2011

Disinfect and dry.

Disinfect with bleach if the rug is white or very light colored, otherwise get soemthing from Lowes or HD which disinfects without bleaching. Then dehumidify.
posted by caddis at 7:24 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: Dry it as best you can, fans and dehumidifiers.

The buy a handle of cheap, cheap grain alcohol, a bottle of pure vanilla extract and a spray bottle.
Put about a teaspoon or two of vanilla in the bottle and top off with alcohol.
Take a drink of un-vanilla-ed alkeehaul. Mix it with water or juice to keep your tongue skin from sloughing off.
Open the windows
Spray the mixture across the rug and any soft materials that smell.
You want it to get nice and damp. Continue until the carpet feels damp to the touch wherever it smells.
Let it dry.
Keep your face away from it while it does or you will get a vapor drunk.
It should dry in 3 to 6 hours (or less).
Repeat if necessary.

Downside: This is actually a long term solution to mildew smells, not short term.
posted by Seamus at 7:35 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I second Odoban. The moldy smell is obviously coming from mold spores and making them inactive is the best and only way to solve the problem.

I don't like to negate people's suggestions, but products like Febreeze (which many people I know are sensitive to due to the use of chemicals in the product) or fabric dryer sheets will only *mask* the smell, which will likely come back *even worse* after their power has dissipated.

Please consider Odoban or similar product that will actually deal with the root (or in this case, spore) of the problem. Make your effort count toward solving the problem, not just postponing it.
posted by kuppajava at 9:28 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Goo gone has a really lovely strong citrus scent. Try spraying it directly on the carpet now and see if that works - you want to do this (or whatever you try) in advance so you know it works.
posted by lemniskate at 9:30 AM on March 17, 2011

- Did you put the washer and dryer in, or did the landlord??

- Depending on who put in the washer and why/how it overflowed, you might not be responsible for any of the cost or effort to repair this damage. Don't keep this situation a secret!

Here is your problem: IF YOU HID MOLD AND WATER DAMAGE FROM ME (a landlord) I would keep your entire deposit to replace the carpet and charge you extra to replace the subfloor, baseboards and any other effected structure. Why? Because by the time I might discover the mold problem, that's how much more effort and money it will take to repair.

Right now, if the wood and other structures get dried out thoroughly, the damage and repair costs will be minimal!

You need to rip up and dispose of that nasty carpet. Get permission and do that. Bleach + Odoban + dehumidifier on the structures underneath once the carpet is gone.

- Again, depending on who put in the washer and why/how it overflowed, you might not be responsible for any of the effort or cost to repair this damage. Don't keep this situation a secret!

Furthermore, you are proposing the next tenant (possibly someone with kids or serious allergies) live in a potentially hazardous environment with mold. That's pretty uncool of you.

SOLUTION: At the very very least, I would use a product to kill the mold and a dehumidifier on the carpets.

But to be honest, I think you should be honest. The BEST idea is to rip up the carpets NOW and dispose of them. Maybe if you talk to the landlord, you can get permission to do that if it turns out this is your responsibility and not his?

Be proactive here and do the right thing. You won't get away with "hiding" this problem (TRUST ME) and you as the tenant have a legal responsibility to minimize the damage and cost by notifying the landlord when stuff like this comes up. If you tried to argue this in court after hiding the issue and making it worse, you would lose.


Handle this like an adult now. It will be cheaper and easier for you in the long run.
posted by jbenben at 10:14 AM on March 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

You can also rent a steam cleaner and use it to pull up most of the extra water. Then use the dehumidifier and fans.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:32 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey. Sorry I yelled in my previous post.

I wanted to make sure you understand the odds of you hiding this successfully are very very very very slim. It's not actually the inspection you must fear.

After the inspection, either a handyman, cleaning crew, or carpet folks are SURE to alert your landlord about the mold. Or, he'll discover it himself a day or two after your stuff is out.

-- Situations like this are exactly why landlords don't return that deposit check right away, and instead wait a few weeks.

I don't know your landlord personally or the details of the washer dryer situations. Memail me if you want to share details and I can probably help you CYA in this situation.

