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Sewage Smells

A bad smell is usually a sign something is wrong — especially if it is a sewage smell.

A sewer smell in a bathroom, kitchen or laundry room can indicate a broader issue than backed-up plumbing. It could come from the sewer itself, which requires immediate action.

In addition to being unpleasant, can sewer gas make you sick? Indeed, a strange sewage smell could be hazardous for your health. One of the primary gases in sewage is methane, and if it accumulates in large amounts, it can become highly flammable. If untreated, sewage gases can leak high amounts of methane into your home, leading to headaches, weakness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, loss of coordination, loss of consciousness and even suffocation.

Unusual sewer smells are not something to ignore. However, finding the source of the odors can be difficult — most of us automatically assume it must come from the toilet, but problems can hide in many of your home's water systems, including the shower and washing machine.

We have compiled this guide to help you trace the source of a sewage smell in your home. Once you discover the cause of the odor, we will walk you through some troubleshooting steps to try to resolve the issue — however, sometimes, only a professional can fix a sewage problem.

Sources of Sewer Smell

sources of sewage smells

If you smell sewage in your home, your first instinct is probably to examine the toilet — that seems like the most logical source of the problem. However, sometimes odors persist even after you have thoroughly cleaned your toilet and bathroom, and air fresheners and fans are not enough to dispel the smell.

When nothing you try makes the odor go away, you are most likely dealing with a more significant issue. Examine the following areas of your home and notice if the smell gets stronger in specific locations — your nose will be your first clue in finding the source of the sewage smell.

Odors From Your Shower Drain

odors from your shower drain

One of the most common sources of a sewage smell is not the toilet — if you notice a foul sewer smell in your bathroom, examine the drain in your shower.

A smelly shower drain typically results from one of two issues: biofilm accumulation or a problem with your P-trap.

1. Biofilm Accumulation

When we shower, we use many different products. Body oils, conditioner, shampoo, soap and shaving cream wash down the drain along with natural debris like skin cells and hair. Over time, these substances often accumulate along the P-trap and vertical pipes that run underneath your shower.

This accumulation is called biofilm. As it builds up, biofilm begins to release a sewage smell from bacteria and decomposing debris. The bacteria emit a sticky substance that allows them to cling to the side of your pipes, making them difficult to remove without specialized products.

Eventually, this sewage odor becomes noticeable in the entire bathroom, not just in the shower or bathtub.

How to fix the problem: Typically, eradicating biofilm and the shower drain smells it creates is an easy process that does not require a plumber. To get rid of the odors from your bathroom, you will have to unclog the debris that is feeding the bacteria in the drain.

Make a DIY, all-natural cleaner using baking soda, boiling water and white distilled vinegar. Complete the following steps to strip biofilm from your pipes.

  1. Use a screwdriver to remove the shower drain.
  2. Next, boil between five and 10 quarts of water. Let the water cool to 150 degrees Fahrenheit before slowly pouring it down the shower drain.
  3. Follow the water with one cup of white distilled vinegar.
  4. Immediately after you pour the vinegar, pour half a cup of baking soda down the drain.
  5. After two hours, dump a gallon of hot water into the shower drain.
  6. Finally, run a drain brush through the drain to clear out any remaining debris.

If the sewer gas smell in the bathroom persists after you have cleaned your shower drain, contact a professional plumber to examine your water system.

2. Dry P-Trap

Another common cause of a sewer gas smell in the house includes a dry P-trap.

The P-trap is a U-shaped pipe designed to trap and hold water. When it is working correctly, a P-trap is supposed to hold enough water to prevent gases and odors from the sewer to creep up your drain.

If you do not use your shower often, the water could merely have evaporated from the P-trap. However, if you frequently turn on your shower and still notice a sewage smell from your drain, it may indicate a more severe problem. For example, your P-trap could leak, preventing it from holding water.

How to fix the problem: A dry P-trap can be easy or difficult to fix, depending on the reason it is dry.

If you do not use your shower often, the water could have evaporated. Fortunately, you can quickly resolve this issue — turn on your shower and let the water run for a few minutes to refill the P-trap. The water should be enough to refill the P-trap and stop sewage gases from leaking into your bathroom. If the smell persists, try pouring a quart of water into every drain in your home, including the sink and the toilet.

If the odor remains after running water through all drains, you are probably dealing with an old or leaky P-trap. For the best results, contact a professional plumber to examine and replace your P-trap.

Odors From Your Toilet

odors from your toilet

Typically, you can fix a bad-smelling toilet with a quick clean, a few flushes and some air freshener. However, sometimes a smell will not go away, no matter how many times you clean your bathroom.

