Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Musty Odor” or Sewage Leak in Crawl Space. You be the judge!

This was a very interesting call. The wife of the home started smelling a "musky" smell as she describes it about a year ago. She goes on to tell me that she mainly smells it in the living room when she first walks into the house after being at work all day. Now, I hear this same statement from many homeowners when I first meet them. What most of them do not realize is that the room you first walk into is the room you mainly smell it because by the time you move into the next room, you are already adjusted to the smell. Most of the time, they relate that room of the "smell" with the initial shock of the smell. It is not always that simple because of the many different micro-environments in each room and crawlspace; however, most of the time it is. The ironic thing is that her "musty" smell wasn't really a strong musty smell, but instead more of a light "sewagey" smell. I know sewagey is not a word, but it sounds good.

She goes on to tell me that she has had several serviceman in her crawlspace and they always complain of the water and getting muddy. She says that she just had a plumber out there 2 weeks ago to look for any plumbing leaks and found none. She also says that her Heating and Cooling guy comes out twice a year to clean the furnace (which is located in the crawlspace) and replace the filter. She is of the understanding that her crawlspace is just "nasty" and nobody likes it. She readily admits she has never looked in there, which is very normal, but her crawlspace has a very large opening above ground. As soon as you take off the door, you can see that it is full of standing water and some other "treats". This is what I saw:

The picture on the left is the view from door of the crawlspace, and you can see that it is a wet crawl space. The picture on the right is just as I crawled closer to that same pier in the picture on the left. If you look closer to the water in the picture on the right, you will see that it is very black, and that there is skim coat on the top of the water at the bottom of the picture. I will say no more.

On the left, the picture doesn't do justice to what is in that water; let's just say it wasn't very solid. I'll leave it at that. On the right is the furnace and you can see that right under the furnace is more black water. Keep in mind that there are little holes, joints, and open seams in the furnace ducts that are all wide open to suck all this dirty moisture and odor through the air duct system. If your furnace is in the crawl space, it is extremely important to have a dry and healthy environment in your crawl space.

This is a close up of that furnace in the picture up above. I took this photo to show you how deep the water and sewage has been. If you look at the bottom of the furnace corner, you will see a discoloration of the duct and a line at the top of this discolored part moving to the left. The sewage water has been up in the actual furnace. Not exactly what we would consider "ideal" air quality.
I know I've made light of this situation. I can't help it because homeowners will live with these conditions for years; sometimes even when they are aware of it (that's a whole different blog). I've been in crawl spaces with 6" of standing sewage, and you could smell the sewage leak 10' outside the perimeter of the home. When I opened the door to that crawlspace, I almost passed out. Inside the home was indescribable. That example is the extreme. This home is what I consider an average leak to an unsuspecting homeowner. These homeowners have lived with this problem for at least 6 months to a 1 year from the information I gathered. If you suspect a foul odor, DO NOT just assume that it is just an old house smell or that you would rather not know where it is coming from.
To the homeowner's credit, she was horrified, no, actually she was mortified. By the time I was done writing up the estimate for repair, she was on the phone to the plumber and to the city sewer department ripping them a new one. If your home smells "musty" or "musky" or "sewagey" or "old", or you start to smell a crawl space odor, Give us a call at 1-877-409-2837 or visit our website at
Thanks for reading the rambling thoughts of a crawlspace inspector,
Larry Ralph Jr.


  1. Larry, that is absolutely amazing but not surprising to me. I've seen some nasty stuff in crawl spaces too, but so far not to that extreme. Generally, people don't look in their crawl spaces, and I don't think they know just how nasty the goings on in their can be. I hate to think about the horrible health effects of this one was.


  2. Larry, Why not just cement the crawlspace floor? Thanks-Bill Zell

  3. I have this very same problem in a rental house and I can not get the owner to come see what it is or try to fix the problem, the first time they said it was from rain they got all the water out using a sump pump and it is full again almost up in the furnace and hot water heater, the whole house smells when using the air I do not know what to do!

  4. To the person in the rental house, I suggest you call the local department of health. I am pretty sure an inspector would "encourage" the landlord to act appropriately!

  5. Larry, I see all kinds of stuff in crawl spaces too, but I have to share a story with you. 6 years ago I was activated from the Air Force Reserves and sent to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. One of the dining halls had a rather musty odor to it. Turned out the drain pipe from the kitchen was broken in the crawl space for months.

    The crawl space (under where we ate btw) was full of raw sewage and rotting sewage sludge. The dining hall was closed and it took weeks to clean it out. I have point out the odor was not overpowering like you would think it would be. Was it masked by cooking food? Did we miss it because in time that type of smell becomes background? I don't know, but it creeped me out.



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