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Sniffing Out House Problems

Sometimes your nose is the best defense against thermal and moisture defects

Posted on Nov 30 2011 by Tristan Roberts

A victim of a hepatitis E infection she picked up unknowingly in Brazil, Genevive Bjorn’s liver rebelled against her one night in Hawaii. Her body almost shut down on her, but with help from the hospital, a battery of tests, her watchful boyfriend at her side, and a diet of nothing but rice porridge, she squeaked through.

This is what happened next, as she wrote last year in The New York Times: “My liver began barking at smells and substances I’d barely noticed before. I considered myself an earthy minimalist, but my house turned out to be a chemical minefield. I developed a doglike olfactory sense that guided me as I sniffed, recoiled and pointed out to Adam what had to go. He tossed out most of our bathroom and kitchen products, along with everything preserved or petroleum-based.”

Her talent for nose for the faintest of smells makes her a “super sniffer,” one gifted with this sense. As Bjorn recounted recently on her blog, The Daily Smell, while sniffing around a friend’s new home at the friend’s request, she rapidly sniffed out the previous location of the kitty litter box which had been moved two weeks prior, rancid vegetable oil in the kitchen, possibly unsafe coatings on kids’ furniture and toys, and even the spot in the living room where the previous owner had died months before.

You don’t need to be super sniffer, though, to pick up on scents in buildings that tell us some interesting things. Here are some that I’ve noticed.

Attic smell: Air leakage problems

Attics smell different: it’s some combination of the insulation, the wood dried to a crisp by the summer heat, and probably some history of squirrels, mice, or both.

When I smell this in the upstairs of a house — not in the attic — I read it as a telltale sign of extreme air leakage: lots of holes in the basement and attic floor that allow air to leak out, and to move in the other direction on some windy days. Solution: seal up the air leaks in your home, particularly between the attic and the living space. (See GreenSpec guidance on products that help form a home's air barrier, and recent posts on where to look for air leaks in existing homes.)

Basement smell: Dampness, leakage

It’s alarming when you can smell that musty basement smell on the first floor. Even the basement should not smell that way — if it does, work on improving exterior drainage, putting vapor barriers over damp walls and floors, and dehumidifying, among other things.

If that smell is migrating upstairs, look for air leakage from the basement up through plumbing and electrical penetrations, and moisture problems migrating up from damp basement walls through sill plates. Check the bottoms of exterior walls for signs of mildew or mold, and manage the water at its source.

Combustion gases: Safety issue

If when inside you smell the exhaust from your wood stove, furnace, boiler, or other combustion appliance, your health may be in jeopardy from the particulate matter in the smoke, or from carbon monoxide (CO) — which is odorless but often accompanies other gases. In all these cases, bring in the appropriate technician as soon as possible (the fire department may also be willing to measure CO levels for you), particularly if you’re due, in case there is an immediate problem with the heating appliance.

If you only smell these smells on a windy day, or when a low-pressure system has settled overhead, the issue may be that the normal weather patterns that help gases exhaust from the home are working against you. This topic is more than we can delve into today, but if it’s a regular occurrence it is worth investigating with a contractor’s help. One quick point: if it’s a building with a high-capacity range hood, beware of “depressurizing” your home with that fan, leading exhaust to get pulled into your house from your furnace.

Do you have carbon monoxide detectors? Why not?

Shower smell: Check the bath fan

If you can smell that moist, shampoo-scented air from the shower and you are not in the bathroom, then you either don’t have a bathroom exhaust fan, it’s not on, or it’s not powerful enough.

Unvented bathrooms can cause your home to rot from the inside out — costly and bad for your health. Put in a bath fan if it’s missing (see GreenSpec guidance on bath fan selection), and get the electrician to have it come on with the light or with a humidistat.

Kitchen smells: Install a range hood

Sometimes it’s nice to smell what’s cooking all through the house, but in the long run it’s bad for indoor air quality, particularly due to the moisture generated by cooking. Install a range hood and run it when cooking, but look out for problems with high-capacity range hoods. (See GreenSpec guidance on kitchen range hood selection.)

Dryer exhaust: Moisture, fire hazard

Smelling dryer exhaust inside the house is a red flag indicating lack of a vent, or a plugged vent. Lack of a vent risks moisture problems inside your house, and coating everything with dryer lint.

A plugged vent is a serious fire hazard. Take immediate action!

Stuffy smell: Need more fresh air?

Does the building smell stuffy? Many homes and offices don’t have enough fresh air, for a variety of reasons.

In commercial buildings, the most common problem is poorly designed or malfunctioning ventilation equipment. Calling in an indoor air quality expert or a commissioningProcess of testing a home after a construction or renovation project to ensure that all of the home's systems are operating correctly and at maximum efficiency. agent would be wise. In homes, it’s likely that there is no ventilation system bringing in fresh air, and because of weather patterns or because the home is relatively tight, you’re not getting enough fresh air. A ventilation expert can help.

Off-gassing: Keep harmful chemicals out

To maintain good indoor air quality (IAQIndoor air quality. Healthfulness of an interior environment; IAQ is affected by such factors as moisture and mold, emissions of volatile organic compounds from paints and finishes, formaldehyde emissions from cabinets, and ventilation effectiveness.), avoid bringing smelly stuff into the house. If something smells bad, get rid of it. In the world of building materials there is a lot to keep up with here, but at a minimum look for low-VOCVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production. coatings, and other products with IAQ certifications such as GreenguardThird-party certification program that identifies building products and materials which produce relatively low levels of emissions. GreenGuard is administered by the nonprofit GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI). Other GEI programs include the Children & Schools standard, which addresses emission standards for educational facilities, and the GreenGuard for Building Construction Program, a mold risk-reduction program that certifies the design, construction, and ongoing operations of new multifamily and commercial properties. Children & Schools, and FloorScore. (See BuildingGreen's guide to key product certifications for more info.)

