Mitigating the Heating Oil Smell in the Basement

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Oil smell mitigation by TwoPlusCute

Down under (our floors) in the land of sawdust, spiderwebs and all things gloomy – yes, that’s our basement – there are a few challenges to overcome. One of them, is the smell. Especially the heating oil smell, off gassing its toxic fumes. Boy, oh boy, every time I opened the door to the basement I had to brace myself.

We tried airing the basement, through its bulkhead and window, using fans to direct the air out. Circulating the air – while a must – had a minimal effect. Let’s not forget that keeping the door open during the snowy New England long, long winters is not really an option. (For the record, I did try that – really tightens the skin and raises the heating bill.)

We had to come up with a way to mitigate that smell and we did so in the most frugal way imaginable!

I should start by saying we have oil heating. There are no gas lines – or any provision for them – in our road and between electric (too pricey) and propane (potential for KABOOM!), we are pretty happy with our oil heating. Except, when it comes to the aforementioned smell. Heating oil off gassing is toxic and being rather sensitive to smells myself, we tried to figure out a solution that wouldn’t break the bank – our bank that is.

Installing a super wow ventilation (to the outside) was wayyyyy out of budget. Way, way. Plus, if it wasn’t done right, we risked irregular operation of the furnace. In comparison, the little trick we did, saved us thousands and still can’t believe how simple it was!

Here are all the things we can not do for the time being:

  • due to the layout of the heating system (expanding across the basement), we can not enclose it in its own – ventilated to the outside – room
  • we can not install gas (because of all the reasons I already mentioned concerning other heating sources)
  • adding a constantly working ventilation, is way off budget

We just had to find a different solution. I wanted to smell flowers; not heating oil.


Wild cherry blossoms, photo by TwoPlusCute


And a solution we did find: cat litter and aluminum foil.

Oh, and some duct tape.

But before we applied our super cheap/frugal/economic way to mitigate the oil smell, we had to make certain there were no serious problems causing it. For example a pierced tank, a malfunctioning furnace, leaking pipes, etc. We had professionals test, check and review the equipment and the common consensus was everything was in order.

Alas, it still smelled…I turned my attention to the obvious shine around the fill and ventilation pipes on the top of the tank. And I googled and it seems that the gaskets give way (even with a year old tanks) and when the tank is refilled, it is somewhat common to seep ever so slightly (but very stinkingly) through the pipe connections. After years it can create this visual effect:


Oil tank seepage, photo by TwoPlusCute


I asked our service man what to do. Maybe change the tank? Its gaskets?

He said: cat litter; clean the tank with it. Just scrub it.

 Wait, what? That’s it?

Well, I followed the professional advice (which did work) and have to report that cat litter is scratchy. It left hairline scratches on the paint of our tank so if you own one, proceed with caution:


Rubbing the oil tank with cat litter in order to mitigate the smell, by TwoPlusCute


I rubbed and rubbed, always wearing gloves  and then scraped (with a soft plastic scrapper) the dried dirt.

After I got most of it off, it was time to improvise and take this cat litter idea, one step further. I enclosed the pipes inputs with the litter. I strongly believe it made all the difference, disallowing any gas seepage from re-polluting our basement air.

A different kind of DIY

First I made 4 cylinders using aluminum foil, using pretty much the same method I used to roll our shelf liner cachepots. A completely unnecessary step but see the wrinkled one in the following photo? I didn’t like it.


Mitigating a basement oil smell by TwoPlusCute


Then I rolled them around the base of the pipes and secured them in place with the handyperson’s best friend: duct tape. That way, the cat litter won’t escape from the base of the cylinder.

What is not seen clearly in the photo is I gave plenty of space between the foil and the pipes to fit a lot of litter.


Mitigating the oil smell from a basement by TwoPlusCute
It’s not pretty but it works.


As I moved on adding the aluminum cylinders, I got better at it and made consistently smaller cylinders. Which seems like an utterly useless skill – but then again one can never know…

I took special care around the tank gauge, covering it with extra aluminum and I poured the litter in, between the aluminum “moat”.


Frugal oil smell mitigation by TwoPlusCute


This is the end result, with a completely unharmed and undisturbed oil tank gauge:


A frugal and effective way to mitigate oil smell from your basement by TwoPlusCute
“No gauges were harmed in the making of this DIY”


After enclosing all pipes, this is what we had:


Easy and frugal solution for mitigating oil smell from a basement, by TwoPlusCute


Did it work?

Let me tell you, the difference is HUGE!

There was 100% percent improvement. I couldn’t believe how well it worked.

In a basement were the oil smell has been allowed free reign for years, it will have seeped in the ceiling woods and joists. The wood will off gas even slightly until it rids itself of all the nasty molecules. My suggestion is once you have fixed the cause of the smell, air your basement well for a few days and even the slightest whiffs will eventually go away.

Our solution is not much of a looker (unless you are into dystopian decor) but it surely is effective. It’s safe, and at such a low cost (a bag of cat litter), who can beat that for getting rid of the dangerous heating oil smell?


ps. Want more ideas for frugal house maintenance? Check our solution on keeping our attic mold free, here.



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13 thoughts on “Mitigating the Heating Oil Smell in the Basement

  • May 10, 2017 at 12:53 am

    Hey, great share……

    Basement is definitely a convenient location to store heating oil tank, but it can be hazardous when heating oil begins to leak. I must say you have shared a really practical and cost effective solution for it. I am also going to try this out to remove the stinky oil smell out from my basement.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Keep sharing more…

  • March 28, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    I told you before and I’ll say it again, I’m getting a real education here! What a smart and practical solution! And there is nothing wrong with dystopian decor! 😉

  • March 23, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    You’re at it again! What a great, cost effective idea. 🙂 We have oil heat as well. I wouldn’t trade it for any other kind of heat but, tanks do get old and fittings wear out……

    • March 23, 2016 at 9:05 pm

      They do, they do. And then they stink (not to mention more serious issues). Our tank is pretty old, too and if our repair man had found any problem, we would change the tank immediately.
      Which would be rather pocket-painful as you can imagine! 🙂

  • March 22, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    You obviously already found a great solution, but I wanted to share our similar story in case anyone reading this would find it helpful. We had an oil smell when we first moved into our house and there actually was a mechanical problem behind it. It was as simple as one valve needing to be tightened. After the tech fixed it, he sprayed something called Sweet Air Powder, which took care of the lingering smell. I googled it just now and it came up as being sold in plumbing and hvac supply stores.

    • March 22, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      That’s great info and thank you for sharing!

      You did well checking the system with a professional and it is a good thing it was an easy fix. Mind you, I had already tried (for months) a number of deodorizers, like activated charcoal, baking soda and even zeolite. They did not work.

  • March 20, 2016 at 7:12 am

    This is brilliant! I grew up in the north where everyone had oil heat and remember the stinky oil smell. happily pinning and sharing this on my FB page!

    • March 22, 2016 at 10:07 pm

      Thank you Wendi! 🙂
      It’s almost 3 months since I filled the cylinders and the smell is gone, gone, gone (and hasn’t come back).

  • March 19, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    What a wonderful idea and it worked on the oil smell. Here is to smelling flowers!!!!

    • March 22, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      Cyndie, it worked miraculously and I (and my nose) are so glad for that! 🙂

  • March 19, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    What a wonderful idea. Kitty litter is not that expensive either. Glad you were able to get rid of the oil smell. Good job. Here is to smelling flowers.


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