Dear Energy Advisor,
My question is about mildew smell. Our neighbors live in a mobile home that has homemade skirting and sits on ground level on three sides. The house is closed tightly all day while they are at work. The problem I've noticed is that their clothing -- especially in winter -- has a very strong, almost unbearable smell. What can the cause be and what can I suggest they do? Please --no names if you print this --I don't want to embarrass anyone. Smell is a tricky problem.
There are varying sensitivities to mildew smell -- your neighbors may not notice any odor at all. They may have grown accustomed to mildew conditions in their home, like folks get used to cat litter odor, cigar smoke or fuel odors from various heating appliances. However, a mildew odor is cause for concern, even if your neighbors can't smell it. Mildew and related mold can be damaging clothing, harming wall and ceiling surfaces or even eating away at the framing of their home.
Mildew is the common name for a variety of molds or fungi that can often be found indoors. Mildew can produce a pungent odor in some cases, but not all mildews will have an odor. Typical mildew in our climate will have a black appearance the surface might appear dirty. Looking closer, mildew can have a fuzzy texture. Black is the most common color, but white, rust and green mildews can also be found.
Like any living thing, mildew needs to eat to thrive. It can live in showers or on wall surfaces, feeding on the organic material in the grout between tiles or on minerals in the wallboard. It's also common in laundry areas where damp clothing might accumulate. When mildew lives on a fabric surface, it will eat and weaken the fibers of the host cloth.
There are probably a number of factors contributing to your neighbor's mildew troubles. Mobile homes are usually small residences with low ceilings, and don't have many cubic feet of air inside them. Thrifty homeowners might keep their home closed tightly in winter to conserve heat, perhaps even covering windows with plastic. Infrequently used and low-powered exhaust fans can't keep the home adequately ventilated.
Under the house, moisture may build up, especially during rainy weather. Mobile homes have skirting around their bases, much like site-built homes have short walls around crawlspaces. If moisture collects and stagnates beneath the home, it can migrate into the living space -- feeding molds and causing odors. The crawlspace should have vents and a plastic ground cover to keep soil moisture captured.
If there are any leaks in the home -- places in the walls, windows or roof that allow rainwater to infiltrate -- the moisture from the leaks can feed a fungus colony. Molds inside walls are impossible to see until the wall becomes visibly damaged.
What can your neighbors do to reduce their household mildew? If their clothes are the only mildew casualty, they may be able to combat the mold with rigorous cleaning. Bleaching --1/2 cup bleach per wash load -- will kill mildew, but bleach will weaken clothing, too. Heavily mildewed clothes may be unsalvageable.
If their clothing is tainted with mildew from a closet wall where there may be a water leak, a carpenter may need to be called in to make repairs. Hidden water leaks can cause serious damage, and homeowners shouldn't wait for a wall or floor failure to investigate.
It's possible the clothing is stored in a room closed off from ventilation air and heated air circulation. It's not at all uncommon to see mold growing in rooms that have been closed off to conserve heat. The walls and windows in closed rooms become breeding grounds for molds when air is not allowed to circulate. Many homes have some degree of mildew growing in the tracks of metal windows because moisture in the air condenses on the cooler metal surface. The same trouble can pop up in the bathroom, especially in corners where moisture can condense and air does not circulate. A thorough cleaning with a bleach solution will kill and remove most surface mold.
It might sound harsh --and not energy-efficient -- but one secret to preventing this kind of mold is to turn up the heat and open the window. The room needs lots of ventilation and a higher air temperature to keep moisture in the air and off the walls and windows.
Removing the moisture sources is not always possible -- occupants will always need to bathe, launder and cook. Run ventilation fans often and air out the home when the weather is mild. Look for sources of excessive moisture -- plants, aquariums and humidifiers. Mildew thrives when the indoor humidity is 50 percent or greater, so a good measuring device for humidity -- a hygrometer -- will help homeowners keep tabs on their environment.
Warren Cook is an energy consultant for Clark Public Utilities. You can send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on the Clark Public Utility District website www.clarkpud.com
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