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Bryan Baeumler – Even the experts count on reno surprises

Hi, Bryan. We live in an old home on a ravine lot. There is a persistent problem with a foul smell — like sewage — that comes and goes through the middle of the house. We can go weeks without the smell but it always returns. We have tried everything we can think of, from the furnace to cleaning ducts, repairing cracked pipes under the basement and having the city camera-inspect the sewers. We are at a loss about what to try next. We would appreciate your help. – Cat C., Toronto

Interesting one, Cat! It sounds like you’ve gone through all the right steps so far. It’s good that you had the city camera-inspect the sewers. You may also want to look at whether or not you have a sump pump. Also look at the floor drains in the basement to make sure if there’s a P-trap there — it’s basically a contraption, shaped like the letter “p” that’s full of water and stops sewer gas and other things from coming into the house. I’m assuming the city inspectors would’ve taken a look and verified that they had trapped seal primers on them; basically, every time you turn on the water somewhere, a few drops will go into that P-trap to make sure it’s full. Otherwise, that water will evaporate and you’ll be getting sewer gas into your house.

In an old home it’s hard to assess the problem without seeing it. I’m at a bit of a loss as well, Cat. One thing you may want to do is get a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) — it would take some of the stale air out of your basement and bring in fresh air from outside, while filtering it on its way in. That might be a solution when the stench arises. You may also want to have an environmental testing company come in and check the air in your home.

Other than that, without me coming there and sticking my nose into the corners of the basement, it’s anybody’s guess. But it sounds like you’re on the right track by knocking off possibilities. Just keep going.
Dear Bryan: Sometimes we get a bad smell in our house, especially when the furnace or the A/C have not been running for a while. From return air vents, the smell goes to the second floor. In the basement, the previous owners built a steam room. But this has not been used for more than five years. Sometimes the smell comes from the cupboard where the steam room machine is located. What do you think? Do you know of a reliable company that I can call to come and identify the source of this odour? Thank you very much. – Greg K., Toronto

It seems everyone’s got a bad smell in their house! The first thing I would ask is: when was the last time you’ve had your ducts cleaned? If this is an older home, chances are there are probably some mice droppings and lots of dust and all kinds of other things collecting in those air returns in your vents. That would accumulate and start to smell for sure.

As far as someone coming in to identify the source of the odour, I don’t think there are too many people who specialize in odour detection. But you could certainly get someone in to do an air quality test and try to identify what is in the air, if anything. And I would definitely recommend having the ducts cleaned to see if that’s the source of the problem.

If the steam room hasn’t been used for years, I wouldn’t suspect that it would be causing an issue with moisture and mould, but it’s certainly a possibility.
Bryan: Will a heated ceramic/porcelain floor in my unheated sunroom bring the room temperature up to a comfortable level? Based on the info that follows: 1) should the floor be insulated? 2) how much energy would be required/cost to run? The sunroom, 5.5-by-15 feet, is an old addition at the front of my 104-year-old house. It’s raised about four feet off the ground and is fully enclosed beneath. Its exterior is covered with styrofoam insulation and vinyl siding. The interior walls and ceiling are also insulated. Three of four walls are mostly windows, with 2.5 feet of wall under the windows. Thank you! – Linda A., Toronto

Well, Linda, I can picture the house! We’ve done a lot of work on houses that sound exactly like this.
I’m assuming there’s no basement directly underneath the floor — it’s just a crawl space. And if that’s the case, there are a couple options. You could insulate underneath the floor, keeping in mind that your vapour barrier is now under your feet. Or you could insulate the walls around the outside of the crawl space and have a heat run in the zone underneath to keep that area warm as well.

Putting in the in-floor heating is a great option. You can make it a sauna in there if you wanted to. A Canadian company called Warmup makes an industrial cable that’s fairly inexpensive to run. Your cost, of course, depends on how hot you keep the room and how often the heat is on. But they’re fairly affordable and efficient.
My concern is if you put ceramic or porcelain floors in there, I’d want you to put down a really good underlayment and uncoupling system — like a WEDI underlayment — because you certainly want to make sure those tiles don’t move around and crack.

The only issue with in-floor heating is that it will dry everything out in that room because it will just provide heat — there’s no humidity or airflow. So you’d probably want to run a supply line and air return into that room as well, in order to moderate the humidity in there.
Bryan: Our den is almost too cold to be comfortable. Our home was built in 1988 and the den extended by 12 feet in 1998. Maybe it’s because of the distance from the furnace (about 65-70 feet). The den is 11-by-30 feet, with a window area across the back wall, and another window plus patio door along the wall from the back corner. All windows are double-paned. We have a baseboard heater. I have read about plastic film applied to windows, then heated with a hair dryer to shrink and tighten it. What is your opinion of this product? – Mark S., Brighton, Ont.

Well Mark, a lot of additions and extensions are cold. When the original house was built, the furnace and heating system was put in and ideally was tuned, meaning the baffles in certain areas were closed to increase the air pressure in other areas and push the warm areas to the farther ends of the house. If that’s not happening, you may need to have an HVAC company come in and do an airflow test; with a flow meter, they can go over top of all the air ducts and tell how much air is coming out of there. Then, in the areas closest to the furnace where you’re getting the most air, they can close the baffles a bit, pressurize that air and push it out further into your den. That’s the first thing I would try.

As far as the plastic film, that’s a great product for single pane glass or older, double pane glass. If these windows are from the ’80s, there’s a chance they’re not the most efficient windows — I’m assuming they’re vinyl and there’s a bit of airflow coming through them. The plastic film air-seals that window completely and restricts the heat loss through them. So it is a great idea. Lots of people do it in the winter, just like putting the storm windows on to add a layer of protection.

I would also be curious to know if there’s an air return in that room, because if there isn’t, the air from the furnace will push out there but will pressurize that room and you’ll only get a limited amount of heat in there because there’s no air return to take the cold air back to the furnace. Good luck!
Bryan: I have a 100-year-old home with storm windows. How do I prevent moisture buildup on the inside of the outside storm? I have completely sealed both the inside and the outside windows which did not work. I was told to leave a small hole in the outside storm to allow air circulation. This also has not worked. Thank you. – Gary M., Etobicoke

Gary, if you’re still getting condensation on the inside of the outside storm window, that tells me you have not completely sealed the inside window. There’s obviously warm, moist air getting out and into that window. You may want to have another go at sealing it.

Of course, sealing the window with tape is one thing. But actually vapour sealing it — where it won’t allow those tiny vapour droplets to get through and into that space — is a completely different thing. Plus, if you put that outside window on when there was moisture in there already, the humidity would have already been in the air in that space. So when it gets cold, it will condense on the closest spot it can get to, which is that pane of glass.

The reason you don’t get that condensation on the inside of double or triple pane windows is they’ve actually been put together and sealed up under a vacuum. Sometimes they’ll insert an inert gas in there — argon being one of them — that will actually replace the air in there and it doesn’t hold any moisture. If you seal two pieces of glass together on a nice summer day and they look perfectly clear, once it gets cold the moisture in that air will condense and you’ll start to see that fogging. So you have not completely sealed them and that is the issue! This is very common in old homes because even the walls themselves usually leak air.