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Unread 05-07-2014, 02:12 AM   #1
davefoc
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Bad odor in the shower

There have been several threads on this kind of problem in this forum and I think I have read through most of them. I have also read numerous how to fix a bad smelling shower internet articles. I have tried pretty much everything that has been suggested and the bad odor remains.

The shower is in an apartment building and I built the shower about ten years ago. This was one of the first showers I built and I did things a bit differently on the ones I built after this one but I don't think I did anything wrong that should be causing this problem (but I very well might have).

I believe the shower is pretty close to what the John Bridges book recommends except as follows: I used type S mortar for the preslope and shower pan, I didn't mud the curb, I used tar paper instead of plastic for the vapor barrier and I didn't use the preformed corners.

There is absolutely no sign of a leak. There is a crawl space under the shower and everything looks pristine. The smell seems to be sewage like and I don't think that the problem is caused by rotting wood like it might be if the smell was caused by a leak.

The smell comes out of the drain. Putting a cover on the drain prevents the smell from rising up. Running water seems to initiate the odor. I have drained some water out of the hot water heater and I didn't notice any kind of odor and there at total of six units on this hot water heater and nobody else in complaining of an odor. Cold water seems to initiate the odor as well as hot water so I think the hot water heater has been eliminated.

The water level in the trap seems fine, there is no sign that it is leaking out and the water level doesn't drop overnight like it might if there was a small leak in the trap.

These are some of the internet recommendations that we've tried.
1. Block the drain and fill the pan up with water and bleach or water and disinfectant and let the pan drain through the weep holes. We've tried both
2. Use vinegar and baking soda to thoroughly clean the drain. I've done this three times, twice with a device to block the solution from draining into the trap so that the drain could soak in the cleaning solution.
3. Scrub the trap. I bought a dryer cleaning brush and scrubbed the inside of the trap and the drain pipe as well as I could.
4. Thoroughly clean the floor.
5. Snake the drain. I snaked to about five feet beyond the shower trap and found absolutely nothing. Maybe I should have snaked further but I don't see how something in the drain can cause this problem.
6. Ran the garden hose full blast down the drain for several minutes. One theory is that something that smells very bad is caught in the trap. It is hard to imagine that this is the case given how well this shower drains. It could almost keep up with a fully on garden hose and that's a lot of water in this building where the water pressure is about 100 PSI.

When I inspected the plumbing under the shower I noticed the vent for the shower trap is cracking. It looks like the building might have shifted a bit and is putting pressure on the pipe. But I don't see how this could cause a bad odor in the shower drain. I considered the possibility that sewer gas might be leaking into the wall via the small cracks that are developing so I pulled the valve flanges off and smelled into the same wall cavity that the vent is in and it smelled fine.

One thing that concerns me a bit is that in these early showers I wasn't careful to get the membrane to lie flat and there were some ripples caused by the folds that I assumed got squashed once the shower pan mortar was installed. Later on I only bought membrane from the roles to eliminate these ripples.

Anyway, I'm going to have the plumber come by and see if he has any suggestions this week. Meanwhile I thought I'd see if anybody had any ideas here. Obviously any help would be greatly appreciated. Even help that might be really bad news like telling me I did something really bad and the only solution is to remove the shower will be appreciated.

From the internet it sounded like it might be possible to remove the upper section of the drain by unscrewing it. I tried to do this but it didn't seem like it was going to budge. Is it really possible to remove this section and is it possible that it could help isolate the problem?

One other clue is that there are three people living in this unit right now which is more than it has ever had since the shower was built.

A couple of years ago I put down some new grout on the floor. The edges had cracked a bit (I used unsanded grout and the grout line around the edge is a little larger than an 1/8 inch in places. When I put the new grout down I used the additive that eliminates the sealing step. I have used that stuff on the last four or five showers and never had a problem but may there is an issue when you use it on top of old grout?
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Unread 05-07-2014, 08:34 AM   #2
doitright
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Hi Dave

When you run the water (hot or cold), are you allowing it to run on the entire shower pan? Is this when the odor is the most predominant?

Normally you can't see the weep holes draining. Even though you prepitched the liner, it is possible that the weep holes are clogged. There is a article out by Cecil Hunt that describes this happening in even the most well built showers.

My suggestion would be to remove the drain cover, take a small inspection mirror and flashlight, and see if you can detect build up on the inside of the drain flange. It's tricky to get to for cleaning. Sometimes a coat hanger will work, and other times you just have to get creative with having a stiff piece of metal that is bent to be able to access that part of the drain and remove any minerals and residue that may have formed over the years.

Your worst case scenario would be to remove the tiles around the drain, chop out the mud to the flange, remove the upper drain hub, clean everything, replace, protect weep holes, new deck mud, retile around the drain.

Please post a photo.

Hope this helps!
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Unread 05-07-2014, 11:41 AM   #3
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Thanks for the response doitright.

