Failed traps usually to blame for bath odors

: Dear Ed,

I recently I read your article about smelly bathrooms where odors may come from the water system due to high levels of sulfur. But, what causes bad odors from the drains? I seem to have a bad problem from time to time with sewer gases and end up pouring bleach in the drains to stop the odors. Is there something wrong with my septic tank? — Frank, Mass.

A: First, please stop pouring bleach down your drains. In my opinion it’s never a good idea, especially if you have a septic tank. Septic systems thrive on organisms that keep the system composting. Bleach may disrupt the cycle and we all need to think about what we pour down our drains to protect the environment in general.

Also, I have a feeling that you may just be resealing the fixture trap water level with the bleach, and water may do the same thing to stop the bad gas odors.

Let me explain. All plumbing fixtures should have U-shaped traps built in or just below the fixtures to “trap” water. The water plug in each fixture trap acts as a seal to stop sewer gases from coming into the home. Now, if the water level in the trap drops to a low level for some reason, sewer gases may enter the dwelling until the trap is resealed.

What may cause a trap to fail? Most of the time, it’s a seldom-used plumbing fixture (like a guest shower or sink) where the trap water simply evaporates. Refilling the trap with some water should fix this problem and running the water in the fixture at least once a month should maintain the trap seal. Broken or leaking traps can also account for low water levels and in this case the fixture trap needs to be repaired or, better yet, replaced.

Toilets have a built-in trap and if that internal trap ever cracks and/or leaks, unfortunately the toilet will have to be replaced. Clogged and/or broken plumbing system vents, or no plumbing vents at all, also can account for odors and water being sucked out of traps. If this is the case, the vents may need to be serviced or new vents installed to correct the problem.

Finally, and I have seen this first hand, a careless plumber may have forgotten to install a trap at the fixture and a new trap will have to be installed. We can suspect the traps, but with all plumbing systems, odors may be tricky to locate and can emit from an area you never expected. So, don’t put up a stink with me if the smell ends up coming from somewhere else!

Q: My wife and I live in a house with an old steam radiator system. It’s very noisy to say the least and as the old saying goes, “can wake the dead” on a good night. A friend of mine says that there is nothing that can be done because steam heat is noisy. I know steam can bang and clang, but this is way over the top and we need some sleep. We’ll be thankful for any ideas that don’t involve using ear plugs since that is all we have come up with. — Henry, Tenn.

A: Oh Henry! I know what you are talking about. A noisy steam heating system can sound just like a football player hitting a steel pipe with a sledgehammer. And that’s appropriate because a steam system does use large steel pipes to carry the steam throughout the house. Usually there is a big steam feed pipe and a smaller return pipe to carry any condensation water back to the boiler.

Some systems may have gravity-draining feed pipes that should also remove feed line water to give the steam an open path to the radiators. Either way if pockets of water build up in the system piping and radiators, or worse yet the steam system is overfilled with water, you can get some heavy duty clanging and banging when the hot steam meets the cooler water. You will need a licensed heating technician to properly drain the pipe system and radiators. Plus they will set the correct water level and show you how to maintain your steam system.

The good news is that even though steam systems are noisy by nature, you should be able to quiet yours down to reasonable levels. Any strange heating system sounds should be addressed and checked out promptly to ensure safe operation. You’ll not only get some sleep at night, you’ll rest easy as well knowing everything’s working fine.

Master contractor/plumber Ed Del Grande is author of the book “Ed Del Grande’s House Call” and hosts TV shows on Scripps networks and HGTVPro.com. For information visit eddelgrande.com or write eddelgrande@hgtvpro.com.

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