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A Foul Odor Outside May or May Not Be Wastewater

Have you ever ventured outside and something quite astonishing assaulted your nose? It may be easy to pin the blame on a wastewater treatment plant that could be nearby. However, foul odors commonly emanate from a variety of sources in our community:

  • Landfills
  • Industries (i.e. paper or chemical plants)
  • Natural gas pipeline work
  • A wastewater spill
  • Wastewater plants
  • Even private plumbing

Let’s start inside the home…

Private plumbing systems are designed to prevent wastewater gases from entering residences. All active sewer lines contain gases, and a malfunctioning plumbing system could allow gases or odors to enter the home.

Is the odor inside?

Is the odor only coming from…:

A drain that hasn’t been used recently?

We recommend for you to pour a gallon of water down the drain and see if the odor persists.

Multiple drains that are used frequently?

It may be a blockage or clog in your plumbing. Try a liquid dissolvent, please follow directions and see if this clears the clog and dissipates the odor.

A kitchen sink?

Clean the disposal (following the owner’s manual).

What you put down the drain (grease, oils, wipes) can cause odors clogging your plumbing. If the odor does not go away and is only inside your house, consider having a licensed plumber check your plumbing and vent system.

illustration of sink showing that water sits in the trap keeping gases and odors from coming out of the drain. Houses have a vent to the room so that any odor will escape outside.

Odor Outside Home?

Every home has a wastewater vent (on the roof) that could be the source of an odor immediately outside your home (patio, deck, etc.). The odor could be caused by a clog or blockage in your plumbing. Check with neighbors to see if they are also experiencing the odor. If it is only noticed just outside your building, contact a plumber.

Another place to check is in your front yard. Most homes also have a white plastic lid called a cleanout, and that if not closed properly it may cause odor in the yard.

If you live on waterfront property or the road is higher than your house, you may have a low-pressure sanitary sewer system to pump your wastewater up to the gravity fed sewer system. It is possible that this system may be causing an odor in the pump basin if something is malfunctioning.

What Can Cause A Wastewater Type Odor?

Sewage odor may be a sign of a nearby wastewater overflow that needs immediate attention.

​If you see or suspect a wastewater overflow or spill, call 311 or 704-336-7600 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If calling after hours, please say or select ‘wastewater emergency’ to speak to our dispatchers.

If you live beside a wastewater treatment plant, there may be some occasions when a smell is noticeable outside the property. Wastewater odor can be noticeable during warm temperatures, buildup of debris in pipes, or low flow during some nights and weekends.

CLTWater Takes Odor Seriously

For decades, wastewater treatment plants that were once neighbors to farms and forests are now neighbors to residential neighborhoods and businesses. In fact, there’s a wastewater treatment plant in the Little Sugar Creek / South Park area! As people moved closer to our plants, CLTWater invested millions on odor reduction. We aren’t baking bread, but we try hard to make the treatment of our community’s wastewater less noticeable.

Air scrubbers, carbon filters, bio-filters, help CLTWater reduce odors that can occur during the wastewater treatment process. We are committed to safely treating wastewater and reducing odors. We appreciate your input to help us identify potential odors.

How Do I Report an Odor or Sewer Spill?

If you see or suspect a wastewater overflow, call 311 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week (say or select wastewater emergency).

  • Try to locate the source.
  • If it is coming from a manhole or a creek, call 311 or 704-336-7600 and provide the closest address.
  • A repair crew will respond quickly, investigate the cause and repair any publicly owned pipes, if needed.


What Happens When I Flush? A Story About Your Poop…

It isn’t magic, it is your water bill working for you…

When you wash, brush, or flush, the water leaves your home and flows mostly by gravity down pipes to one of our wastewater treatment plants.

There are over 4,600 miles of pipe used to collect the wastewater in the collection system. Utility crews clean pipelines to prevent blockages and spills. They also clear blocked pipes, maintain pumping stations, repair damaged pipes, and connect new customers. Our plant operators work 24/7 to protect public health and the environment.

What is wastewater, and where does it go?

Used water (wastewater) from inside homes and businesses flow through thousands of miles of pipes to one of five wastewater treatment plants. The used water includes detergents, food, paper, and industrial & human waste. The collection system includes pipes, manholes, and pumping stations.

But how does it all work? Below is a quick explanation:

Pumping Influent

Wastewater flows by gravity from homes and businesses to the wastewater treatment plant. It enters the plant at a low elevation, usually near a creek. The wastewater is pumped uphill to begin treatment. Gravity moves water through the treatment process.

Preliminary Treatment

Screens remove large objects such as bottles,  branches, wipes, and trash. Grit chambers remove grit, sand, sediment, and gravel.