There are several potential reasons your bathroom smells like a sewer. Some of the most common include an improperly installed or cut vent pipe, a broken or loose seal or a damaged toilet.

1. Improperly Installed or Cut Vent Pipe

If the walls near your toilet emit a persistent sewage smell, the cause could be an improperly installed or cut vent pipe.

The vent pipe helps regulate the air pressure in your home's plumbing system. Vent pipes also redirect odors outside your home, so they do not leak into your home or bathroom. However, sometimes contractors install vent pipes improperly, which can cause them to send odors into your bathroom.

How to fix the problem: A professional plumber can help you solve any problems with a vent pipe. In cases involving a poor installation, an experienced plumber can quickly diagnose the problem and reinstall a new pipe.

Sometimes, a vent pipe will develop cracks that allow odors to spill out into your home. To find any cracks, a plumber will use a smoke machine to fill the pipe. Once the smoke begins to emerge, they will trace it to the source of the leak and repair the pipe.

2. Broken or Loose Seal

If your toilet smells like sewage, it could have a broken or loose seal.

The toilet attaches to the drain through two different seals. If these seals are loose, broken or improperly installed, they could allow sewer gases to enter your bathroom. One indication of a broken seal is if the toilet bowl does not fill up normally.

If a seal leaks water and sewage, a bad smell might not stem from sewage gases. Sometimes, water will pool in crevices in and around your toilet, attracting bacteria. As the bacteria grow, they produce a foul odor.

Sometimes a toilet leaks from the wax ring, which seals the toilet drain and prevents water leakage. If the toilet bowl is loose, it can damage the wax ring, leading to sewage seeping out and producing bad smells.

Your toilet could also be broken, cracked or otherwise damaged. For example, it may have cracked around the bolts that fasten it to the floor or from using a drain snake too aggressively. Even small cracks can let sewer gas seep into your bathroom.

How to fix the problem: If the problem is a broken or loose seal, often a fresh application of caulk is enough to fix the issue. Apply caulk to your toilet's seals, as well as the bolt holes securing the toilet to the ground.

Check to see if your toilet bowl is wobbly or loose — if it is, it may have broken the wax ring. To repair it, reset the toilet with a new toilet ring.

If the toilet itself appears to have broken, contact a professional plumbing service for repairs.

Odors From Your Sink

odors from your sink

Sometimes, a sulfur-like smell comes from your bathroom sink.

A stinky sink can have many causes — just like a shower drain, it could have a dry P-trap, for example. However, another common source of odors is buildup in the overflow.

1. Buildup in the Overflow

If you notice a sewage smell coming up from your sink, check to see if it has an overflow mechanism.

Many sinks come with a hole near the top designed to provide an outlet for water, preventing overflows from spilling into the bathroom. Like anything near water, your sink can build up grime and mildew quickly, especially in the overflow area.

How to fix the problem: Fortunately, cleaning the overflow is an easy project. All you need is water, bleach and a small bottle brush.

  1. Use a small bottle brush to scrub the interior of the overflow area and remove any debris.
  2. Next, mix a solution of half water and half chlorine bleach.
  3. Using the bottle brush, apply the solution to the overflow area to eliminate any lingering bacteria or odors.

If the odors do not go away after a thorough cleaning, contact a professional plumbing service to examine your sink.

Odors From Your Washing Machine

odors from your washing machine

When you notice your house smells like sewage, the first place you look is probably the bathroom. However, if you cannot locate the source of the smell, examine your washing machine — the cause of the problem might be hiding in your laundry room.

The most common causes of a washing machine that smells like sewage are improperly installed P-traps, drain clogs or vent pipe clogs.

1. Improperly Installed P-Trap

P-traps are not just for your bathroom — they are essential for washing machines, too. However, unlike many bathroom pipes, modern washing machines come with a flexible drain hose. The wastewater from a washing machine flows through this flexible hose into the drain box pipe, which connects to the P-trap.

Because the hose is flexible, it can easily be improperly installed. The hose may have been inserted too far into the drainage box, which prevents the P-trap from functioning. As a result, odors can seep into your home.

How to fix the problem: To solve this problem, try pulling the washing machine drain hose out of the drain box. Stop when the hose is roughly eight inches deep in the piping — this will let the P-trap work properly, keeping sewer gases from leaking into the room.

2. Drain Clogs

Another common reason for a bad-smelling washing machine is a clog in the drain pipe.

A clog in the drain line will create a buildup of organic matter like hair and soap. Bacteria will form on the clog, creating a nasty odor that resembles the smell of sewage. If left untreated, a clog will build on itself, growing larger and larger and producing more noticeable odors.

