Tuesday, June 20, 2023

In search of good air, the things (and people) we take for granted

For the first time in 3 months, I am feeling comfortable in my apartment again—more than comfortable, some relief too.  It smells…cleaner, fresher.  It’s getting there.

It isn’t because of the device pictured here, but I do like this contraption I got a week ago.  It’s a helper.   

This is a PuroAir HEPA 14 (Hospital grade) Air Purifier.  Click on the name to see it on Amazon.  Last week, my friend Erin asked if I was still dealing with the bad smell in my apartment coming from my air ducts. 

I said it wasn’t as pungent as it was in March when I first reported it to Steiner, my landlord.  But there was still an odor of sour, wet or burnt dirt in the air that annoyed the heck out of me.

She said “Have you thought of getting an air purifier?”   Nope—it never occurred to me.  So after our chat, I got online and looked at several models before deciding on this one.  I like it very much, it’s whisper quiet but effective.  It’s also great at collecting dust & pollen (I get a lot of both).  It’s 16” tall, 10” wide & deep, and has a small light-bar on top that goes from orange to green as the air becomes clean. 

The day Erin suggested I get one, I found and ordered this model for $151.00.  The NEXT DAY, Canadian wildfires were reported on the nightly news and the price for this same unit increased to $239.99 on Amazon. 

They’ve since gone down to $190, but that’s still 40.00 more than what I paid--talk about timing!

When the smell first started in March, I went and stayed at my sister’s for a week and hoped my landlord would find the issue and correct it.  I talked to them daily on the phone, they said they were running an “ionizer” in my apartment (which they did) and cleaning the air ducts (which they didn’t, that was a lie).

When I returned a week later, it had a VERY, VERY strong smell of “dusty hotel room” from the ionizer.  But I could see right away that the livingroom, dining & bedroom wall grates had never been taken off the walls.  They still had layers of paint on them.

After 2 weeks, the effects of the ionizing machine had worn off and that same smell was wafting from my air vents again.  I spent $85.00 on various duct cleaning sprays which masked the smell for a couple hours at best.

When I reported I was still having this issue to Nicole (the building’s off-site manager) she responded she was sorry but there was nothing more they could do.  If I’d like, I could move to another apartment the next time a one-bedroom unit was available in the building.

I was shocked.  First of all, they didn’t DO anything.  Second, I didn’t want to move.  Even if I could have any apartment in the building, there were only a couple besides mine I really liked (because of their location/flooring/kitchen/color palette). 

I’d also be forfeiting my current lease of $840 I’ve got locked in for the next two years.  One bedroom units in my building currently rent for $900.

Since the smell was worse from the bedroom’s air duct, I set about removing the grate from the wall.  I used a box cutter to cut around the grate and it took 2 hours to unsecure eight 60 year old bolts.

It’s a long but narrow tin duct.  I was unable to get my hand in there, when it hit me—my Swiffer mop!  I went thru 4 Swiffer pads, wiping out a lot of ancient dirt & even gravel.

I sent photos of what I’d done to Nicole, hoping she would take me more seriously now.  She told me she’d send a maintenance man to check it out.

Bob (who no one likes, me included) stopped in for exactly 10 seconds, scratched his head and said the air seemed fine to him.  The next morning, Nicole told me she understood what I was going through as she once lived in an apartment and experienced ‘phantom smells’ of smoke in her building.  I responded that MY ‘phantom smells’ were only in my apartment, not the hallway or lobby or anywhere else. 

She didn’t bother responding, of course.  I swear to God, if I could sue her I would.

At least the bedroom was better now, the odor from the vent was still noticeable but fainter.  I experimented with home & car air fresheners, and if I ever smell Fabreze again, I’m probably going to jump off the roof.   This went on a few more weeks, and then my friend Erin suggested an air purifier, and it DID help but didn’t address what was causing the smell.  And I sure wasn’t looking forward to taking down more grates.

So last Tuesday I began poking around in my bathroom’s drop ceiling.  And that’s when I discovered the ceiling panel directly above my toilet, when raised, had a strange ‘muddy’ smell high up inside.

I put on some rubbermaid dish gloves, and standing tippy-toe on the toilet, arm reached as high up as possible, began feeling around up there. 

Sure enough, I felt a squishy, wet mass.  I grabbed a handful and slowly lowered my arm, praying it wasn’t something dead (or raw sewage from the apartment above mine).

It was a handful of mud, plain & simple.  I reached up again and grabbed another handful, I did this 3-4 more times.

