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Don't fall into the restroom trap

September 19, 2010
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Recently, the facility manager of a large office complex was so distraught about her buildings’ “smelly” restroom floor drains that she wrote to a leading cleaning guru for help.

A well-known personality who writes for several consumer magazines, he offered the same answer many of us in the cleaning industry — especially building service contractors (BSCs) — have long been told.

But there’s a problem with the answer; for the most part, it is not correct.

The legendary cleaning guru responded with the following:

  • Use household bleach to keep bathroom sinks and shower and floor drains odor-free.
  • Pour one cup down the drain and leave it for at least an hour before running the water. This helps kill the bacteria that are probably causing the odor.
  • Flush with lots of water to make sure all of the bleach runs out of the pipes.
  • Also, be sure the drain is in good physical condition so there are no leaks.
  • If the odor persists, have a professional check it out.

However, using bleach will not end this type of odor problem. It is true that bleach has proven to be effective in killing all types of bacteria, germs, mold and other contaminants.

But, in reality, bleach may have little effect on ending drain odor problems. It may help unclog the drain, if that is the problem. And if bacteria are present, it will help minimize odors, but it will not eliminate them.

Even though the guru did not mention it, cleaners have also used such things as canola oil, household oil, and even motor oil to eliminate floor drain odors.

These oils may help end the problem for a short while, but if and when the oil turns rancid, odors will resume and the trap will be left with an oily residue.

The guru’s suggestion to “flush with lots of water” is the key to solving the odor problem. It is actually the water in the drain trap, especially in floor drains, that prevents sewer gasses and odors from escaping and producing a foul smell.

The ingenious trap
All the bathroom fixtures and floor drains in public and private restrooms have a trap in the drain pipe. This U-shaped trap is rather simple and upon its invention helped improve restroom hygiene considerably.

Its ingenious design helps retain water, which prevents odors from passing through and becoming airborne.

For various reasons, odor problems develop when the water drains out of the trap. Sometimes leaks cause water to leave the trap.

When this happens, there is only one solution: Repair or replace the leaky trap and/or drain pipe.

However, in most situations, the water simply evaporates. This happens if the fixture has not been used for an extended period of time, especially during dry weather or in dry climates. It also occurs if the floor has not been recently wet mopped.

In many situations, wet mopping replenishes the trap with water and prevents it from drying out, which will result in malodors.

However, even here there may be problems.

If the floor has been mopped with microfiber mop heads, which tend to be more absorbent than conventional string mops, less moisture may be left on the floor — increasing the chances that the trap will not be replenished and dry out.

Some solutions
Floor mopping itself may not adequately keep the trap filled with water. In this case, the malodor problem may be solved by simply pouring a cup or more of water down floor drains on a regular basis, as often as two or three times per week.

In a small facility with a damp climate, this should eliminate the problem; however, in a large complex, such as the one mentioned earlier, pouring cups of water or even buckets in scores of restrooms can become quite time consuming and may not be the most efficient way to deal with the problem.

Fortunately, products are now available to help keep traps filled, essentially forever. Pouring a small amount of non-evaporative and biodegradable solution into each floor drain, or even restroom fixtures, will keep the trap full and block odors from returning, as long as excessive amounts of water are not poured into the drain.

These products are also inexpensive and much safer than bleach.

Although bleach has served us well for many years, not only does it do relatively little to end drain odors, it has since been shown to have the potential of harming waterways and the environment.

Understanding how drain odors develop and using appropriate products to solve the problem result in fresher-smelling restrooms and a more protected environment.

Klaus Reichardt is managing partner of Waterless Co. LLC, manufacturers of waterless urinals and other restroom tools and products. He can be reached at Waterless Co., 1050 Joshua Way, Vista, CA 92081; via phone at 888-NOFLUSH (888-663-5874); or through e-mail at

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