SEWER GAS SMELL
WHY IS THERE A SEWER SMELL IN MY HOUSE/BASEMENT AND WHAT TO DO
Sewer systems in houses do incredible work when it comes to keeping homes sanitary, clean, and fresh-smelling. For most of human history, sewage was a constant problem, even in the wealthiest homes. Great cities like London, Paris, Rome, and New York were beset by sewage-related issues well into the nineteenth century.
This was particularly bad in the summer months, and is the main reason why desirable homes emerged in the suburbs. With the invention and development of indoor plumbing, combined with mass municipal sewer systems, and sewage treatment plants, the same problems no longer exist as they did two hundred years ago. It’s not something we think of often, but it’s one of the first things a visitor from the past would notice about modern life.
Our development is all well and good, but it doesn’t always function perfectly. When a sewer system goes wrong, it really goes wrong, and the sooner you act on it the better. Luckily, sewage comes with a built-in detection mechanism – the smell. If you notice a sewage smell (or a smell from sewer gases), it’s time to act, as it means there’s a problem somewhere in your plumbing.
In addition to the prospect of damage in your pipes, sewer gas can create its own problems. According to the Arizona Department of Health, sewer gases can contain hydrogen sulfide, which makes it poisonous to humans. On top of that, sewer gases can be extremely combustible, owing to the high levels of methane present. If there was any doubt about fixing the problem, a bad-smelling, poisonous, potentially flammable gas leaking into your home should encourage you.
This guide will help explain potential causes of sewer gas in your home, along with what you should do if and when you notice it.
Sewer gas refers to any gas that is either the product or by-product of sewage. This actually encompasses a wide range of gases, all of which are organic in nature, as well as being fairly unpleasant.
During the nineteenth century, the development of germ theory was showing that bacteria and viruses present in organic waste was a primary cause of disease. This was directly connected with problems relating to sewage. In one of the most famous examples, a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 allowed physician John Snow to demonstrate that the problem was a single polluted well pump in Broad Street, London.
This proved that sewage could contaminate the water supply and cause public health crises. Snow’s discovery catalyzed the development of public sewage systems.
Ironically, a theory that flourished before germ theory was that of ‘miasmas,’ or polluted airs which caused diseases. This theory held that smelling bad smells caused diseases. Although this theory is now discredited, there is some truth in the fact that bad smells spell bad news. Certainly, while there is no causal link between bad smells and disease, there is a correlation.
SEWER GAS IS A MIXTURE OF TOXIC AND NONTOXIC
gases that is produced in sewage systems and held there by the makeup of the pipes. They are caused by the decomposition of waste. While we think of sewage as being household waste, it can actually include industrial waste, both of which are regular elements in sewage pipes. The most common components of sewage are hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, esters, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.
The actual smell of sewer gas varies greatly depending on the specific makeup of the gas. Hydrogen sulfide has the smell of rotten eggs and is often the most noticeable element of a sewer gas smell. Similarly, methane has a more organic smell and is often present in the ‘miasma’ from a sewer.
The most common ways that sewer gases get into homes and buildings is through leaks in pipes, vents, or traps.
In general, sewer gas is at a fairly high pressure, so any small crack or hole is likely to cause sewer gases to escape and, if the crack is near a window, vent, or inside your home, you will likely experience a sewer gas smell inside your home. This may be at certain times of day or night, or be a constant smell. Either way, it’s an unpleasant experience that needs to be acted upon.
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF SEWER GAS?
Aside from the biological causes of sewer gas – namely the breakdown of organic materials, combined with the chemicals used in the treatment of sewage – there are a number of reasons why you may notice sewer gas smells in your home.
The following are some of the most common reasons:
Of course, there are myriad causes, but the above account for the vast majority of cases.
The risks to humans from sewer gas should not be underestimated as well. The fact that there is an unpleasant smell is only one of the major problems with sewer gas. Sewer gases are not always toxic – in some cases they are little more than unpleasant smells. This is particularly true if you have a blockage within your toilet, where the organic matter hasn’t had much time to breakdown. However, almost all sewer gas contains methane, which can be toxic in high concentrations.
As mentioned above, hydrogen sulphide is also a component of sewer gas.
If you have a septic tank, this will probably make you want to get it cleaned regularly but it probably won’t do much to making it safer. Here you can learn more about the average cost of septic tank pumping.
This is by far more dangerous than methane, and even in relatively small doses can cause some of the following symptoms:
Irritation of the eyes
Shortness of breath
More generally, the symptoms of potential exposure to sewer gases may include the following:
Nausea or vomiting
Dizziness or lightheadedness
sewer gas doesn’t always come accompanied by a smell. In 99% of cases it will, but occasionally it doesn’t, meaning you may not notice that there is a leak. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, it is well worth checking your plumbing (after consulting with a doctor, of course).
WHAT TO DO IF YOU NOTICE A SMELL?
If you do notice a sewer smell, it’s unlikely that you will fail to act upon it. However, it’s critical that you act quickly. As mentioned above, there are three main things you need to consider: your health, the smell, and the potential damage to your pipes and home. Besides your basement, another common place for sewer smell is in your bathroom.
If you have been exposed to sewer gases, you should immediately get into fresh air. This may involve ventilating your home by opening up the doors and windows and adding in a fan to move the air out. You should also seek medical care immediately if you, or anyone else is experiencing trouble breathing, dizziness, or nausea.
To get rid of the smell, you should consult with a plumber, who will be able to diagnose and solve the problem in more advanced ways than you can. However, things you can do is to remove any clogs from the system using a commercially-available drain cleaner, as well as try and determine precisely where the smell is coming from by conducting a tour of your home (if safe to do so).
If there is damage to your home,
then you will need the help of a professional. Because of the nature of sewage, the presence of biohazards make it a potentially dangerous operation. You should call a water damage restoration company if there is any damage to your drainpipes.
They will be able to not only safely remove any of the sections of pipes, furniture, or fittings that have been exposed to leaks, but make the appropriate sewer repairs to return your home to how it was before.
The prospect of a sewer gas leak
is not only extremely unpleasant, but can also – as mentioned above – be extremely dangerous. The presence of hydrogen sulfide is perhaps the most dangerous, but, in general, the prospect of biohazards entering your home gives a gas leak a more sinister twist.
There is a wide range of professional services you can call to help you deal with the problem of a sewer gas leak, from a plumber to a water damage restoration company.
In general, when it comes to sewage pipes, it’s not a job for an amateur. The danger element, combined with the potential for causing more damage means that it’s best left to the professionals.