Photo by Jeroen Bendeler on Unsplash
Question: We have an older cabin by a river, and it always smells like mildew. I’ve tried several products to rid the smell but nothing is working. Do you have any suggestions? – Melodie Ackerson, LaPorte, Ind.
Many people refer to “mildew” in their homes when they actually mean mold. Both are fungi that come indoors naturally in the air and on dirt from shoes, but can really take off if they encounter wet environments. Mildew is a type of mold usually found on plants and is not usually a problem, except maybe for the plant. Mold isn’t necessarily a major health issue except for people with allergies or asthma. But, as you note, it unleashes an unpleasant smell, and it can damage wood, fabric, and other materials in your home.
You do want to stop its growth. And that, says Randy Schmidt, general manager of Capital Remediation in Madison, Wis., means getting rid of the humid and/or wet conditions that are allowing mold to thrive in your riverside cabin. “In the woods, whether it’s by a river or not, there’s a ton of moisture,” Schmidt says. “That’s a good thing in nature, because it helps decompose organic matter. Mold has been doing that for millions and millions of years, and outside the cabin it’s good. Inside, it’s not good. Mold needs water, food (cellulose, including wood, is its favorite), temperature, and light. The only one you can control is the moisture.”
Cabins can be especially susceptible to mold growth because of their locations in the woods and near water and because they’re often closed up for weeks at a time. Mold can be pretty much any color, from white to black, with many (green, orange, gray) in between. And textures vary, too, from fuzzy or flat to slimy.
Use a flashlight to find the patches that might indicate mold growth. The mold you are smelling could be from those generally humid conditions, but investigate to see if you have a leak somewhere, and fix that if you find one.
As for dealing with the mold you have, the Environmental Protection Agency advises in its “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home” (available free online) that if you can see mold in an area that is less than about 10 square feet (less than roughly a 3x3-foot patch), you could clean the area yourself. Schmidt says to avoid cleaning products with bleach, which can be more toxic than the mold itself, and instead use milder soap-and-water cleaners with a vinegar-and-water rinse. Vinegar not only cleans off the mold, it also lays down a pH barrier that mold doesn’t like, reducing the chance that it will regrow in that spot, he says.
Don’t vacuum, because household vacuum cleaners and even wet-dry or industrial vacs can spread the spores, and the mold can damage machine parts. Clean fabrics in the wash, adding a cup of vinegar to the rinse, says Schmidt. To prevent the problem from returning, run a dehumidifier, set to 40%, constantly – 365 days a year, according to Schmidt – including when the cabin is unoccupied. If there isn’t a floor drain to accommodate the hose, put the machine on a kitchen counter and let the hose drain into the sink. (Using the bucket will, of course, limit the dehumidifier’s usefulness.)
Mold is in your cabin no matter what you do, but it won’t grow if you keep away the moisture that is its lifeline. If the project seems overwhelming, or if you’re finding more mold than that 10-square-foot patch, call a mold remediation expert. “If it’s not something you can clean up in an hour – call a professional and at least have it looked at,” Schmidt advises.