The Nose Knows
A home can harbor all sorts of lingering and unpleasant aromas—think cat urine, stale cigar smoke, last Sunday’s fried fish, and stench from the bathroom. The range and nastiness of these smells may explain why more than 245 million Americans reported using air freshener sprays and room deodorizers in 2019, according to U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey. While some household odors are merely objectionable, others can be indications of hazardous conditions in your home. Here are some common funky smells and what they might mean.
About half of the homes in the United States use natural gas for heating, hot water, cooking, or drying clothes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. An undiscovered gas leak could cause a fire or explosion, yet under normal circumstances, natural gas is colorless and odorless, which makes gas leaks practically undetectable. As a safety measure, gas companies add a foul-smelling odorant to natural gas to produce a characteristic “rotten egg” smell. If you smell rotten eggs, vacate the premises immediately—do not use the landline or turn on or off any lights or appliances—and call the gas company from a neighbor's house or a cellphone a safe distance from your home.
A Fishy Smell
If something smells fishy in your home, it might not be last night's tilapia—in fact, you may want to call an electrician ASAP. That fishy smell is typically a sign that an electrical component is overheating or burning. The smell can come from loose or frayed wires or cords, overloaded circuits, faulty outlets, incorrectly sized breakers or fuses, or overheated electrical shielding or insulation. If not addressed quickly and properly, any of these problems could result in a house fire.
Sewage or "Bathroom" Odor
Don’t blame the bean dip! If you have excessive sewage smells emanating from your bathroom, you may want to call the plumber. That smell may mean that your plumbing system or vent pipe is clogged, or that you have a broken sewer pipe. The smell might also be caused by a dried-up P-trap, especially if the stench is coming from a drain that has not been used in a while. (If the water in the trap has evaporated, sewer gases can escape.) Run water through all drains at least once a month to prevent this problem. The water heater is yet another common cause of a sewage or sulfur smell: If the smell intensifies when you run the hot water, you may need to replace the anode rod in the heater.
Even people without feline friends may smell cat urine, especially after it rains. That distinctive odor can be an indication of a mold problem. Certain types of mold have a smell similar to cat urine, including dangerous toxic black mold, which should be remediated by a professional. Another source of cat urine odor is ornamental boxwood, a common landscaping shrub. And finally, if your home's previous owners had cats, any moisture that comes into contact with wood floors and walls will release the ghostly odors of cats long past.
Wet Dog Smell
Nothing smells quite the same as a dirty, wet dog, but squirrels, raccoons, and rats give off a similar odor. So, if you don’t own a pooch but keep getting a whiff of wet dog, you may have rodents in residence. Many wild animals may bite or have rabies, and through their infected feces they can transmit worms and diseases to humans or pets. Keep everyone safe by calling in a professional pest-control service to remove the interlopers.
Related: 8 Signs You May Have Mice
Rotting food has a distinctive sickly-sweet smell that tells our animal brains to stay far, far away. If you notice a rotten smell in your home, it could be that an old potato has fallen into the back of a cabinet, but it is more likely that a mouse, rat, or other animal has perished inside your home's walls, ductwork, attic, crawl space, or chimney. Have a professional come and check your ductwork and plumbing as soon as possible to remove the dead intruder.
Gym or “Locker Room” Smell
That all-too-familiar “dirty sock smell” may not be coming from your teenager’s gym bag. Instead, it could be caused by a buildup of bacteria on your heating system coils. Bacterial growth can occur at any time of year but is especially prevalent in the spring and fall, when the system is constantly cycling between heat and cold. Condensation on the coils creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth, which produces a distinctive odor. The best way to rid your home of the stench is to clean the evaporator coils with a non-acid coil cleaner, or call in a qualified HVAC professional to clean the coils and air ducts.
Musty and Dusty
A musty or dusty smell is often a sign of mold or mildew, especially in humid or moisture-prone environments like the basement, laundry room, kitchen, or bathroom. Mold and mildew can create severe respiratory problems and can exacerbate allergies and asthma in sensitive individuals. It's important to eliminate mold as quickly as possible. Small areas of mold and mildew can be cleaned with a mixture of bleach and water; more serious mold and mildew problems may require the services of a professional. To prevent mold and mildew from coming back, check for leaky fixtures and broken or cracked pipes, and consider installing exhaust fans or otherwise improving ventilation in the affected rooms.
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