Like rhapsodie, I was also going to suggest the steam cleaner trick along with the dehumidifier. But if you are not technically responsible for the damage, your better move might be to let the landlord fix this the right way, now.
posted by jbenben at 11:05 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

If the house develops a mold problem, you're potentially going to be liable in negligence (or even fraud) to the landlord, and that'll be a lot more expensive that taking the hit on the deposit. I'd clean it up the best I could, as per the suggestions in this thread, but I'd disclose. In most jurisdictions, I'd think the landlord wouldn't be able to charge you for a new carpet if the old carpet is as worn as you state.
posted by seventyfour at 11:10 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: I also agree that you should 'fess up; but second that if you're not going to, renting a steam cleaner from Home Depot or a similar place to suck the water out and then clean the carpet (using the deodorizing tricks mentioned above, like Odoban - but many are good) is the thing to do. For us, it was about $30 for a day, and I did the whole house.

We've had a few basement floods, and used to just try the fan/air dry/what have you method, and the smell always came back. Finally, we ditched the carpet, and got a new one - just in time for another flood. This time, we rented the cleaner, and the carpet is as good as new and there's been no lingering problems. If you're not going to be truthful, you'll at least have done the most diligent thing you can do.
posted by peagood at 12:34 PM on March 17, 2011

I would check for colorfastness as it contains bleach, but Mold Armor does an incredible job. it will probalby get rid of the mold, but even a light spraying will kknock the mold back enough to kill the odor. Just be aware that it has bleach and so will smell like bleach for a couple of hours.
posted by rtimmel at 12:39 PM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, people. I have no idea what Odoban, Febreeze, Lysol, Goo Gone, Lowes or HD are, but I will start googling for Australian equivalents.

Meanwhile I will try the other suggestions.

I will think about telling the landlord about this. I still hope I can actually get rid of the mildew by drying out the carpet thoroughly. I hadn't thought about the fact it might be a health risk for the next tenant. Is that true even if the carpet gets ripped off and replaced?

The washing machine is ours, and we knew it had issues when we ran it, so I think we are responsible for the flooding. Replacing carpet is going to cost our whole deposit plus some, which we absolutely can't afford, so we are understandably reluctant to get into a fight about whether we are liable for the carpets, even though I am sure we have a case, due to them needing replacing anyway.
posted by lollusc at 2:29 PM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: Read your update.

Close off the room, put space heaters on FULL BLAST, use dehumidifiers plus treat the carpet with chemical mold inhibitors!

Just know that the carpets requiring replacement are not relevant to your case in any jurisdiction. It's about the water and mold damage underneath the carpets.

The gross carpets are preventing the area (subfloor, adjacent drywall, baseboards) from fully drying and promoting the mold growth, all of which is structural damage.

If you can get the area fully completely spotlessly dry and chemically treated, then you may be OK here.

Pray the carpet is never replaced, or replaced well well after you've gotten your deposit back. The second that carpet comes up, the water damage and mold will be obvious if your efforts to treat failed (assuming you successfully mask the smell, which will give it all away first.)

If you still smell mildew after drying the shit out of everything for three days, rethink your strategy.
posted by jbenben at 3:37 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jbenben is absolutely right; as much as it sucks, you should just tell the landlord right away. The sooner, the better, so as to minimize the damage.

We had an old washer flood our hallway many years ago and no matter what we tried, the mildew smell would not go away. The only solution was to rip up the carpet and the baseboards, and have them replaced (we bought a new washer and replaced the carpet with tile, LOL -- never had a flood again, but at least it will be easy to clean up if it ever happens again!). Trying to skirt around the issue will only result in more problems later -- possibly the mold will infest the subfloor or walls and that's a very callous thing to leave the next tenant to discover-- so just bite the bullet and get it over with. If you have renter's insurance, maybe it will cover the cost of the repairs, so call your insurance company first. Good luck!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:16 PM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, will go with jbenben's strategy of trying to get rid of the mildew first, and then going to the landlord if that fails.

I think it's kind of cute how people assume that talking to the landlord will get things fixed faster. There has been ongoing water damage in the bathroom for the past year due to repairs he has failed to make despite repeated reporting. The oven only turns on and off by turning on and off the power to the kitchen at the fusebox. Other repairs have been waiting for three years or more. He doesn't seem especially interested in avoiding structural damage. I suspect that the soonest the carpet will be replaced is after we move out, whether or not we report it, but I do realise it's probably the right thing to do anyway.

