The aroma of sewer gas all through the house

December 13, 2003|By ROB KASPER

AS NEIGHBORS put up decorations and Christmas cards dropped though the mail slot, I got our home ready for the holiday season by prowling round with Bill, the assistant plumber, searching for sewer gas.

We did not detect any. That may or may not be a good thing. It could mean that the sewer gas has gone away. Or it could also mean it is lying in wait like Marley's ghost, ready to bushwhack us on Christmas Eve when the house is full of relatives.

It showed up last Saturday and we gagged. Why it made its noxious presence known is a mystery. As its name implies, sewer gas does not smell like roses. Every home has sewer gas, but if the household's drain-waste-vent system is working properly, the foul-smelling fumes are kept at bay by "traps" and dispatched through pipes sticking out of the roof.

The drain-waste-vent system of a home is one of its hidden beauties. It is a network of pipes that carries wastes away, vents odors and provides the necessary air pressure to allow wastes to flow freely. Much like the body's digestive system, it is a wonder, but not one you want to behold. It should remain well covered.

But if, as I did this week, you find yourself reading tracts titled "Toiletology 101," then chances are good that your drain-waste-vent system has done something to shed its covert nature.

What ours did was stink up the house. My wife and I had gone out with friends to a movie -The Station Agent at the Charles - and when we came back, the house smelled like a sewer. Then the next day, as suddenly as the smelly gas had showed up, it went away. It reappeared a few nights later, then hasn't been sniffed since

According to one of the foul-smelling Web sites ( I researched, one possible cause of the problem could be a clogged vent pipe. I surmised that if debris had become lodged in a rooftop pipe or if a bird had built a nest in it, then the feng shui of the drain-waste-vent systems would be out of whack. One proposed solution was to run a plumber's snake or thick wire through the vent to clean it out. That would require some expertise, and also require climbing up on the roof. I did not have a snake, and I was reluctant to climb.

So I called my plumber, Coleman. It had been a while since I had seen him. I believe that you should see your plumber and your dentist at least once a year, regardless of how much pain it causes you. Coleman was busy, though, so he dispatched his assistant, Bill.

Bill was not interested in climbing on the roof. Instead, he eyed the pipes in the basement, looking for cracks. He checked to make sure the drain line of an old sink had been properly capped. He also studied the waves, or lack of them, in a downstairs toilet bowl after I had flushed an upstairs commode. Bouncing water in a toilet bowl is a sign that the air pressure in the drain-waste-vent system is off, he said.

But the toilet waters were pacific. No pipe cracks were spotted. And of course, while the plumber was there, the sewer gases were nowhere to be sniffed.

Your house surprises you, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not. Being a pessimist, I believe that houses tend to spring big, expensive ambushes during the holidays when you are harried and strapped for money. As I tend to do when confronted with a house problem, I lay in bed yesterday morning staring at the ceiling, thinking dark thoughts of holes being punched in walls and pipes being replaced, and costly chaos ensuing. Eventually I screwed up my courage, got out of bed and climbed up on the roof. I studied several vent pipes. I pushed a straightened coathanger down each of them. No dead bird, no nest or clog was snagged. I was happy to get off the roof. I think the only guy who should be on a roof in December should be wearing a red suit and driving a team of reindeer. As Christmas moves ever closer, I have settled on a seasonal solution to the sewer gas puzzle. We are going to buy a big, aromatic Christmas tree. If the putrid gas tries to make a comeback, the sweet fragrance of the evergreen will overpower it, at least for a few weeks.

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