How to fix the problem: Fortunately, a clogged drain has an easy fix. Using a drain snake, clear out any clogs in the drain line. If the clog refuses to budge, contact a professional plumber to take a look at your drain and washing machine.

3. Vent Pipe Clogs

As with your bathroom plumbing, washing machines need vent pipes. All drain systems in your house must be properly vented to prevent sewage gases from seeping into your home.

If a vent pipe becomes clogged, sewer air will not have a vent through your house. This situation often results in leaking odors, and they typically come from the walls around the vent pipe.

How to fix the problem: To check for clogs in your vent pipes, you have to access your roof. Bring a flashlight and shine a beam into the vent pipes. Search for any obstructions, such as bird nests or other debris. Using a snake or another long tool, try to dislodge or remove them.

For the best results, work with a plumber to address the issue — professional plumbers have the knowledge and tools to safely and quickly remove clogs from vent pipes.

Odors From Your Water

odors from your water

If you notice a sulfur-like smell when you turn on the tap, the problem may go deeper than a clogged drain. Before assuming your water is the problem, try a few troubleshooting measures.

Use a de-clogging solution to eliminate any buildup in the pipes. After you've given the cleaning material time to work, pour a glass of water down the drain and walk away from the sink. Smell the water — if it still has an odor, you might have bacteria in your water heater, or your water might contain hydrogen sulfide.

1. Bacteria in Your Water Heater

If the smell is only noticeable when you use hot water, the problem is most likely with your water heater.

Occasionally, bacteria colonies can establish themselves in a water heater if the temperature of your heater is too low or if you leave it turned off for long periods. Fortunately, the bacteria should not be harmful to humans, so your health is not in danger. However, the bacteria produce a strong rotten egg smell in the house, which reduces your ability to enjoy your water.

How to fix the problem: If bacteria are thriving in your water heater, you can try increasing the temperature of your heater for up to 24 hours. Run the hot water taps to flush out the pipes of any remaining bacteria.

Remember to proceed carefully if you decide to turn up the temperature of your water heater — it is easy to forget your water is hotter than average, which can lead to burns.

2. Hydrogen Sulfide in Your Water

If your water smells bad regardless if it is hot or cold, the problem might lie in your water source. Highly concentrated amounts of hydrogen sulfide produce a strong sulfur smell in the house.

Although hydrogen sulfide can be toxic in large amounts, it is usually easy to detect before it reaches harmful levels. Humans can detect the presence of hydrogen sulfide as low as .5 parts per million (PPM) — levels less than 1 PPM will produce a musty scent, and levels between 1 and 2 PPM will have an odor similar to rotten eggs.

How to fix the problem: If you suspect your water source may contain hydrogen sulfide, contact your local water testing lab to have your water examined for contaminants.

When You Need a Plumber

when you need a plumber

Many sources of sewage smells are easy to fix at home. However, if you ever feel uncomfortable repairing a plumbing issue, do not hesitate to contact a plumbing service — professionals can quickly and efficiently solve your plumbing problems.

Some problems are beyond the expertise of the average homeowner. One issue in particular typically requires the knowledge of a plumber: a sewer backup.

The most obvious sign of a sewage backup is overflowing drains. If your shower and toilet drains suddenly begin to gurgle with rancid water, you are most likely dealing with a major sewage problem.

Sewage backup often results from large-scale events such as floods, tree roots or pipe damage. Here are a few of the most common issues behind a backed-up sewer.

  • Blockages in a sanitary main: Sometimes, blockages from debris gradually accumulate in the city sanitary main. Over time, these blockages can lead to sewage seeping up through your basement or bathroom drains.
  • Tree root invasion: Trees or shrubs can send roots deep into the earth in search of water. Sometimes, these strong roots can crack sewer lines and cause sewage to leak out. In severe cases, the roots can create blockages in the main lines, leading to backed-up sewage.
  • Broken or collapsed sewer lines: If you live in an older home or neighborhood, your sewage backup could be the result of cracked, broken or collapsed sewer lines.
  • Flooding: The surge of water from floods can force sewage up through drain pipes and into your home.

In situations like this, your first action is to call an emergency plumber. They will be able to assess the situation and determine whether the issue is coming from tree roots or the city sewage system.

Work With a Team You Can Trust

work with a team of plumbers

When you have a plumbing emergency, work with a team you can trust.

Whether you are dealing with a failing water heater or a smelly laundry room, the professional team at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Syracuse is here to help. For almost five decades, Mr. Rooter has been the nation's most trusted provider of plumbing and repairs. We offer fair, upfront pricing estimates with no hidden overtime charges, and we are dedicated to providing the highest possible level of customer service.

For plumbing and repairs, or to troubleshoot a stubborn sewage smell, contact Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Syracuse today.