I’m wondering, where did it come from?  And I was reminded that the tenant’s bath tub above mine used to leak into my bathroom ceiling a couple years ago. 

And the day the smell in my apartment started—Saturday March 18—was the SAME day the tenant above me moved out of his apartment.  For all I know, he was dumping dirt from his houseplants into his tub’s drain, and the dirt wound up in my ac unit’s drip-pan which is only supposed to collect condensation.

So, for the last week I’ve been opening that bathroom ceiling panel, reaching up above my head with Clorox wipes to swab out as much muck as possible.  It’s difficult as I can’t see what I’m doing, and the pan doesn’t have a smooth surface—it’s lined with sharp ridges, like a cheese grater.  I go thru several wipes until my arm aches and my wrist gives out, then repeat the process the following day.

But after the second day, I realized the smell from my ducts was lessening.  After the fourth day, I detected virtually no smell at all.  I still rubbed at that dirty drip pan another couple days before deciding I was done.

My ac has a faint musty smell when it runs (and I admit it, I’m hypersensitive to ANY smells in here now).  But that sure as heck beats the oily, wet mud smell I’ve been living with.  I also admit the angry side of me wants to go over Nicole’s head, contact Steiner directly and tell them how unhelpful she’s been.

But I don’t want to win any wars or make any enemies.  I intend to live here a long time.  I’m just relieved I was able to fix this on my own. 

My Puro purrs in agreement.

50 comments:

  1. Somehow I got cut off while writing the comment. I am so glad you were able to fix the problem, and that you are now breathing good air again! What unhelpful people you had to deal with. And glad you're back!

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    1. Thank you DJan! I'm sure this wasn't a fun read, I just had to get it out of my system. And I'm sorry you got cut off while commenting, thanks for giving it another go. πŸ™‚

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  2. Wow, I’m glad you finally found the source! It’s frustrating that you had to do it yourself. If you are going to keep cleaning it, maybe get a step ladder and a long handled brush to get around the grates. I am so envious of your spotless home! I guess I need to dust and vacuum more, lol. I might look into getting an air purifier too. Joyce in FL

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    1. Thanks Joyce, you're very kind-- to be honest, I'm not sure I could get a step ladder in there because the bathroom is so tiny. I'm just very lucky it was directly above my toilet, and that I got a new wooden seat last year to stand on haha. But I very much like the idea of a long handled brush and I am definitely going to look into that. Thanks for the nice comments Joyce!

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  3. I'm going to point one thing out. Nicole has probably been put between a rock and a hard place by Steiner. She was probably told that's all they were going to do for you and if you didn't like it, tough. Knowing this, she knew it was pointless to pass on your complaints and would probably get her in hot water with the bosses. She was trying to placate you and the bosses at the same time. I do have to say, once I started pulling goop out of my bathroom ceiling, I'd have had the maintenance man in there again. Glad you solved the problem. I'll bet Nicole is too. I've been the middle man before, and it is a very difficult place to be.

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    1. Thanks Debby, but I have zero sympathy for Nicole and I did not alert her or Steiner that I figured out and resolved the issue. She doesn't care, and neither do they.

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  4. Dug, I really hope your issue is resolved. It sounds like you may have found the source of the odor. And we have used air purifiers in the past and they do seem to be beneficial. Glad you got yours before they went up in price.

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    1. Thanks very much Rian! Much appreciated. πŸ™‚

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  5. I bet if you brought in your city Board of Health Inspector, Steiner would have taken action. I suspect deadlines for a solution (& fines for lack of a solution) and follow-up inspections would have scared them in to action. You found and solved the problem on your own. Great detective work Doug!

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    1. Susan, thank you very much and honest to God, what you said here I came very close to doing after 5-6 weeks had gone by and nothing was happening. I made a promise to myself I won't go through something like this again! πŸ™‚

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  6. Ugh, so much stinky stuff! The air purifier will be a big help. We bought a Dyson model during the forest fires we had in California. Made a HUGE difference. I still run it every day for a few hours and it keeps the house cleaner too as it collects dust and cat fur. After almost three years of use, it told us the filter needed to be changed. My husband ordered a replacement filter from BestBuy, same place where he bought the air purifier. It was delivered the next day. I love service like that. Your apartment management service is just plain stinky in so many ways.

