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First Aid for the Ailing House: Foul smell may be a drain-line issue |

First Aid for the Ailing House: Foul smell may be a drain-line issue

Henri de Marne
| Sunday, December 18, 2011 12:00 a.m

Q: I have a problem I hope you can help me with. We had our home built in 2003. As part of the construction, we had the builder rough in for a bathroom in our basement. Several years ago we completed the bathroom in the basement, which consists of a shower, commode and vanity sink. Located directly above the basement bath on the first floor is a half bath, and directly above that on the second floor is a full bath.

The problem is that whenever anyone takes a shower in the second-floor bath or when they drain the bathtub after a bath, a sewer smell comes up through the shower drain in the basement. One time my young son took a bubble bath, and when he drained the tub we actually had bubbles coming up through the drain in the shower. I know there is a trap on the shower drain, and I cannot figure out why we are getting the smell or how to fix it. Hopefully you can help. I enjoy your column every Sunday in the Tribune-Review. — Pennsylvania, via email

A: It sounds as if the drain line from the basement bathroom to the outside is undersized and that there may be a venting problem as well.

Do you know if the plumbing was done by a licensed plumber or by the builder, who may not have the experience to do the job right• This often happens in rural areas where codes are either nonexistent or loosely “interpreted.”

When water is drained from the upstairs bathroom, it can create a siphon that drains the water out of the basement shower trap, allowing sewer gases to enter the house. That would also explain the soap bubbles backing up.

You should contact a licensed master plumber to check this out. The repair may entail ripping up the basement floor to change the drain line.

Gadgets and gifts for handy people

Dear readers: Following my annual practice, here are suggestions for stocking stuffers and holiday gifts for the handy men and women in your life.

The Gordon Wrench is a small, plastic wrench used to free frozen oval metal shutoff valve handles under sinks, lavatories and toilet bowls. Trying to free these valves with regular wrenches or channel locks in an emergency often results in breaking them. The Gordon Wrench prevents this from happening. You can see what it looks like and buy it online at . No house should be without it. It can be hung on a nail under the sink or in the vanity cabinet.

The SKrAPr originally was designed to replace a razor blade in scraping encrusted spills off glass cooking surfaces, but the hard plastic tool is also great for cleaning barbecue grills. It comes with a mini 4-inch SKrAPr and two SKrAPr papers to sharpen the edges ( ).

Open It!, a multitool developed by women, easily opens the cellophane tape on packages with its retractable utility knife or rugged jaws, and opens battery compartments on electronics with its very small Phillips screwdriver, among other uses ( ).

Another intriguing gift is the Sound Oasis Sleep Therapy Pillow. It has two built-in speakers that, when connected to an MP3 player or other musical source, will theoretically lull you to sleep ( ).

Two great additions to your tool collection are the Dremel and Rotozip tools. Their versatility around the shop is considerable.

A larger and more expensive item for the patio, deck or beach is the Sport-Brella, an interesting folding, all-occasions outdoor chair with an attached umbrella (

For bird-watchers pestered by squirrels, the Yankee Flipper, a bird feeder that spins into action when squirrels jump on it, will send rodents flying ( ).

“The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Owning a Home” (RSBPress) by Kitty Werner is a great resource for first-time prospective homebuyers who need guidance on many important topics. And if you will forgive this bit of self-promotion, my own book “About the House With Henri de Marne,” a nearly 500-page compendium of your questions and my answers for over 37 years, is available directly from the publisher: Upper Access Inc., , 800-310-8320. Both of these books are also available in bookstores or at .


Q: In reference to your recent newspaper column in which you offered to share instructions for installing a submersible sump pump in a hole in the basement, I would very much like to receive them.

I’ve been reading about this topic on the Internet and would appreciate hearing your perspectives. — Vermont via email

A: The best way to build a sump in a basement is to cut a hole 30 inches square in the concrete slab and dig a hole 30 inches deep. Lay 5 inches of egg-size stones on the bottom. Place an 18-by-18-inch, 24-inch-tall flue tile on the stones, and fill the space between the walls of the hole and the tile with the same stones. Pour a concrete patch, using the top of the tile as a screed; this will create a 1-inch drop in the patch. Install a high-quality submersible pump. Any water building up in the stone bed below the slab will drop down into the stones lining the hole and enter the sump under the flue tile, while any water running on the floor will drop into the tile, from which it will be pumped when the level rises enough to trigger the float on the pump. Be sure you discharge the water away from the house foundation to prevent it from recirculating into your crawl space. This is accomplished by proper grading.

Ceiling fan aids air flow in winter

Q: I enjoy reading your articles in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette each Sunday. I was hoping you could help me with a heating issue. I live in over-55 housing, so money is an issue. I heat with oil.

I have a pitched cathedral living room ceiling. There is only one small heat vent (12 by 12) 10 feet up the highest inside wall. The return vent (slightly larger) is about 5 feet away, slightly higher than the heat vent. I have an open loft. Needless to say, all the warm air rises. I do have a ceiling fan in the living room, and I have read that in the winter, you should have it on clockwise. But does that apply with an open loft• Shouldn’t it be counterclockwise in the winter with an open loft?

Also, a friend recommended I put a fan in the open loft and blow the hot air down. Would that help• If yes, which direction should I have both fans running• — Massachusetts via email

A: It does not sound as if the heating layout was installed intelligently. A heat supply should be installed as low as possible, while an air conditioning supply should be high. Also, a return should not be only 5 feet away on the same wall, as it causes the warm air coming out of the heat supply to be drawn directly back into the return air supply with little chance of providing heat in the rest of the room.

The rule of thumb for a ceiling fan is to have it move air upward in the winter so the stratified warm air is washed back down the walls of the room, whereas in the summer it is best to move the warm air straight down to be cooled.

If I understand correctly, the loft is connected to the open cathedral ceiling. Moving the air upward in the winter will still work, as it will wash along the loft floor and down into the room below. In the summer, the stratified warm air in the loft will be drawn down with the air in the main part of the room. I don’t think you need a second fan, but there is no harm in installing one.


Q: I have a two-flat building with new windows and insulation. I have one thermostat for both units on the first floor, and my wife says I need another thermostat on the second floor. As the heating season progresses, the second floor climbs into the 80s. Thank you for your time. I love your articles in the Daily Herald. — Arlington Heights, Ill.

A: If the heating system is hydronic (hot water baseboard or radiators), it may be possible to have a separate zone for the second-floor apartment with its own thermostat. However, if the heating system is warm air and you have only one furnace, there isn’t much you can do, short of installing expensive motorized dampers or another furnace to heat the second-floor apartment. An HVAC contractor should be consulted.

That’s the best I can do with the little information you have given me.


Q: Our Premier composite deck by Composatron has mildew under plants and furniture at the end of the season. Is there a way to clean off the mildew short of scrubbing by hand• Is pressure washing a good idea for this material• — Shelburne, Vt.

A: I could not find anything about maintenance of this decking material.

You may try power washing with a low-velocity nozzle and low pressure, and see what happens. A safer way is to scrub the affected areas with a bleach solution (3 parts water to 1 part bleach) or a safer oxygen bleaching agent such as OXY-Boost, which you can buy from . Once on the website, click on “OXY Products.”

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