ETA: Answer to your first question:
I don't know the answer exactly and have thought about doing this experiment. Would there still be an odor if I directed the water to the drain without letting any water hit the floor. As it is, I turn the water on and the smell wafts up and whether it is the water hitting the floor and going into the drain or just the water getting into the drain causing the problem I don't know. It's not an enormously strong odor. When the tenant's first told me about the problem I thought they might be just jerking me around because I couldn't smell it. But in working on the problem more I noticed it readily and the tenant's say it is worst in the morning when they first turn the shower on.

I have bent a piece of metal and tried to clean up into the area where the weep holes are. When I did the vinegar and baking soda cleaning I was thinking about the possibility of clogged weep holes. I sealed off the lower part of the drain so that the vinegar and baking soda could soak the area where the weep holes were.

If the problem is clogged weep holes, then I may have done something wrong that contributed to the problem. When I built my first couple of showers the mortar mix was too wet and it might have flowed a bit into the weep holes.

It sounds like you are suggesting I might be able to get the top part of the drain out if I remove a few tiles and then unscrew it, and then I could get at the weep holes to clean them? I have been thinking along those lines but I wasn't sure I could do this and limit the damage so that I can repair it.

I'm going to look around for the article you referenced.

Thanks again,
Dave
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Last edited by davefoc; 05-07-2014 at 11:48 AM.
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Unread 05-07-2014, 02:11 PM   #4
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It's important to have dry pack for the floor mud. It's porous and water easily travels thru it. Wet mud won't let it escape very fast and if the wet mud did find the weep holes, it will block them. I would try taking the tiles out around the drain and find the weep holes. Once you find them and get them cleared out, you can drill bigger holes in them if you want, then cover them with pea gravel. I usually use small pieces of tile to keep the mud out of them, the water easily runs under the tiles. Like this.
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Unread 05-07-2014, 06:57 PM   #5
doitright
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Hi Dave

No, don't unscrew the drain only. Remove enough tiles so that you can get to the entire flange (as Davy has shown in his photo).

If you used the wet mud as you described, you need to minimally open the entire area up around the drain flange so you can clear the weep holes at the flange, or as Davy suggested carefully drill new ones.

The only way you can be sure at this point is to do an intrusive inspection. I have a feeling once you get in there, you'll see your problem.

You can always do something decorative around the drain if you can't find matching tiles, but it seems this is your last resort to pin down the issue and give it a fix, short of tearing out the entire pan (which is doable).
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Unread 05-07-2014, 08:29 PM   #6
cherron
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Well, I know nothing about tile or plumbing but I had a horrible smell coming from my drain as well. This continued for almost a year and I had it checked by two different plumbers who couldn't find anything. Finally, we had the drains back up and had a camera run out our sewer pipe. The cast-iron sewer line had rusted through in an area about the size of a dollar. Sewage was just seeping into the gravel beneath our slab basement and the smell was backing up into the drain. We replaced all of the pipe with PVC and haven't smelled it since.

For your sake, I hope that isn't the case! It was a huge undertaking.
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Unread 05-08-2014, 12:38 AM   #7
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Try snaking down from your roof vent. You never know.
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Unread 05-08-2014, 01:20 AM   #8
davefoc
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Thanks doitright,
I wondered if it was possible to take the pan out without damaging things to the point that the whole shower had to be demoed. I used type S mortar on the pans and that might make taking the pan out without damaging the membrane a challenge but I guess that could be patched if I cut into it..

I really appreciate the suggestions, and might be a little stupid here but I wanted to make sure I understand. The idea is to
1 remove the tile next to the drain,
2 chip through the pan next to the drain all the way down to pan liner and the clamping ring,
3 clean out and/or drill out the weep holes
4. put everything back together assuming that some other major problem doesn't show up that will require the replacement of the whole pan.

If this unit was empty I might try this idea right now. The fact is that the smell has to be coming from the shower or up the drain and I just can't see how it can be coming up the drain so I'd be chipping and banging and I'd keep chipping and banging until I felt like there was a pretty good chance that we had found the problem.

But there are people living in this unit right now. I think what I'm going to do is get the plumber out, let him see if he sees anything, maybe have him fix the vent (that requires some cutting into the walls). I don't expect fixing the vent to fix this problem, so after that what I think I'm going to do is let the tenant decide what they want me to do about this. They might rather put up with a little odor than put up with the possibility of losing their shower for several days while we attempt to fix it.

This situation is still a little mysterious to me. All the original showers in the building had hot mopped floors without preslopes. About half of them were leaking when we demolished them and all of them had a lot of water that smelled bad under the pan when the shower pan was removed. And yet I don't remember having a problem like this with any of them. Why this particular shower is causing this problem when none of the showers I built has it and none of the original showers in the building has it seems strange to me.

Maybe the use of mortar that was too wet is really the root cause of this problem. I used mortar that was pretty wet (wet by deck mud standards, it was still pretty dry) on the first couple of showers I built.

No matter what the chances are pretty good I did something wrong. I did the plumbing and the tiling and it looks like the problem has to be in one of those two places.
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Unread 05-08-2014, 11:23 AM   #9
doitright
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Hi Dave

You've got everything listed spot on!

The only thing I would trust from the plumber is if he went in with a camera. Usually a plumber gets called out, and they can't do anything that's tile related.