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    1. Thanks dkzody, and very interesting about your air filter lasting so long! I hope mine does too, I bought an extra one and it was surprisingly expensive. Like $40. I think I'm going to do what you do, and just want it for a few hours every day.πŸ‘

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    2. $40 sounds like a bargain to me. Our replacement filter was about $100.

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    3. Wow! That'd be too much for my wallet!

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  7. Doug, I am relieved you finally found the source of the horrible smell. Brave guy to put your hand up in the ceiling. I would have been screeching the whole time. Pretty crappy of Steiner to just bail on resolving this issue. Oh, Chuck and I were at a furniture store on the weekend looking at new living room furniture. I spotted a chair very similar to yours so had to sit in it. It is very comfy! I hope this is the last of the smell that lingered!!

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    1. Hi Robin abd thank you! You gave me a good laugh with that screeching remark, I came very close to doing that myself when I first got a handful of somethingπŸ˜…! Anyways, you sure are right about Steiner and very interesting you got to sit in my modern chair-- I like the way it looks, but it's purely for guests only in my place. Hey, if you get new furniture send me a pic okay?πŸ™‚

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    2. We better be getting new furniture, the old stuff is gone!πŸ˜† l definitely will send photos Doug.❤️

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    3. Yikes Doug, I just looked at our Amazon in Canada. This purifier is $313.00 here!

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    4. Yep, I just looked myself! That is more than DOUBLE what I paid, unreal!

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  8. Eewww! Please consider hiring a duct cleaning company. And get some kind of step stool so you don't slide the lid off the toilet! I purchased similar purifiers for my bedroom and living room to keep the smoke smell out of my apartment from an illegal smoker down the hall. My asthma doesn't want to put up with it. My filters are washable with the vacuum. Wear a mask when messing with the muck: sounds close to sewage! Linda in Kansas, where the cow chips just land on the prairie....

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    1. Haha thanks Linda you are too funny. Hey, I did call a couple duct companies and they quoted me prices from 4 to $700 for my little apartment! Anyway, I got the biggest duct cleaned myself so I feel pretty good about the others. You and your cow chips!πŸ˜…

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    2. Could check with veterinary supply stores. They have those plastic gloves with arm sleeves that go all the way up to the vet's shoulder; you know, for reaching in and pulling out baby cows that need help. Beats pulling out pure muck. Don't let it hit your eyes or face. Maybe a clear face mask, eh? I know bug exterminator guys that clear messes in attics and above our awareness areas wear masks to not get the tiny bits of rat poop in their lungs. If that frequent cleaning doesn't work, at least install a bat house up there. Oh No....blabby Linda in Kansas

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    3. Linda, I don't know if it was your intention but you gave me such a laugh this morning! Look, it was only three handfuls of mud no need for one of those veterinary birthing gloves that go all the way to the shoulder! Oh my God you're killing me! Thank you my dear friend but the work is pretty much done! πŸ˜„πŸ˜„

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  9. I'd been wondering about your apartment's vent odor, Doug. Good for you in solving the puzzle. It made me grind my teeth though, listening to the unhelpful response from your building's management. The first thing I notice when entering a building is it's smell. I like it when there is no scent at all.

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    1. Thanks very much Florence, I don't want to cause you to grind your teeth, but I appreciate you caring! And I feel just the same as you, I prefer no scent at all. I really didn't like using those air fresheners they just seem like they're covering up something. And finally, I honestly think you inspired me to figure this out on my own. You probably would have done the same!

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  10. Good heavens! If the maintenance crew had only done their jobs, you wouldn't have been in this position. I'm glad you're locked in at the lower rate because they sure didn't earn any increase in rent.
    Can you borrow a step ladder from someone? That would likely let you see into the ceiling and the drip pan, in order to determine whether you got the majority of the mess.
    Oh, and that mud? I would have taken it out and smeared somewhere that Bob would have to clean up. And/or maybe mailed an envelope of it to Nicole. Yes, I'm that vindictive!

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    1. Haha! Thanks for the chuckle, Maebeme! Well, I think I've felt up there everything there is to feel, I"m not sure i want to see it too, but maybe I should. I sure wish I knew where it came from, don't want a repeat performance :^)

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    2. It could just be years of build up from air conditioning ducts dripping condensation onto decades of dust.

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    3. Thanks River, I did wonder that too. I love in an old building, and it's a very antique cooling system with a lot of condensation.

