What's that funny smell in our hallway?
May 29, 2005 2:16 PM   Subscribe

There's a funny smell in our hallway. It smells like fish. Mainly fish, almost coppery, but definitely fish-like. Our hallway is not much wider than the door, and 4 or 5 feet long. There is an entrance to the attic, a radiator, a rug, and our phone in there. It's not the rug. It's not the radiator. It's not the attic. It's not the phone.

It drives us mad, but about half the time, it's not there. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's faint, sometimes incredibly strong. But only in the hallway. When it's strong, we go and stand in the hall, and try to stand in the place it smells the strongest. When we do this, we check the walls and floor and ceiling areas we're nearest to - no smell, no stain. We can't even narrow it down to one particular area of the hall. We've had 3 different sets of neighbours living under us, so it's not them.

We've washed the rug several times, mopped even more times, replaced the phone, checked the attic. Please. Any ideas? We just want to get rid of it. I mean, I like fish, but I don't want my hallway stinking of them...
posted by ralphyk to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Damp carpet underlay?
posted by Leon at 2:22 PM on May 29, 2005

Is it possible this is mold or mildew? Both tend to thrive in moist environments and can hide behind wallpaper or under carpets and rugs. Do you notice a difference in smell when there is a difference in temperature? This link covers cause and prevention if such is the case.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 2:30 PM on May 29, 2005

Did somebody wash down walls with a strong solution of trisodium phosphate and not sponge-rinse the walls with clean water? That's usually where that fishy smell comes from. On humid days it could be stronger.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:34 PM on May 29, 2005

It's possibly coming from somewhere outside the hallway? Downstairs, upstairs, next room, next door etc? As well as wall and floor cavities maybe.
posted by fire&wings at 3:03 PM on May 29, 2005

Could be a dead creature in the walls. Any sign of mice? Scratching noises? IIRC, when I worked in a café in Amsterdam the mice that would eat the poison (not my idea) would crawl off to their tiny deaths and that was approximately the smell. The odor fades after awhile, so that would explain why it's sometimes there and sometimes not. Just a thought.
posted by mireille at 3:07 PM on May 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Careful. I've encountered such a smell, I thought it was a dead animal or something alike. Almost a week went by, and the smell was on/off, and we could not track it down. And yes..the smell was sort of like fish or dead animal.

Eventually I got as far as too smelling every square inch of the wall in the room that had this smell. As I approached the electrical outlet, I didn't smell anything, but it felt warm. I put my hand up against it, and it was very warm. We quickly realized that the smell was happening every time our air conditioner was on (in the other room, but same circuit) and it was somehow causing the wires to heat up and melt the plastic covering in my room. We had an electrician come in and do whatever....problem gone.

Anyway, I hope it's not something like that, although the fix was easy, who knows what could happen if the wires had become completely exposed.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 3:50 PM on May 29, 2005

Ooh, thanks for the comments so far, here's some quick responses: There's no carpet, it's hard plasticky tile stuff. The variations seem independent of temperature, it goes up and down at any time of year. The walls are very thin - I haven't heard any mice noises though. Above us is the attic, then the roof. Below us is another flat, but there have been 3 different families at various stages, and the smell comes and goes anyway. Walls are painted, door is solid wood. The flat is about 15 years old, as far as I know, but seems much newer, it's in really good condition.

What's trisodium phosphate? Do dead mice smell of fish? (I'm not being sarcastic, just never had a dead mouse decaying in the walls that I know of, and I know some things don't smell like they should)

On preview: just checked the electrical socket - feels completely cold. The cordless phone base unit and answering machine are plugged in constantly, but the socket feels cold.

It seems to be stronger nearer the floor than the ceiling, near the wall where the radiator is, along with the phone, electrical socket, and phone socket. The floor is always bone dry, never been any signs of damp, never had any of the tiles curling up or anything like that.
posted by ralphyk at 3:59 PM on May 29, 2005

A leaking sewer line, perhaps?
posted by fandango_matt at 4:03 PM on May 29, 2005

Also, is there any correlation between the downstairs neighbors and the smell i.e. did the smell present itself after they moved in, or was it there before? Could it be related to his or her cooking habits? (I once had a downstairs neighbor who--well, I don't know what he was making, but the smell was horrendous.) And does he or she have a fish tank?
posted by fandango_matt at 4:08 PM on May 29, 2005

My first thought was animals in the walls. Once lived in an attic apartment that would get a few sma;; furry tenants in the winter. We tried everything to get rid of the mice- the cat caught a few, we trapped a few and then I guess one of the other units complained and they put some poison traps in the walls. We did get a fishy smell after that from the dead animals that we couldn't clean out.
posted by rodz at 4:43 PM on May 29, 2005

Do you have a utility closet with a floor drain? Any trap that doesn't get used regularly could dry out, allowing sewer gasses in.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:42 PM on May 29, 2005

Do you have pipes that either go under your floor or through those walls? They might be leaking - check your downstairs neighbor's ceiling in that area for waterstains.
posted by jasper411 at 5:53 PM on May 29, 2005

Some older electrical wiring will smell like fish when it overheats. You wouldn't be able to tell by touching the socket what the temperature or condition of the wiring is. If it's an older house, I'd have an electrician in to give it a going over.
posted by signal at 10:32 PM on May 29, 2005

Listen to Sonic_Molson and signal, and keep in mind that the outlet needn't be warm for some wiring somewhere to be burning. And it really would smell like a fishy dead animal. Our band's practice shed had this smell for six months -- we pulled up carpet and cleaned the whole place out and never found the dead rat we were certain was causing it.

Then we replaced the adapter we'd screwed into the light socket to power our instruments, and it was melted all to hell and smelled like dead animals.

Call an electrician, I'd say.
posted by climalene at 7:48 AM on May 30, 2005

It's a fairly new place, probably 15 to 20 years old at the most - but it's worth checking the wiring, that seems to be the only thing it could be.

Thanks for all the suggestions - I won't mark any best answers, until the mystery is solved, so let's just say we're all winners...
posted by ralphyk at 10:27 AM on June 1, 2005

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