I think your course of action and thought process is a practical one.

Keep us posted as to what is discovered.

Tearing out the pan only is doable, but tricky. I'm a living testament. It sounds like you're a conscientious person, and can get the job done if need be.

I also agree that this happens to be complex, but there are several variables that are different from the other ones that you have done.
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Unread 05-08-2014, 02:12 PM   #10
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I was doing some internet reading for a similar issue and ran across the idea that if the run from your shower drain to the main stack is not sloped enough and the toilet is above it, when you flush the toilet it could partially come up the shower drain pipe and sit in there.
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Unread 05-08-2014, 08:07 PM   #11
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Thanks for the idea Andy.

I considered something like this as a possibility. The shower drain pipe after the trap tees into the kitchen drain and I wondered about the possibility of kitchen effluent coming towards the shower. But it looks like the pipe has a pretty good slope on it Also nobody has reported an odor coming out of the kitchen drain. I'm not sure of where the kitchen drain feeds into the main drain pipe for this side of the building but I think it tees into the main drain pipe separately from the toilet. The shower drain pipe has its own vent (which is slightly cracked) and the kitchen sink has its own vent. I don't see anything wrong with this, but maybe I've missed something.

This is the kind of thing I want the plumber to review in detail. I know I changed the way the drain pipes ran a bit when I re-plumbed the kitchen drain and shower drain and maybe there is some plumber magic going on there that I just didn't understand.

ETA: Your post has made me think a bit more about the possibility that something is wrong with the plumbing and maybe there is something in play here that is causing kitchen effluent to go towards the shower instead of straight down the drain. If that were true then we ought to see some movement in the shower drain when water is run down the kitchen drain. I can check that out and I could try flushing toilet and see if that causes any movement of the water in the shower drain.
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Unread 05-09-2014, 05:57 AM   #12
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Since you have moved the plumbing, it may be a good idea to bring a plumber in to look at it. How close is the vent pipe to the shower? If it's not close enough, you can lose the water in the P-trap allowing sewer gasses to come into the shower.
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Unread 05-09-2014, 06:11 AM   #13
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Have you tried clearing the p trap? If it's staying full, like it sounds like it probably is from your original post, then it doesn't matter whats going on downstream, those gasses wont make it up the drain. But, if there is something in the trap thats causing the smell on the upstream side that floats, its pretty tough to get whatever that may be to actually go through the trap to drain. This makes sense to me, maybe when you run water you disturb whatever is doing it in the trap, causing the smell. I would try either sucking it out with a vacuum or "pushing" the trap clear, a plunger would probably work for that, until you can see no water in the trap, rinse, repeat as needed.
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Unread 05-09-2014, 11:01 AM   #14
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Distance of vent to shower drain:
Less than two feet. Your question lead me to check my code book. According to that book the maximum distance for two inch pipe is eight feet under IRC and five feet under UPC assuming a slope of 1/4 inch per foot. I didn't realize that there is also a minimum distance of the vent to the trap. That is two pipe diameters. One thing that has worried me is that the vent has developed a small crack which is kind of a strange coincidence unless its associated with this problem, but I don't think the crack in the trap could cause this problem. I think I'm going to ask the plumber to repair it anyway.

Clean the trap:
I bought a dryer cleaning brush and attempted to clean the trap as well as I could. It didn't quite make its way all the way through the trap but I probably got it four or five inched below the trap water into the trap. I don't think I've completely eliminated the possibility that something really bad is caught in the trap, but it seems very unlikely, not only did I brush the trap, I snaked it, all sorts of noxious chemicals have been dumped down it by the tenant and I ran the hose full on for a few minutes through the drain.

ETA
Using a vacuum
I had thought about using a vacuum in a weird way. I thought about blocking off the drain just before the trap and connecting the vacuum at the top of the drain to try to pull stuff out of the weep holes. This might be a little too out of the box, but maybe if the plumber doesn't find anything and before I start breaking things I might try it. As far as using it to just pull the contents of the trap out, I might try that. Thank you for the suggestion. On a different topic, a few years after we bought the building a tenant vandalized a unit (In forty five years of owning real estate, this is the only time anybody ever did intentional damage to a unit) by breaking up a mirror and dumping it down the shower drain. It was a bit of mystery at first. The shower water would barely drain through the trap but the snake went through the trap like it was completely empty. Eventually I thought of using the wet/dry vacuum and I found the mirror that I thought he'd stolen broken up into little pieces in the shower drain.
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Unread 05-09-2014, 11:01 AM   #15
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With everything you have done, and the fact that the trap is staying filled - and most importantly the smell is worse when water is run vs. allowed to sit my opinion is that the problem is not plumbing related - since you have also eliminated the hydrogen sulfide from the water heater.

The problem must be some really smelly bacteria has taken up residence in the mud bed - I know you have already tried a bleach soak of the pan - That would be my last hope to try again, and I would go with a strong concentration since if there is a significant amount of organic material in the mud, it will neutralize a lot of chlorine. You could also try a peroxide (not at the same time as the bleach !) treatment to see if it is any more effective at killing/destroying the trapped organics.
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