Is That Musty Smell Coming from My Vents? It’s Not My Loomis High Student’s Dirty Gym Socks.
It’s back to school for the kids of Loomis Union School District, which for a lot of us also marks the end of summer. Football season, pumpkin spice lattes, and cooler weather are just around the corner. And, most of us will move the arm on our thermostats from cool to heat for the first time in months as chillier mornings and nights creep up on us.
But if your house suddenly smells like a gym locker room this time of year, it may not be your teenager’s smelly gym clothes lying around. Before you lay blame, consider that the problem might be something called Dirty Sock Syndrome.
That musty, moldy smell may actually be coming from your vents. It sounds like a joke, but Dirty Sock Syndrome is a very real thing that happens after your air conditioner or heater is turned back on after an extended break, usually when seasons change from winter to spring or summer to fall. Dirty Sock Syndrome is a difficult problem to solve, and can cause serious air quality issues for your home. But with some diligence and expert help, it can be treated—and prevented.
The Dirt on Dirty Sock Syndrome
Dirty Sock Syndrome happens when moisture in the evaporator coils of your HVAC unit lies stagnant for a period of time. It then mixes with dirt and debris that come in through the air intakes. When your system is constantly switching modes between heating and cooling, like in early spring or early fall, the moisture build-up becomes a warm breeding ground for bacteria. Then, when your fan comes back on, the bacteria passes out into the air of your home through your vents—and you get a big whiff of mildew.
There has also been an uptick in Dirty Sock Syndrome over the last several decades, possibly because of a change in the material used to make modern coils. It’s believed that the recycled aluminum used today may be more porous than the pure aluminum used in decades past. Makes sense, right? More porous means more moisture—and more potential for bacteria to breed.
Why Dirty Sock Syndrome is Dangerous
It’s clear that a moldy smell in your home is unpleasant, but the more important concern is the health of you and your family. Mold and mildew can contribute to potentially severe health issues. So while the name may sound funny, this is definitely no joking matter. Possible concerns are:
- Allergies and Chronic Respiratory Issues: Family members with allergy problems and chronic respiratory issues may find themselves becoming sicker from continuous exposure.
- Indoor Air Quality: In some cases, Dirty Sock Syndrome can affect the quality of your indoor air to the extent that it is several times more polluted than the air outside.
Solving Dirty Sock Syndrome
Just like your kids’ dirty gym clothes, HVAC experts haven’t yet found a solid way to prevent or eliminate Dirty Sock Syndrome. Typically, homeowners have addressed the issue by having coils cleaned, treated, or even replaced—only to find that the syndrome appears again at a later time. The best ways an HVAC specialist can help you treat the syndrome are:
- Antimicrobial Agents: These agents can be applied to coils and usually kill any bacteria currently present, providing a temporary solution. Over time, though, the active ingredients in the agents become dormant and the build-up left by them becomes a breeding ground for new bacteria.
- Bleach Cleaning: Like microbial agents, bleach kills the present mold and mildew created by bacteria. But it does little to prevent future growth, so you would need to continue to clean regularly.
- Coil Coating: Coatings have proven to be an effective method for some homeowners fighting Dirty Sock Syndrome. The coatings kill the bacteria and cover them, creating a barrier that prevents any future growth. But, you have to remove the coil and have it shipped to a manufacturer. This can be costly and inconvenient for most homeowners.
- Coil or Unit Replacement: While effective, replacement is the costliest solution—and always a last resort. Some homeowners have even found that after replacing coils, or even their entire unit, that the smell eventually comes back.
- UV-C Products: Probably the most effective method of addressing dirty sock syndrome is using a UV light. It kills microbes, just like bleach, but also prevents further growth from occurring. The issue with UV light is that it can only kill what it sees. Areas that cannot be reached with the UV light will continue to have microbial growth.
Ways to Prevent That Musty Smell in Your Home
Dirty Sock Syndrome is more prevalent in humid climates, but has been discovered in all areas of the country—including our own Placer County—when seasons start to change. I can’t stop the seasons, but I can recommend some simple solutions to reduce the chance of bacteria buildup on your coils such as regularly changing your air filters and installing air filters with high MERV ratings.
Dirty Sock Syndrome can be a real hassle for any home, whether you live in Loomis, Roseville, or on the other side of the country. The name is laughable, but it describes a real issue that can cause serious air quality issues for you and your family. While there is no one way to cure your air conditioner of Dirty Sock Syndrome, there are ways to prevent it from happening, and some acceptable methods of getting rid of it once it does. Then hopefully the only dirty socks you deal with will be the ones that your kids leave on the floor.
If you have questions about unusual smells coming from your vents, or any concerns about the quality of air in your home, give the professionals at Bell Brothers a call. We’ll help you root out the source of the smell.