I’ve just scratched the surface here — keep your nose out and let me know what you’ve been smelling!

For more information, listen to Joe Lstiburek's indoor-air-quality podcast, and find out why your eyes, nose, and the back of your hand are surprisingly accurate IAQ diagnostic tools.

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions.

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  1. Photo: Infrogmation

Nov 30, 2011 3:35 PM ET

More problems easy to work
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

More problems easy to work on. Simply tax one dollar per quart every cleaning solution made except vinegar. Ammonias, bleaches and all....

Nothing motivates more persuasively than what costs less. Good products need to be the best price products.

Along these lines we could add a huge tax to new homes built that are not net zero. We all hate taxes. That's why taxes are the best tool we have to adopt a greener future.

Nov 30, 2011 8:43 PM ET

"...a huge tax to new homes
by John Klingel

"...a huge tax to new homes built that are not net zero." AJ, is that at all practical, realistic, or even fair? I'd vote for measures that are within the realm of reality, myself.

Nov 30, 2011 10:31 PM ET

John, powerful isn't it. What
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

John, powerful isn't it. What is it?

Money! Cost! Look at how you reacted yourself just getting a glimpse at something you desire going up in cost.

We all desire control and freedom to choose our own costs and values.

But taxes are an amazing tool. Using taxes to make the changes we all want to a sustainable planet has no downside.

Dec 1, 2011 12:27 AM ET

AJ: Powerful? Whence cometh
by John Klingel

AJ: Powerful? Whence cometh that? I only reacted in so much as to suggest being real. Sure, let's all build houses that generate a surplus of energy, for free, from natural products, etc, etc, but not everyone can afford a net zero house. Period. So, you then suggest we tax the poor? That already happens too much. I'm with you on us changing, but we need to be a tad more moderate, I think. Enough of us diverging from the blog, so let's get back to it.

Dec 1, 2011 11:44 AM ET

Edited Dec 1, 2011 11:45 AM ET.

I agree john, the blog....
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

I agree John, the blog.... Tax pollutants to the point of nonexistence.

Dec 1, 2011 6:38 PM ET

A great, free and current resource for free IAQ data online
by Michael Chandler

I've been very concerned about the chemicals we inadvertently incorporate into our homes as we try to tighten them up at the same time that we use recycled materials. A very helpful resource here is The "transparency" website. it's a good resource once you move beyond EPA's chemicals of concern website and the great info here and at building green and FHB.

Dec 2, 2011 3:03 AM ET

Edited Dec 2, 2011 3:04 AM ET.

the senses, the body as an instrument, intuition and science
by j chesnut

Unfortunately the link to the New York Times article doesn't work.

Your reference to Genevive's heightened sense resurfaces the 'green building' category that some would relegate to the 'arcane'.

Maybe on the subject of chemical sensitivities the stances of 'precautionary principle' vs. 'prove it' will never be resolved.

I think some people assume that homo sapiens learned what they could and couldn't eat as food via trial and error, i.e. that there was no capacity to understand what effect an object outside of oneself had on one's own physiology.

Juxtapose this with arctic explorer Will Steger's claim to have developed a sixth sense, an intuition, for dangerously thin areas of ice sheets based on subtle almost imperceptible cues.

Any dowser's out there?

Dec 2, 2011 4:07 AM ET

response to J Chesnut
by Tristan Roberts

That link to the article works now—thanks for the note.

I don't mean to suggest that what Bjorn is doing is "green building," and I leave for now the topic of chemical sensitivities to Martin. *Helping People With Multiple Chemical Sensitivity"

However, I think people like Bjorn and Steger who pay attention to their environment in ways that go beyond simple use of their eyes and brain have a lot to teach the rest of us. Trust yourself and your senses. I purposefully did not get into the science of the health effects—known, unknown, or dubious—of various chemicals in the environment. There are plenty of key smells to pay attention to without that. But I think it's worth a look.

I wouldn't call myself a dowser but I've been trained in it and practice when I can. Oh, and I have one happy client—a friend for whom I dowsed the best path through the Maine woods for his 1,500-foot driveway. He was skeptical at first because I didn't take the shortest path, but then his excavator came on the scene and charted the same path based on drainage and slopes, and avoiding some specimen trees.

Dec 2, 2011 10:10 AM ET

by Lucas Durand - 7A

Or "witching" for groundwater is something many people in my area swear by.

I've never seen it done, but I know of several people who had wells dug or drilled after having a spot "witched".
In all cases, these wells turned out to be productive compared to neighbouring wells... Not exactly convincing scientificly obtained evidence, I know.

I just find it an interesting phenomenon which I hesitate to dismiss...
Digging or drilling a well is a crap-shoot under ordinary circumstances even if you have a good eye and the best ground water resource maps available. Given the cost involved I might consider bringing in a "well witcher" (out of curiosity) to see if they verified what my best guess would be.

Dec 2, 2011 11:00 AM ET

by Doug McEvers

I believe in it, have watched well drillers use it . I have seen a good dowser locate buried cables as well.

Dec 2, 2011 12:14 PM ET

Sorry for the tangent
by j chesnut

Sorry for the tangent Tristan,
but let me add that my father is a retired plumber. I don't recall if he said he did it himself but I know it is not unheard of for an old-timer to pick up a couple of pieces of rebar to locate a buried pipe.

Dec 4, 2011 6:24 PM ET

by Garth Sproule 7B

Well guys...good news! If any of your dowsers or buried pipe locators can prove their abilities to the Randi Foundation, they will receive one million dollars!!

Many have tried...and failed...

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