Conquer a musty basement with ammonia

Last Updated on September 13, 2016 by Dave Farquhar

The most annoying thing about the house we just bought was the musty basement. I’m sure it’s a common problem in 65-year-old houses with basements that are anything less than bone dry, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant.

Our painter had a suggestion. Fill a big bowl with ammonia and put it somewhere that nobody can knock it over accidentally. He said it would absorb that musty smell very effectively.

So I went to the nearest store and bought a $1.25 bottle of ammonia, filled up three small bowls with it because that was what I had, and set them in the basement. The ammonia was a bit overpowering at first, but admittedly even that was an improvement. Then I came back three days later, and he was absolutely right. The musty smell disappeared.

I must have put $20 worth of air fresheners in the last house to try to solve the very same problem. Not only was the ammonia faster and more effective this time around, it was also a lot cheaper.

So if you need to freshen up a basement, listen to Kevin the Painter. Get a bottle of ammonia at the nearest grocery or discount or dollar store. Pour yourself a bowl or two, and find a shelf to set it on. You won’t be disappointed.

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5 thoughts on “Conquer a musty basement with ammonia

  • June 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    A slightly more expensive and much nicer smelling solution than ammonia, but still cheaper than air fresheners, is Mexican vanilla extract. A trick also taught to me by a painter.

  • June 24, 2012 at 3:28 am

    “Mexican vanilla extract”
    Doesn’t have to be expensive extract of real vanilla beans, either.
    What does the job is one chemical, “vanillin”. It’s fairly simple and quite cheap as organic chemicals go, and you can buy “artificial vanilla extract” very cheaply. That’s all you need for musty smells, be they in basements, other rooms, cupboards, or fridges. Real “vanilla bean extract” does a slightly better job in ice-cream, although not by much – many people wouldn’t notice the difference.
    Dave, Since the ammonia works, I’d be inclined to go with it first, but then follow-up with artificial vanilla.

  • June 24, 2012 at 11:27 am

    True enough, Don. I’ve never bought the artificial kind before, but will try it next time. I use vanilla over ammonia, as I am usually trying to get rid of the smell of paint from living spaces, rather than a basement, and vanilla just smells nicer.

    The new VOC free paints are tremendous compared to the paints of my youth.

    I would be careful about just covering up the smell of must from any basement. Musty smells are often indicative of mold and mildew growth.

    • June 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

      I would be careful about just covering up the smell of must from any basement. Musty smells are often indicative of mold and mildew growth.

      That was another project. There is one corner where there was some mold or mildew on a couple of the foundation’s cinder blocks. There happens to be a downspout in the same vicinity. So we’ve extended that downspout to direct the water out further into the yard, blasted away at any sign of discoloration with Tilex, and painted the affected wall with Drylock-brand paint to keep the moisture out. Most likely, we’ll end up putting a dehumidifier in there too.

  • June 25, 2012 at 11:54 am

    And of course I should have expected Dave to have done his diligence!

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