What’s That Smell? Episode Two.

When something smells bad, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong, and it’s a call to action.  A diaper needs to be changed, food needs to be tossed, or a husband needs to be reminded (“You promised not to do that under the covers anymore!”).  Most of the time the source of the odor (and, thus, the situation needing attention) is readily apparent.  But sometimes it’s a little trickier than that.

For the last couple of days, I noticed a slightly unpleasant smell coming from our bathroom.  That’s not exactly newsworthy except that it wasn’t the usual sort of smell.  And it got strongerWhen I went to take a shower yesterday morning, it was really objectionable.  It had begun to smell distinctly like rotting tuna.  A mortifying thought crossed my mind: Is it me?  I hopped in the shower and scrubbed extra thoroughly, but when I got out, I could still smell something.  I hesitantly smelled the clothes I’d been wearing.  Nope, that wasn’t it (huge sigh of relief).

By bedtime, the smell was truly nauseating.  Maybe it’s the bathroom trash, I thought.  My husband used to periodically throw apple cores and stuff like that in there after eating in bed.  I pointed out how quickly stuff molds and gets stinky in the bathroom, so he quit doing that, but maybe he’d thrown, um, a tuna sandwich in there?  Maybe I threw something stinky in there?  Really disgusted, I sniffed the trash.  But the smell in the bathroom was so overpowering that I couldn’t be sure whether the trash was the source.  It was everywhere.  I lifted up the bag and closed it over on itself to help stem the flow of stink.  It was pouring rain at the time, so I didn’t want to take the trash outside, and I didn’t want to take it somewhere else to stink up the whole house, so that was going to have to do for the night.

I wanted to leave on the bathroom exhaust fan, as I often do when I take a shower right before bed, but we’ve been having trouble with the switch being mysteriously hot lately, so I was reluctant to leave it running unattended.  My husband had bought a new switch over the weekend, but he hadn’t gotten around to installing it yet, so I’d used the fan as little as possible.  But despite this, I noticed that the switch was often hot, anyway, which I found to be a bit disturbing.  I asked my husband if the smell might be coming from the switch, and he said (somewhat accusatorily?), “But it smells like fish!  Like dirty, rotten, stinking tuna!”

“Maybe it’s sewer gas,” I suggested.

“That’s not sewer gas . . . it’s tuna!”

Yeah, I couldn’t argue with that.

I asked my husband to make it a top priority to change the exhaust fan switch when he got home from work the next day.  And I prepared myself to hunt for something dead in the bathroom.  Maybe a mouse that had been eating tuna somewhere and then crawled into our bathroom and died?

But after my husband left for work this morning, I grew more concerned about the switch, and it was just fixed in my mind that the rotten tuna smell was somehow emanating from it.  Flipping the circuit breaker for the switch would alleviate the fire risk, plus, if the smell went away, I’d know that was the source.  Our circuit box isn’t well labeled, so I had to flip a few to find the right one, but once I did, the rotten tuna went away quickly.  Mystery solved!  Well, except that how a hot switch can smell like tuna is beyond me.

I opened up the switch plate and confirmed that the switch had turned a burnt brown in the back (and handling it made my hands smell like spoiled tuna).  This is the kind of (presumably) unlikely “electrical problem” you hear about every now and then that burns down someone’s house.

Then I got ambitious and decided to replace the light switch myself.  It seemed pretty straightforward, but I couldn’t get the “Quickwire” connections to release (despite poking where indicated).  I didn’t want to just put the switch back and turn the power back on because I was really concerned about the fire danger, but I didn’t want to leave that circuit off, either, because the bathroom circuit also controls the bedroom, where my much-loved air conditioner is.  Just from the few minutes it had been off, the room already seemed stiflingly hot.

So I messaged my husband with my dilemma, noting that the fan switch started getting hot a couple of weeks ago, right about the same time we got the new air conditioner.  Could there be any connection?  He called me immediately, very concerned about me shocking myself and apologizing with shame in his voice that he hadn’t taken care of the switch for me already. He told me to just clip the wires, wrap them in electrical tape, and then turn the circuit back on.

I did that, but even though some of the power came back on in the bedroom (the alarm clock came back on), the lights in the bathroom were still not working, and neither was the AC.  “Surely the power in the bedroom isn’t being run through the bathroom light switch,” he said.  He told me to turn the power back off, then take two of the wires, twist them together, and wrap them up, effectively bypassing the tuna switch.  I carefully did what he told me, then I flipped the circuit breaker.  The AC came back on.  So the power for the AC was running through that switch.  My husband said it’s not actually against code . . . it’s just a really, really bad idea.  He put in a permanent solution when he got home.  Now the switch isn’t hot, and the smell hasn’t returned.

A few lessons from this:  (1) If a switch gets hot, check it out right away!  (2) Be proactive in investigating mysterious smells.  (3) Having an electrically savvy (even if somewhat procrastinating) husband is really, really handy.  (4) I’m like a high-quality chocolate bar; I melt at a low temperature.  (5) Leviton apparently uses tuna byproducts in their light switches.  But I’m sure they were harvested in an environmentally responsible, dolphin-safe manner.

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