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  11. I am glad you solved the problem. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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    1. Thank you Gigi. It’s still not 100%, but I DO have that will. πŸ™‚πŸ‘

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  12. I’m glad I’m on the top floor and there’s no inconsiderate cretin living above me (and also I can hear the rain on the roof – I grew up in the desert so it was a real treat to hear rain on the roof back then, and I guess that always stayed with me).
    Also the only ducting I have is internal, from the central heating to the vents, so there’s no problem there.

    That was a real... I don’t know if adventure is the right word, but it’s all I could think of. I’m happy that you solved it.

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    1. Thanks Peter. Actually, this is the first place I've had that isn't the top floor. I haven't minded... until this. πŸ™„

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  13. That enrages me that you had to problem-solve it and then fix it yourself--AS A RENTER! But I'm so glad that you did figure it out and solve it. I would have gone crazy too and been unhealthily frustrated by the whole situation. I'm quite tempted by your air purifier since I'm fairly sure that we'll have the smoke issue some time this summer or fall. :(

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    1. Thank you Margaret, I always appreciate your comments! Normally I'd be mad too, but I'm just glad I located the source of the issue. And yes, you should look into getting an air purifier--they're quiet and effective (but the filters are expensive, $40--I just hope it lasts 4-6 months).

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    2. I did buy one and it cost the more expensive price. But I couldn't resist, just in case. I blame you, Doug! LOL

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    3. Wow--I think Amazon should give me a cut! ☺️

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  14. I'm glad you found the cause and wonder if it is worth the trouble to get a tall stepladder and get right up in there for more cleaning and regular checks. I'm having a similar problem with the drains just outside my back porch door, the "gully trap" and the "sewer" smell from the bathroom of the unit across the lobby. I've sent several emails to housing, but there seems to be nothing they can do.
    About the airconditioning unit and the musty smell, I had a very strong musty smell a couple of summers ago and emailed the manufacturer after a service person did nothing but clean the already cleaned filters. The manufacturer recommended after a cooling cycle, instead of turning it off right away, run the unit on just the fan or dry setting for about a half hour to an hour to thoroughly dry the condenser coils. I've been doing that ever since with no more musty smells coming from it.

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    1. Thanks very much River, and I very much wish I could run my own blower in the bathroom ceiling without turning on the cold pipes. In my old place I could. As for getting a ladder, I might just do that. I do plan to start checking it regularly now. πŸ™‚

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  15. Well, I'm ordering the purifier before I go to bed. My apartment is small, I weave in cotton on a fairly large loom, I have a cat and windows that are difficult to open. 'Nuff said.

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    1. Wow, another purifier sale! Joanne, just a reminder that the filters for those devices are pretty expensive, but I did read they can be washed and reused.

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  16. PS, Mine is a split system aircon, with the motor on the outside wall and the airflow on the inside wall, (my brother helped me pay for it, housing here doesn't install them) if yours is a built-into-the-building system then you probably don't have the option to turn the settings to dry or fan.

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    1. River I like your setup. And you're exactly right, I don't have that option.

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  17. So sorry you had to solve the problem yourself, Dug, but you must feel pretty empowered after that detective work and effort. Reaching into unknown, smelly, texturely unpleasant stuff would give me the creeps!! Kim in PA

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    1. Thanks very much Kim, and you are so right in regards to getting the creeps from reaching into the unknown. It was truly gross! But I suppose a Doug's gotta do what a Doug's gotta do! πŸ˜„

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  18. A shame you had to handle this all yourself with no real assistance from those Managing the complex. It's creepy to reach somewhere you can't fully see and have no idea what you might find or be reaching into or touching. Nasty Smells are the worst and I always worry about Molds, some of which can be very harmful. Deferred Maintenance on Buildings can cause so many issues, some of which can be dangerous and unsanitary. With Home Ownership I have to solve my own problems, but, if I am Renting I always expected Management to handle it.

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    1. Bohemian, thanks very much so well put. I'm half tempted to frame this and hang it like a sampler on my living room wall!πŸ™‚πŸ‘Œ

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  19. You are way more brave and much nicer than me. You should've kept a Ziploc bag of the crud to show your landlords. I would be worried it might reappear. I think based on all your work, they should at least be willing to put a ladder up there and check it out, there could be more out of your reach.
    Nicole sounds like she needs some customer service training. (I hate when somebody tells me, "oh, the same thing happened to me once." Yeah, sure it did! Liar!) Such patronizing words!

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    1. Bobi, thanks very much! I did think about saving some of that crud I pulled out of there, but figured they would probably think I dug it up outside or something. I get so mad every time I think about the phantom smell speech. You're exactly right, patronizing!

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