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Musty smell
We purchased a well built, 1950's house that had been empty for at least a year. The house smelled musty with an odd sharpness that I have smelled in long abandon places and in a very damp crawl space. We have scrub every wall and cupboard in the kitchen with TSP and/or Simple Green. (except ceiling which has a sharp sand finish. We painted over it without cleaning) The entire house has been painted, the wood floors refinished, new carpet, and loose-lay over an older, 1990's floor in the kitchen (this is the only part that was done by sellers).
The sharp musty smell in the kitchen is no less intense than the day we started. I can stick my nose in all the cupboards, against the walls, and cannot find anything unusual on any surface.
We have pulled all the base trim off the floor, pulled back the edges of the loose lay and the older 1990's vinyl under it(which was not glued down and is not backed with asbestos but does emit a strong vinyl smell when the underside is exposed) up to see what might have been hidden by the sellers. We can see that the washing machine plumbing leaked for a while and the damage extended to needing to replace some of the floor and there is a light mold staining around the solid wood they chose to leave. But a nose directly planted there does not detect anything but wood. It is not damp.
We pulled the drywall to expose washing machine plumbing and found further repairs had been done and insulation was slightly moldy colored but dry. No smell. We replaced it anyway. The wood at the bottom of the wall has rotted to dust, but dry. We removed it all (and did not notice any smell).
The house has ceiling heat and the roof looks good, and there is no evidence that there might be moisture in the ceiling....but it is a hard part to inspect with a lot of insulation and little clearance.
There is a full basement. There is no insulation between the basement ceiling and the kitchen floor, so it is easy to see there is no evidence of any kind of mold or even staining from water damage. The overhangs are extensive around the house and the rain would have to blow horizontal to reach the siding.
The house airs out quickly, but as soon as the door is closed, it does not take long for the smell to accumulate. One does not notice it when standing in the room, but upon reentry, it is noticable to anyone with a healthy nose.
This smell is only in the kitchen. The basement and attic smell fine (as well as other rooms).
It is obvious that there was a long term slow leak many years ago that was addressed.

Is it possible that a musty smell can permeate plaster and continue without active mold? If this is the case, is there a way to seal plaster? (We painted with semi gloss) I took a piece of plaster and put it in a jar and did the sniff test, but we are not in agreement if it did or did not smell like the mustiness we are distressed about. Hubby thinks it might be old vynel smell being translated mysteriously into an earthy smell as it winds up through the new stuff, and wants to tear up the floor and remove the old stuff. (we will not be able to save the new floor, so this is expensive) (so is gutting the kitchen!)
I talked to a contractor who has a "non penetrating moisture meters" he thinks will detect a moisture problem, but I cannot imagine it will be $300 well spent. How can there be moisture in a non plumbing wall without expressing itself either from the outside or inside? The plumbing is all exposed in the basement. We are quite distressed and baffled, so any new ideas would be appreciated.
Posts: 2 | Registered: 08 December 2010Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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You have a few options.
You can get the air tested using a SUMA CAN. This device pulls in air from the house. Its then sent to a lab to determine what chemicals are in the air. This may lead finding out what chemical your smelling.
Would not hurt also to test the air for mold.

After reading your post and all the items that you checked Here are some more for you.
How are the walls insulated. Some older insulation when damp puts out a foul odor.
Yes to answer your question the smell can come through walls. It takes a very small opening and some simple air pressure change to bring the mold spores and smell into the air.
Have the interior of the wall tested for mold. A Wall Check test which is about the same as a room air test can be performed. This test uses a spore trap device along with a short hose that is placed within the wall cavity. Any mold that you cannot see will be drawn into the spore trap and then can be checked by a lab.

Vinyl material can also put out funny smells. I had a plastic runner in my office. When the sun came in through the window and hit this plastic my office smelled as though we were in a bathroom. It went right away once the sun stopped hitting it. It took several days for us to figure out what it was. so Yes vinyl can be a source to check However if its been there for a long time, it most likely has gassed out and not the cause.
Also you said that the insulation was moldy colored. Mold typically does not grow on insulation unless it paper type or contains a food source in which to develop along with moisture. The black stains you saw were most likely dust trapped within the insulation as air has been flowing through the wall cavity and the insulation within it has been acting like a filter. This brings up that the odor may be emitted from another source and is being pulled into the wall cavity from another part (basement) of the house. Check to see that the sill areas are sealed tight and no open blocks if indeed you have them are not allowing earthy odors to be drawn up into the wall cavity.

You will find this and once you do it will end up being something real simple.

Did you check to see that the vent for the sink is piped to the outside? Is there a break in the vent pipe that would allow smelly air to get into the wall cavity? Just another thought...Althoug you stated that the plumbing is exposed, what about the vent? Is there one? or do you have a "s" trap type that oftentimes can be dry because of no venting. This too would cause smells that you speak of.

