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Does Your Home Smell Like Dirty Socks? It Could Be Your Heat Pump

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If your home smells like a locker room or dirty socks, the odor may be coming from microbial life forms in your heat pump. It's a phenomenon that occurs in heat pumps to the extent that it's been given the name dirty sock syndrome. If your heat pump suffers from a case of dirty sock syndrome, there are a few things that you can do. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Living On the Coils In Your Heat Pump

Think about how your pet's water dish gets slimy around the edges and on the surface after it's been sitting for too long. Any stagnant water can produce this slime, including the condensation on the coils of your heat pump and in the condensate drain pan. 

Heat pumps work by producing condensation that can accumulate on the coils and pan. The slime contains microbial life forms, which includes bacteria and mold. Therefore, the stench of dirty socks actually comes from microbial life and mold that is living in the slime inside your heat pump. When the defrost mode turns on and heats the coils, along with all the life forms growing on it, the heat causes the microbial life to give off an odor. 

What Are the Risks of Dirty Sock Syndrome

While the bacteria that causes dirty sock syndrome doesn't pose a health risk, the mold could, especially for those who suffer from mold allergies and/or asthma, does. However, even healthy individuals can suffer from mold exposure. In fact, the Institute of Medicine has linked indoor mold exposure to upper respiratory tract symptoms and illnesses and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. 

When the heat pump forces air into your home, it can force mold spores into your home as well. These mold spores will grow when they land on damp or wet surfaces and feed from organic substances inside your home, such as wood, wallboard, carpeting, and clothing. Take a look at the registers in your home that are connected to the heat pump, and you may find mold growing around them if your heat pump has dirty sock syndrome. 

How to Get Rid of the Stench 

The only cure for this syndrome is to clean your heat pump and ducts thoroughly with an anti-microbial cleaning solution. Given the extensive amount of work that is involved, especially in cleaning the ducts, it's a good idea to hire a heating and air conditioning service to do the cleaning. 

It's also important to determine if your heat pump and ducts are appropriately-sized for your house, which can help control the number of times your heat pump goes into defrost mode. Speak with your heating and air conditioning service to make sure your system is the right size to accommodate the living areas in your home.

How to Prevent It from Happening Again 

Fortunately, there are several ways to prevent your heat pump from making your house smell like a locker room again. 

  • Retrofit your heat pump with a UV light that is specifically designed to kill microbial life. Your HVAC service can order this device and install it for you. 
  • Replace the old coil with a new tin-plated one to help with a fresh start the next time you turn your heat pump on. Ask your HVAC service which type of coil is the best for preventing the growth of microbial life. 
  • Apply a protectant that contains anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties to the coil. This can be done by your HVAC technician when he or she cleans your heat pump. 

Depending on the severity of the syndrome, you can choose one option or several for better protection.