Musty Odor in Your Home? Here’s What You Can Do About It

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Young woman at home smelling something stinky and disgusting

The nuisance aroma associated with today’s home environment is complex, confusing, and almost always unhealthy. The issues that drive bad odor are often elusive, surprising, and difficult to address because it’s often the result of several seemingly insignificant causes.

Building materials absorb and re-release odors differently; soil gases come and go; ambient impacts (pets, occupants, lifestyles, etc) are ever-changing where we all just smell things differently. One thing is for sure; if that odor came from the leftovers in your refrigerator you probably wouldn’t eat it. So what makes it ok to breathe it.

Odor Categories

We like to break the odor down into a base category: Chemical (paint / new car smell / VOC), Organic (insect / animal / rodent / sewer / essential oils) or Biological (bacteria / yeast / fungus / mildew / virus). This is how we start designing a testing protocol to pinpoint the odorous source.

Where’s That Smell Coming From?

Bad Odor can be hard to pinpoint an exact location. They can become hidden in dead air spaces, bound up in building materials, or saturating softer materials. They often come and go tied to the structures changing ventilation or due to environmental conditions tied to Temperature, Pressure, and Humidity. But the CDC can help with overall Environmental Odors to help narrow possible sources of the odor.

There’s Always a Pattern

The smell may come and go, be intermittent/constant, maybe location-specific, or revolve around outside issues like temperature, pressure & humidity. It might be associated with turning the Air Conditioner on or recent home improvements (new windows, siding, painting, roof). But there is always a pattern that once identified is crucial in designing an appropriate remedy.

Woman operating air conditioner

What Can I Do Right Now?

If you can’t identify the cause or “Migration Pathway” it is important to bring in a professional to conduct an “assessment”. But there are some steps you can take yourself.

Fresh Air Movement

Open windows, cross ventilation, exhaust fan are good steps. Turning the furnace blower to “on” instead of “auto” will move air.

HEPA/Charcoal Filters

Work well on particulate based odors like mold, cigarette smoke, dust, pollen & allergens, and chemicals. Use in the furnace and monitor results.

Avoid Ozone

Ozone producing filters can have serious health issues. Best to avoid them if at all possible.

Focus on One Room

If the odor is throughout the home, take the bedroom and make it a “clean room” environment so you can at least get a good night’s sleep.

Remove Items That Can Hold Odors

Papers, stuffed animals, stored clothes, etc. These items can hold allergens and bad odors like a sponge.

Try Sprays For Musty Odor Removal

There are chemicals that can neutralize odors but use sparingly on test areas as may create additional problems.

Getting Help – Identification & Correction

Greenworks people performing restoration after superstorm sandy

There are environmental professionals that specialize in odor identification. But they are hard to find. Typically these “Building Biologists” are familiar with both chemical, biological, organic, and particulate air contaminates. They generally have an understanding of building design, construction/trade practices, HVAC systems, hydrology, and a solid understanding of the surrounding natural environment (.

Finding someone for musty odor removal can be even tougher. Firms that do both are often the best bet as every odor problem is unique requiring expertise across the board. Like a good mechanic who diagnoses why your “check engine light” won’t go off. He’s often the best guy to then fix it. It all boils down to trust so don’t feel pressured.

What Does It Smell Like?

Musty odor in your home? Here's what you can do about it 2

This open pit is where the sewer line exits the home. A leak in the water line keeps the pit nice and juicy. A crawl space full of raccoon feces provides nutrients for that glob of nasty biofilm and the open pipe allows sewer gases to back up into the home. The odor is nasty and migrates up into the home. The moisture contributes to molds on the floor decking overhead. You gotta smell this!

Some common odor descriptions as received from our Clients:

  • Ammonia-like
  • Body Odor
  • Chemical
  • Dead Animal
  • Damp Dirt
  • Dirty Dog
  • Fishy
  • Floral
  • Fried Shit
  • Gasoline
  • Medicinal
  • Metallic
  • Moisture
  • Moldy
  • Musty
  • Natural gas (mercaptans)
  • Old Carpet
  • Offensive Smell
  • Ozone
  • Petroleum
  • Plastic
  • Pungent
  • Putrid
  • Rotten Egg
  • Rotten Flesh
  • Rotting Wood
  • Sewer Gas
  • Sharp
  • Skunk-like
  • Smoky
  • Solvent
  • Burning
  • Stale Air
  • Stinky Trash
  • Sweaty Socks
  • Sweet
  • Sweet Nail Polish
  • Urine
  • Vomit
  • Wet Cardboard
  • Wet Dog

Typical Causes of Bad Odor

  • Bacteria / Mold / Yeast
  • Chinese Drywall
  • Gas Leaks & Pesticides
  • Improper Heating Equip.
  • Hidden Leaks
  • Open Sewer Vents
  • Spilled Chemicals
  • Odorous Building Materials
  • Moisture & Elevated Humidity
  • Soil Gases
  • Blocked Chimneys
  • Dead Air Spaces
  • Pet Odor
  • Critter / Rodent Infiltration
  • Crawl Spaces
  • Interior Sump Pumps
  • Breakdown of Materials
  • Cleaning Chemicals
  • Contaminated Groundwater
  • Bad Soils
  • Wetland Soils (Sulphur-Like)

Environmental Odor Health Symptoms

Symptoms vary depending on your sensitivity, type of substance, concentration, exposure (frequency & duration), age, and overall health. NYSDOH has great advice.

  • Chest Tightness
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Irritation (eye,nose,throat)
  • Mental Depression
  • Nasal Congestion
  • Sore Throat
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea

How Do You Know I Will Do a Good?

Essential oil diffuser for musty odor removal in home

Diffuser sticks are a common deodorizer tool seen in homes up for sale. Realtors use a variety of tools to mask odors of a home. Does the property you are looking to buy “got that bad odor? ” investigate the source as it often will lead to degraded indoor air quality over time.

With Odors, it’s really hard to determine which contractor is best. But if our on-line Google 5-Star testimonials are any indication of how we operate, you will be excited to read how we have helped dozens of folks with similar issues. Be wary of firms who can’t back up the quality of their work without at least a few referrals.

Turn-Around Time (TAT) & Pricing (Typical)

We typically require 10-15 business days (not including weekends and holidays) to complete a Limited odor Investigation (LOI) which ranges from $895 – $1,295 and usually includes 4 samples for odor identification. More complex Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) type odors may require specialized samplingBut standard air sampling methods aren’t designed to measure the wide variety of odorous compounds we come in contact with. So expect us to be relying on our best piece of equipment – our nose. The clock starts typically One (1) business day after the property has been investigated. Add a $295 fee to rush the service (5-10 days) where additional samples if needed are billed separately. 

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Avatar for Victor Coppola

Victor Coppola

Victor Coppola is a Building Biologist with decades of diverse environmental experience spanning natural resource management and contaminated sites to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and building hygiene matters. He focuses on the three most prevalent issues degrading today's built environment: Moisture Odor & Mold (M.O.M.). Mr. Coppola and his Team are sought out by individuals and professionals concerned about IAQ to those actually suffering from Biotoxin Illness. His hybrid blend of environmental interests and services enable him to give a unique perspective into today's changing environment. Think your home is killing you, better call Victor and his Team at GreenWorks.
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