Office Odors


Our office has a bad odor in it, but even after a plumber came in to research the smell, we still have it. It’s been going on for about 6 months. We don’t share the building with anyone else, and no recent work has been done. Some people think it smells like something dead, other people think it smells like mildew. I think it smells like sewers. Everybody notices it! What other things can we do to find this odor? Could it cause headaches?


Holding My Nose


DearĀ Holding My Nose:

What a frustrating situation! I’ll answer the headache question first: Any odor that is chemical or based on fumes could certainly cause a headache. But even if not, it’s possible to get a headache from the situation, much like a tension headache caused by frowning, tensing and trying to avoid smelling the bad odor.

Some businesses have odors caused by the equipment or some other work related cause, and those are generally there to stay unless a new technology is produced! But, in your case it appears the odor just arrive and stuck around.

You can almost be certain the odor is from only a few possible sources: 1.) Something dead in a crawl space, between walls or concealed in a cabinet or behind something. 2.) Sewer gas or a partially clogged pipe that allows items to decay in it. 3.) Water that has settled under something or in it and has not be able to air out, so it and the bottom of the item has mildewed. 4.) Some food item has become concealed somewhere and has decayed. Eventually decaying odor gets better–but sometimes not for a long time. The other odors never go away until they are found and eliminated at the source.

Here are some ways I have tracked down odor, one test at a time.

1. If it smells like sewer or drain odor, try this: On a Friday, or in the afternoon, when you know the office will be closed up later for some time (that’s why Friday works well), tape cardboard over all the drains, everywhere you can find. Check with your maintenance man to ensure this is safe, given the plumbing configuration (or call the plumber and ask, since he has recently seen it.)

Make sure there is no way any odors can seep in through the drains, and make sure you find all the drains. Consider putting plastic wrap over the toilet bowls and closing the lids.

Open windows and air things out until you leave and lock the doors. Don’t let anyone remove the cardboard until you and your odor team can check things out. If the odor is not present or greatly reduced, you’ll know it has something to do with the drains and you can focus the plumber on it again or get a second opinion. My experience has been that plumbers sometimes have the attitude that “it isn’t all that bad”. Get someone who cares and who doesn’t sort of laugh it off.

If that doesn’t work, try this:

1. Do the same blocking action with vents, if the weather allows it. Don’t let any air in through ventilation shafts for a full day, night or weekend and see if that blocks or reduces odor. Sometimes it’s worthwhile for a company to have vents cleaned in the vent path into the offices. Once again the maintenance person will know about ventilation duct work and which affects your offices.

2. Check the floors and items in any room with a water source. Pull back an edge of carpet if there is any, and see if water has leaked. Check under cabinets near water sources. Check above your floor, if the building is multi-storied. Remember that water flows down, so look at water sources anywhere and invetigate to see where leaks might have settled months ago since it started then. Once again, ask your maintenance man if there has been a leak in recent months.

3. Check behind appliances, especially refrigerators. Sometimes food is left on top and falls behind and no one notices it until it decays. That also will allow you to find such gruesome things as dead mice or rats. Ick! (But, once I did find three large dead mice that way and we took care of the odor.)

4. Do the sniff test around electrical sockets and outlets. They open into the dry wall and if something is between the walls you will more likely notice it there.

5. Check any large fabric areas, since they hold odors. Carpet, drapes or the bottoms of fabric covered cubicles are often sources of odor, because they have absorbed something on the floor or water from an open window, etc.

6. Use a black light and check around every area of the room with the lights out. It will gross you out, so be prepared! Black lights will show up bleach and lint and everything else, so its not all bad stuff. But it will also show urine, feces and other body chemicals. Be prepared to never trust the bathroom again! However, your own home is probably worse. That’s just a reality of trying to keep things clean in those areas.

7. Pull out large pieces of furniture that aren’t moved often, such as file cabinets. The odor source is being concealed in, under or behind something, or it would have aired out by now or been discovered. So, look for those places.

I have never failed to find an odor, given all of that investigative work! But, it hasn’t been easy always! Sometimes when you move something, the odor source (like the mice) get stuck under it and you just move it around. I have often found that something didn’t smell badly so we thought it wasn’t the problem, until we pulled up an entire section of carpet or moved a large item…then it hit us!

A final note: Put out the word that there is a crispy twenty dollar bill in it for anyone who finds the source of the smell. Just for the fun of the chase people will look harder! (Make sure you’re prepared to give it to the person!)

Best wishes. Let us know if you find it!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.