As far as a pinless moisture meter, Not really a good thing to use. This type of meter can be fooled by any metal within the wall cavity. The pin type that can be purchased at the big box stores would be one way to check for moisture. Not to expensive for what you need to do.
Posts: 1933 | Location: New Jersey | Registered: 31 January 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Thank you for your quick reply and the thoughtful ideas.
The plumbing is all vented outside and there are traps for all drain lines. We have rinsed out the drain pipe for washer and there is no smell coming from there.
We had an environmental rehab guy come out who claimed that Oregon has so much mold naturally in the air this time of year that it is a waist of time to test the air in the house for mold. (SUMA CAN)(maybe he does not have one and it was a quick reply to save face?) But he did test the popcorn in the basement and confirmed what we already knew, that it had asbestos. We had that removed by hazmat team yesterday, and while they held the basement in negative tension overnight, the smell was gone in the kitchen. It was really nice!
We are waiting for the guy with the penetrating moisture meter. He wants 400 to come sniff the house. Seems spendy, but we are motivated.

Have you heard of OdorXit? It is a CLO2 saturation they claim will kill the source of odors (animal and mold) that are on the surface.

We are wondering if the smell of musty earth can be a non active residual smell from the house sitting empty in this humid climate (with rotting food in fridge). Could it be that it penetrated the drywall and wood cabinets and washing and painting just was not enough to clean it out?
I was reading about meth cheanups and they claim that if it is "impractical" to remove drywall, one can wash twice with Simple Green, primer 3 times and paint twice and the house is considered sealed. If one can seal walls to keep out such invasive chemicals, wouldn't it stand to reason that one can also seal a musty smell into the walls if they appears to have no activate growth? That would be a lot of painting, but again, we are motivated.
Regarding the vinyl, it is older and well worn. When we pulled up a corner and exposed the underside, the smell was very strongly vinyl. But once it is put back down and the place aired out, I smell moldy musty, he can imagine it is the smell of vinyl. If it is vinyl, the previous tenants would have been living with this smell for years. I cannot imagine the manufacturer would have gotten away with making everyone's house smell like this....unless it only smells this way because it was not glued down like most floors.
Posts: 2 | Registered: 08 December 2010Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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I have thoughts on the kitchen smelling better when they had the negitive air machine keeping the kitchen smelling better when it was running.
This tells me that the smell is coming from the basement not the kitchen. Air is being drawn up through the wall cavities from the basement into the kitchen by stack effect.

Before you spend tons of cash on these odor removing sealers and cleaners you need a surface moisture test. For 400 dollars you can purcase your own meter or possible rent one for a lot less that will work fine. The mold guy should have had this device with him to do the moisture tests which leaves me to belive that is not his day job.

Mold odors are caused by moisture period. You find the moisture you find the mold. It can be under floors, behind walls behind cabinets. or coming from lower level areas that is allowing the smell to rise up. If the smell is not going away that means the moisture is still present.

If the negitive air machine made things better then either its in basement, or within wall cavities coming out of vents, pipe openings etc.

As far as cleaning and priming etc. The smell is coming from behind the visual surfaces. Cleaning and painting the top will do little to nothing to prevent the odor from entering into the room. Mold only needs a microscopic opening to enter. Switch plate openings, outlets, space between the floor and floor molding. Do not waste your time or money on this.

Back to the mold person. Get someone else that knows what they are talking about. Regardless of where you live testing for air-borne mold is the way to go. Tests in the house are compared to those tests outside to determine clearance and compare to what is going on inside. What they should be looking for is water indicator molds that will tell them where to begin looking for the mold source. A mold professional that knows their stuff should have all the tools necessary to find the mold source and to provide the correct methods to prevent it from coming back.
I would do a Wall Check test. This device puts a small tube within the wall cavity through a 1/4" hole drilled in the wall. Then air tests are drawn from behind the wall to determine if mold is present and how much.

Most mold companies do not have Suma Cans in inventory. They are very expensive and require lab certifications to prep prior to use. We typcially when we use them have them shipped to us directly from reporting lab then we send them back for analysis overnight. But remember Suma Cans are used for chemicals in air more then testing for mold itself.

I keep thinking it has to do with foundation area. If you have ruled out leaks from upstair areas within walls then you should be looking in the basement as the source of the smell and moisture. I would spend money on sealing the foundation sills where the framing sits on it. Using spray foam in this area will do a lot in prevention of air coming up from basement, not to mention the bonus of making the house warmer on first floor and saving energy. That would be money well spent.
Just find the moisture before you spend money on fixes that will not do anything but waste cash.

Still another method of finding the mold is to spend money on a thermal image of the house. Infared testing can find all types of issues. Moisture, air leaks, heat loss etc.

Musty odors will go away once moisture is removed. If the smell went away then returned it is saying its still there, but the dulution of the air make it appear that the smell no longer existed.

One last thought. Does the smell come back more on humid days or is there no pattern? Animal odors such as urine can be impossible to remove without complete removal of materials. To rule out this, borrow some kids black light and use it at night in the room. See if anything glows. Salts and chemical makeups of urine and some molds will cause a glow.
Posts: 1933 | Location: New Jersey | Registered: 31 January 2006Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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