Through the years, seasoned professionals have learned some effective ways to beat restroom odor. For instance, to combat odors lingering in floor drains, David DeLashmutt, assistant facilities operation manager at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, recommends flushing the drain with disinfectant. Or, when cleaning floors, pour the germicidal detergent down the drain to keep it moist and clean. Bio- or foaming-enzymes can also be used to combat odors in drains or in tight spaces where bacteria may hide.

Dan Wilson, support services manager at Cushing Regional Hospital in Cushing, Okla., swears by an enzyme cleaner, explaining that this product consists of live bacteria, which devour the unwanted bacteria — even in a restroom's smallest areas — and helps kill anything causing an odor issue.

"Your disinfectant works topically, but not in the cracks and crevices," he says. "Even bleach won't do what enzymes do."

The enzyme is applied after an area is disinfected, and left wet to dry. Wilson's staff uses the enzyme cleaner on an as-needed basis, but also applies it once or twice a week to each restroom as a preventative measure.

In restrooms where odors stem from garbage, analyze what is being thrown away and whether the receptacle is properly containing it. Most often, the bags are to blame for lingering odors. Standard wax paper bags can get pushed down into the receptacle and products strewn on top of them. This makes it difficult for cleaners to empty and disinfect the receptacle. To avoid this problem DeLashmutt uses plastic, scented bags for collection.

"We've heard a lot of positive comments and custodians love them," says DeLashmutt. "We don't have to deal with that mess."

Moving the air around is another lesson in restroom odor control.

"A bathroom must be ventilated," says Wilson.

Many times, he explains, restrooms are positioned in corners of facilities, which can hold odors in. That is why it is essential to have the correct number of air exchangers in a restroom to prevent stale air and festering smells.

Ed Vizvarie, director of facilities at HowardCenter in Burlington, Vt., also acknowledges the importance of air exchange, saying that a smaller restroom will benefit from using an occupancy sensor to monitor fan usage. He chooses air exchangers over air fresheners, which can mask a larger odor issue.

"I like to make sure we're getting to the root of the problem," Vizvarie notes.

To do that, it is essential to educate staff on cleanliness issues that will likely lead to odor problems. Some facilities use ATP devices to assess cleanliness and others have had success using black lights to target problem areas. Training staff on the cause of the odor is the most essential step in eliminating problem areas.

Vizvarie has had success using a black light to actually show staff the urine tracks on walls and around fixtures. This has helped them understand the problem so they can clean accordingly.

"It opens their eyes to what's happening in the restrooms," he says.

Once identified, many facilities have had success using pressure-washing equipment, in conjunction with proper chemicals, to tackle all surfaces in the restroom — from the top of walls all the way down to the tile and grout. Using a controlled amount of surfactant and a high-pressure spray, workers shower all restroom surfaces to kill the bacteria and germs. Then those surfaces are rinsed with clean water and moisture is either flushed down floor drains using a squeegee or vacuumed up and removed. The process has proven to reduces the time and energy it takes to clean restrooms and eliminate odor-causing bacteria.

A Positive Perception

In DeLashmutt's 1,500-bed complex at the University of Nebraska, the 18 people on his staff understand the importance of a clean, odor-free restroom, and what it means in terms of perception of the facility and university as a whole.

"It's a year-round job to maintain the restrooms," he says. "But we hear a lot of positive comments about the state of our facilities. In a way it's a pat on our backs when people say: 'Oh, that was a very nice place. It was so clean.'"

In any facility, restrooms are a perception point and if it is unkempt or emits foul smells, patrons will form opinions on the cleanliness of the remainder of the facility.

"When you see a dirty, smelly restroom, you wonder what the sanitation is like in the kitchen," Wilson adds.

It is important to keep restrooms looking clean, but departments must also identify and eliminate odor-causing culprits. The nose knows when something just isn't right.  

JENNIFER BRADLEY is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis.