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posted: 2/24/2013 3:35 AM

Powder room plagued by foul odor

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Q. The powder room on the first floor of my two-story house has a sewer smell (annoying and obvious, but not overwhelming). I had a plumber fix a plugged toilet in this powder room in early August. He used a "closet auger" (his term) and found the plug in the toilet fixture. (He had to go out only 2 to 3 feet to clear the clog.)

At some point after this (I am not sure how many weeks or if it is related), the smell began. I removed everything from the powder room, and the smell was still there. I then went completely around the powder room in other rooms, into the basement and above it on the second floor, and could find no smell.

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I then determined there is no smell if the toilet is not flushed for a while. The smell occurs within five minutes of flushing the toilet. I replaced the wax ring. The smell seems to be somewhat less, but it is still present, and under the same circumstances. When I replaced the wax ring, I loosely stuffed a rag in the PVC pipe that goes under the toilet and noticed a slight sewer smell all the time until I replaced the toilet.

There are no water leaks around or below the toilet that I can see. (I have access from the basement.) The sink and toilet are used regularly, and I do not believe the sink gooseneck is dry, as water is run in it every day. The toilet is a Kohler, 1.6 gallons per flush, and it sits on tile and does not rock/move at all. I have never had a sewer backup in the basement. The basement is completely dry. (I'm not sure if all this information helps, but it cannot hurt!)

The house was built in 1997. The other two bathrooms in the house do not have this problem. The powder room was remodeled in 2005, and the toilet and sink were moved. They were connected to the existing disposal pipes in the basement. I can see one vent pipe on my roof. The problem does not seem to change with wind.

A. You certainly have done a fine job of sleuthing the cause of this unpleasant odor.

The only thing that makes sense is that flushing any toilet creates a small negative pressure in the house and waste lines, which may be equalized by a small intake around the powder room toilet wax seal.

Did you use a new wax seal or one of the new waxless seals, which are more effective and will not need replacement?

At this point, why not caulk the base of the toilet to the floor? If the smell disappears, the wax seal is the problem.

Your choices are to apply rope caulk very tightly so that you can pull it off if it is successful in eliminating the smell and you wish to replace the wax seal. Or caulk it permanently with a silicone caulking compound, which is the easiest caulking to remove if you need to do so later.

Q. In a recent article you wrote about unvented fossil fuel space heaters (natural gas). You state you would never recommend using one, but you didn't state your reasons.

We have had an unvented heater (Empire) in our downstairs family room for two years. It replaced a vented heater, and although we haven't had any problems, we are now worried that the heater may be unsafe or present other problems. I hope you can clear up your answer.

A. Any unvented fossil fuel appliance emits carbon monoxide as part of the combustion process. It also emits other noxious particulates that are unhealthy, and it depletes the oxygen in the house.

Q. We have a pocket door into our family room, and the noise it makes when you open and close it drives me nuts. How can we make the noise go away?

A. I assume you have an older house, as newer pocket doors are not prone to be noisy. I have seen many older homes with large pocket doors, some of which are very beautiful -- and heavy. The track may have become dirty over time, and the wheels may have become dry.

It may be difficult, but try to clean and lubricate the track and rollers with WD-40. To reach the hardware, you may need to insert the hard tube that comes with the WD-40 into a small, flexible plastic tube.

Q. I have an old Cape Cod house and find I get icicles on the gutters every winter. I have had the house insulated by drilling on the outside and have replaced the gutters and added leaf guards. My roof has not been done, but roofers say insulation is not added below shingles.

What can I do to prevent this ice jam from thawing and melting and causing icicles? One year, my top dormer gutter fell off from the weight of ice. My brother has a newer home with the same problem.

A. You haven't given me enough information. Do ice dams also form at the eaves, or are the gutters the only places with ice? When there is snow on the roof, do you see significant melt patterns? Do you have an attic, and if so, can you access it easily? Or do you have cathedral ceilings?

Insulating the walls won't do anything to prevent ice dams. But if you have access to the attic, consider having cellulose blown in to a depth of at least 16 inches on top of what you have. Unfortunately, if the attic has a floor, that may not be possible without major alterations.

If you have a cathedral ceiling, 2-inch-thick rigid XPS (extruded polystyrene) or polyiso insulation can be fastened to the existing ceilings and covered with new drywall.

If there is no ventilation between the cathedral ceiling insulation and the roof sheathing, and if you plan on putting a new roof on soon, you can add 2-inch rigid insulation on the roof deck after taking off the old roofing. Screw 2-inch by 3-inch strapping vertically through the insulation and into the rafters, letting the tails hang out 3 inches to install a continuous soffit vent strip on their underside. Install a new fascia. Follow this with new plywood, ice- and water-protective membrane at the eaves, and either less expensive organic felt on the rest of the roof deck or one of the more expensive newer felts. Complete the job with new roofing of your choice.

This will give you a cold roof and, if you choose shingles, keep them cool and ventilated, safeguarding their warranty. It should eliminate all ice damming and, because it will keep snow from melting due to heat loss from the house, there should not be any water running into the cold gutters and freezing.

Q. We started building our new home over the summer and moved in this past November. We have noticed mosquitoes in the house and wonder how we can get rid of them. We see about one a day.

A. They are poor orphans left over from the summer. One a day is not overwhelming. If you have no objection to whacking them into oblivion, please do so. Otherwise, catch them in a jar and release them outside, where they will meet their doom in the cold weather.

Corian cleaning tip: A reader from Bartlett writes: "Thank you for your column. My husband and I have been loyal readers for many years. We have your book, and I keep an envelope inside the front cover for all the columns we clip out!

"I wanted to add to your advice on cleaning stains on Corian. For your readers who do not like to use chlorine bleach products like Comet unless absolutely necessary, I wanted to suggest using OxiClean powder. It can be used in the same manner as you described with the Comet. It cleans the Corian well and is safer for the environment, plus you don't have to worry about accidentally damaging your clothing if you splash it on yourself."

You are right; I should have mentioned OxiClean or OxyBoost instead. I am always in favor of more environmentally friendly ways to help our stressed planet.

More hair spray help from readers: "I was reading your column this morning about cleaning hair spray off bathroom doors and walls. I keep a spray bottle of 1 cup fabric softener and 1 cup water in my bathroom vanity for just that reason. I also wash the bathroom floor with the same mixture. After I spray the mixture on the door, I scrape it with the edge of an old credit card, being careful not to scratch the painted surface. It sure makes the bathroom smell good."

• "I use blue Windex for cleaning spots off the carpet. It's better than carpet cleaner."

• "Had the same problem on our walls. 'Washed' the wall with hair shampoo/water mixture. Did the trick. May work for woodwork. The shampoo washes hair spray out of your hair, so why not the woodwork?"

• An Illinois reader also uses shampoo mixed with water in a spray bottle, but uses it full strength in tough areas that have not responded to the mixture. Thank you, all! I'll add these great suggestions to my files.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at henridemarne@gmavt.net. His book, "About the House," is available at www.upperaccess.com and in bookstores.

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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