Powerful odor is intermittent, difficult to pinpoint

Posted7/27/2014 12:01 AM

Q. Both my wife and myself, and I suspect even our border collie, read your column in the Daily Herald. We find your advice to be interesting and informative. Consequently, we have an issue that's stumped us and were hopeful you might give us some direction.

Our problem is an odor that smells much like a dead animal, although sometimes a bit like propane, but not really the hydrogen sulfide of natural gas.


The odor began suddenly late last fall. We suspected a dead animal as we have a wood-burning stove and keep a woodpile. The smell is intermittent and there seems to be no correlation between heat or cold, wet or dry. It is most prominent on the north side, which is the driveway side, and it existed even during subzero Chicago winter, so dead animal unlikely. The smell also migrates like a gas and can be at the front door area and the back door as well. There is no odor inside. We checked toilet stack and no odor there, either.

In November, we broke up the front sidewalk with a sledgehammer and long bar. We put down a coarse sand base of about four inches over the existing pea gravel, since the sidewalk had broken apart and heaved, requiring replacement. We put in paver bricks and used an 8-by-8-inch hand tamper and a mechanical tamper.

During this project, we had the septic tank pumped for first time since 2004. The original field was put in back in 1964.

The smell can go from nonexistent to overpowering, but it has abated a bit of late. I looked at our gutters and, as we have some 60 mature oaks, hickories and walnuts, and three 60-foot spruce trees around house, there was lots of junk in them.

Two other things: We had a landscaper put down several tons of gravel on the drive and grade it level in November. The main drain to the septic is cast iron and runs under the front walk. My greatest concern is that we cracked the main during the sidewalk project and the smell is sewage, which is pretty much the scent we get.

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The thing that makes me doubt this is that we used no jackhammer, just an 8-inch sledgehammer and the mechanical tamper. While that could still possibly crack a 50-year-old pipe, I would expect the flow to seep up or out somewhere and the smell would be constant and not exist in a deep freeze.

My wife wants to call the gas company, and after 45 years of marriage I should probably listen. However, the only gas appliances we have are the water heater and forced air furnace. The gas main is located on the front side of our house about 35 feet from the driveway and 15 feet from our front door. There is no odor from the main. The gas supply runs along the south side of the house and is PVC, and was installed about 2002.

We're stumped. I can't even think who to call except the Ghostbusters, which would seem like a joke, except that we've had things happen in the house that were fairly odd and that we put down to a friendly, but practical-joking spirit.

Any advice you can provide would be very appreciated by us, our guests and our dog, who wants to know why we have something worth rolling in but keep it hidden from her.


A. It may be possible that the old cast iron sewer pipe was damaged in the course of the work you did. It could have rusted over the 50 years of its existence, and started leaking, or it may have been weakened with age and cracked with all the activity of the construction project.

It could also be that you are smelling the sewer gas exhausting from the plumbing vent stack on the roof. The fact that you didn't smell anything when you checked it out may simply be that it was not active at the time. Sewer odors are not uncommon under certain atmospheric conditions and wind direction.

The solution to vent stack odors is to install a 90-degree elbow on the stack without gluing it, and to adjust its direction to face prevailing winds until you get it right. It may need to be adjusted a few times.

You should consider having a registered plumber who has, or can rent, a camera to check the condition of the sewer pipe, and to check other possible sources of the intermittent odor. You should also ask him or her to check the gas line.

You should also ask the plumber to check on the gas pipe. If it is outside, exposed to the elements, it cannot be PVC or any other plastic pipe; it needs to be painted or galvanized steel to resist corrosion. Underground gas distribution pipes are made of polyethylene plastic, not PVC, but they cannot be used in exposed situations. The plumber will know to adhere to NFPA code and tell you if your service pipe is OK or not.

Follow up: I recently answered this reader's question too hastily, and I was not satisfied. I did more research and here is a more helpful answer:

Q. We have a 10-year-old full log home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In the past, I have used high-quality deck stain on the logs. The stain, however, does not seem to last, especially on the south- and west-facing sides. Do you have a recommendation on what the best log stain would be?

A. How long does the stain last? Any stain subjected to the sun will need to be reapplied every two to three years. It's best to choose a brand containing UV protection, but even with any of these, regular reapplication is essential.

If the logs are cedar, consider using Amteco TWP, a superior stain that protects from UV rays and contains a mildewcide and an insect repellent.

If the logs are old, the best choice is Amteco's 200 series, which penetrate better than the 100 series. Choose between 205, 206 and 207. The 207 also has an algicide added, and has less of an orange tone than the 205. Any of the 200 series will be quite dark when applied, but will lighten up after a month.

If the logs are newer and do not look too stressed, the series 100 may be fine to use. Series 101 cedar tone has an orange tone that many object to, but series 120 does not, so it may be the better choice if you dislike the orange look.

There are other log coatings specially made for log homes, but having used Amteco products for many years and being thoroughly satisfied with them, I continue to recommend them.

Home workshop suggestions: Summer has finally arrived! I get excited this time of year about projects that were put on hold during the very cold and forbidding New England winter. So here are some tools handy persons may love to get:

My top pick is Black & Decker's new line of cordless tools. B&D's 20-volt impact driver, circular saw (a little gem), drill and reciprocating saw are a great addition to any workshop. The convenience of carrying the needed tools for a given job in the large bag that comes with the tools -- and not having to use an extension cord or finding a receptacle nearby -- is truly a gift. And the prices are quite reasonable. The combo also comes with two battery packs -- a considerable convenience.

My second pick is B&D's 8-volt tools. Its impact driver, labeled as a tool for small jobs, has exceeded my expectations. I have used it for a large job and it never ran out of juice while I was doing it. Its price is remarkably reasonable. After a hiatus of a few weeks, it delivered again while I was building shelves, and it is still going. It is small, compact and feels good in the hand. It's perfect for the intermittent user.

Also high on my list are the Skil cordless 18-volt tools. Skil's sander, which has a pointed end like a clothes iron, makes it easy to sand in tight corners. Skil's saber saw, drill and powerful light are great additions to a workshop.

Pressure washers are also very useful for cleaning decks, driveways, walks and many other surfaces.

Here is a reprint of an earlier posting to help you make the right selection:

There are two basic types of pressure washers for homeowners to use: electric and gas powered. Some electric pressure washers are portable (the least expensive ones), while others are on wheels, as are the gas-powered models.

Electric pressure washers have a lower PSI than the gas-powered ones, and are tied to an electric cord -- an inconvenience -- but they do a reasonable job of cleaning decks and fences of minor pollution.

Gas-powered models have considerably higher PSI and can remove embedded soil and peel paint more effectively. Gas-powered models must not be used indoors. Each type comes with several heads for particular uses.

Extreme care must be exercised in using pressure washers. The water jet is so powerful that it can peel skin off to the bone, and damage wood and masonry. If used on an asphalt driveway that has cracks, a jet directed into the cracks can actually break and lift chunks of the asphalt.

Care must also be used when pressure-washing siding; water can be forced through joints and cause problems in the underlying structure.

Be sure to read and follow the directions for safe use under all circumstances, including ensuring that your water connection at the faucet has the required water pressure. It must be strong enough to activate the pump; if it is inadequate, the pump can be irreparably damaged.

I have a Briggs & Stratton gas-powered pressure washer and find it invaluable in cleaning many surfaces.

• 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.

© 2014, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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