We don't have renter's insurance. Sigh.
posted by lollusc at 5:40 PM on March 17, 2011

Some landlords just plain suck, no doubt about it, but the time to bring up those other issues is long gone, unfortunately. If you've documented them with the landlord (in some type of written correspondence), maybe you could use that to your advantage when you negotiate the cost of clean-up for this current situation.

Explore this link for further help in Pennsylvania.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:41 PM on March 17, 2011

lollusc, I would give your version of the Department of Fair Trading a call. It looks like it's the Office of Fair Trading in the ACT.

I once lived in a place with really old loop carpeting. It was so fragile that moving a lounge chair back and forth on it wore a hole, and as I was worried about my security deposit, I called the Department of Fair Trading to ask what my options were. I was told that carpet is presumed to have a ten year age cycle, and if it was already over ten years old when I moved in, I could argue that it was normal wear and tear.

As it turned out, I told the owner about the problem as I was moving out and he said, "Yeah, we need to replace that." So it was no biggie. Your owner sounds like much more of a jerk, but at least Fair Trading can advise you of your options.
posted by Georgina at 6:50 PM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: If you've documented them with the landlord (in some type of written correspondence)
Oh, the issues are all documented in writing.

I was told that carpet is presumed to have a ten year age cycle
I know, and I have confirmed that the current carpet is more than 10 years old.

These points are exactly why I am saying that the carpet will be replaced when I leave, and why I am not liable for that. This is not just my opinion, but we are legally protected. The landlord would not be able to get new tenants in with the carpets the way they were even before the flooding.

The issue is that I don't want to have to fight with the landlord about it. I have no doubt that we would win eventually, but even small claims court costs something.

But jbenben's and others' advice above convinced me that we don't just have to worry about the carpets here, but also the floors underneath. Fortunately two further days of intensive drying out since this question have made the smell almost non-existent, and now we are moving on to steam cleaning and chemical treatments. I think we have it in hand. Thanks, everyone!
posted by lollusc at 10:07 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had never heard of Odoban, so i followed the link to read up. As far as mold and mildew go, this is what the faq had to say:

Q. Does OdoBan Odor Eliminator kill mold and mildew?

No. OdoBan Odor Eliminator is a mildewstat. A mildewstat controls, prevents, and inhibits mold and mildew growth, but it will not kill what is already there. To use OdoBan Odor Eliminator correctly on mold and mildew, first use a mold and mildew remover, rinse with water, then spray OdoBan Odor Eliminator on a regular basis to prevent its return.

Q. Will OdoBan Odor Eliminator damage your carpet?

No. OdoBan Odor Eliminator will not damage carpet when used as directed. Note: OdoBan Odor Eliminator should not be used on fourth or fifth generation carpet due to the fact that it will void the warranty. ( Fourth Generation carpet has an application of fluorochemicals that modifies the surface tension of the fiber making nylon fibers more resistant to soils. Fifth Generation carpet has been chemically treated with acid dye resisters to block most common household food and beverage stains.) If OdoBan Odor Eliminator is accidentally applied on fourth or fifth generation carpet, rinse thoroughly with water.

(so after you've run genealogy tests on your carpet, you'll know whether or not odoban can be used)

Lollusc, original poster, seems to have the problem under control; just posting additional info for future searchers.
posted by Sarah Jane at 7:48 AM on March 19, 2011

On the chance that he doesn't return your deposit:

Speaking as a landlord in the US, we generally have to depreciate the items that need to be replaced. For example, if a carpet is supposed to last 10 years and it was installed 6 years prior to you moving in, your landlord cannot keep any money from you for replacing the carpet. Damage to the subfloor is another issue, but where you are may have some similar guideline.
posted by Shark Tail at 4:54 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: Final update: we got our full bond back. The smell and stains completely went away once the carpet was dry. We had it professionally steam cleaned as required before moving out and the cleaner said he found older water damage elsewhere in the apartment, so even if problems reoccur later, we most likely wouldn't be responsible.
posted by lollusc at 4:22 PM on June 9, 2011

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