A big part of the wastewater treatment process is to separate the solids from the liquids and the liquids from the solids…


Primary Treatment

Wastewater flows slowly through large tanks called primary clarifiers. This allows the heavier organic solids to settle down to the bottom of the tank. The settled material or primary sludge is pumped from the tank to a digester for further treatment.

Secondary (Biological) Treatment

Air bubbles are forced through the wastewater to encourage certain types of useful bacteria and microorganisms (microscopic single-cell organisms, think amoeba) to grow. These ‘bugs’ consume organic pollutants in the wastewater. They break pollutants (i.e. ammonia) into simpler forms (nitrates).

Final Clarification

The bacteria and microorganisms from the biological treatment phase are settled out of the wastewater in large tanks called final clarifiers. The bacteria/bugs are reused again in the treatment process…

Very similar to the primary clarifiers, the water moves slowly to allow the settling process to occur. Settled material or sludge that is pumped from the bottom of the clarifiers goes to digesters for further processing.


Even though the wastewater flowing from the final clarifiers appears to be clear, there may be very tiny particles remaining. The flow is passed through a bed of sand or fine mesh screens called an effluent filter. This filter removes these particles.


The processed wastewater (effluent) is disinfected with ultraviolet (UV) light to neutralize any remaining harmful microorganisms.

Cascade Returns Water to Creek

The final stage of treatment is disinfection and then the water flows over a cascade of steps to the creek. The cascade steps looks and acts like a large waterfall putting oxygen from the atmosphere back to the water. The water may have a foam look as it travels down the creek due to the oxygen.



Digesters are large tanks where the solids removed from the clarifiers are heated, mixed, and treated with biological processes to remove harmful bacteria, break down fats and oils, and overall reduce the volume of solids. 


The solids removed from the digesters still contain a large amount of water. This water is removed for treatment. The treated biosolids are collected and returned to the environment. The biosolids are nutrient-rich byproducts of wastewater treatment. Biosolids are land applied on agricultural or farmers’ fields to as soil amendments and a source of fertilizer. 

Wastewater treatment operators and our laboratory professionals test both the water and solids throughout the process.

Did you know…

  1. Our oldest plants were built in the 1920s.
  2. Part of designing for treatment plants includes ensuring space for expansion for generations.
  3. Staff can take parts of the wastewater plant offline for cleaning, repairs, and upgrades all while treating the constant flow.

Additional resources:

What does a growing city mean to wastewater treatment plants?

Why does wastewater cost more than water on my bill?

How does CLTWater respond to a wastewater overflow?

Is the odor from a wastewater plant or sewer manhole?

But it says "flushable."

So, you’ve run out of toilet paper and resorted to only using wipes. But it’s okay because you are using “flushable” wipes, right? Nope!

Unfortunately, the word “flushable” doesn’t mean what you think it means…

Flushable wipes do not break down

Toilet paper is specifically made to break down as it travels to the wastewater treatment plant and is the only paper product that should be flushed down the toilet. This means that your wastewater can Flow Free to your local wastewater treatment plant.

Here are some other items that are technically “flushable”:

Technically anything is flushable, but that doesn’t mean you are going to flush your ring or iPhone down the toilet. The same should be said for wipes.

All of the above items, including wipes, do not break down as they travel from your home to our wastewater treatment plant. They get caught up with roots, grease and other items that don’t belong in the sewer and cause blockages. The blockage may happen in your home which could cause sewage to back up into your home (blech) or the blockage can happen farther down the line and cause a sanitary sewer overflow in your neighborhood or stream.

This doesn’t even include the cost of blockages at lift stations. Clogs in pumps and valves lead to higher run times, increased power costs and increased maintenance trips. Crews also have to pull the pumps apart to clear the blockage, and on rare occasions, wipes can even damage the pumping equipment, causing even higher costs to ratepayers.

Overflows are more than inconvenient and nasty. They are also expensive.

Responding to and cleaning up an overflow costs the utility an average of $5,000!

The photo above shows actual wipes that got caught in our lift station and had to be removed by hand. Yuck!

The take home:

Toilet paper is specifically made to break down as it travels to the wastewater treatment plant and is the only paper product that should be flushed down the toilet. This means that your wastewater can Flow Free to your local wastewater treatment plant.

To learn more about how to protect your pipes, visit our website.

Preventing frozen pipes and what to do if you experience frozen pipes

Taking extra steps to prevent frozen pipes is important in our area, especially if temperatures stay below freezing (32 degrees F) in the day after an overnight freeze.

Here are some ways you can prepare your house’s pipes ahead of winter. The earlier you prepare, the better, in case of an unexpected freeze event:

  • Insulate pipes in unheated parts of your home and save on energy costs by insulating your water heater. Insulation materials are available at local hardware stores.
  • Seal any openings and air leaks in the crawl space or basement. Use cardboard, plastic, or newspaper to seal air vents if necessary. If your water heater is in your garage, keep the garage door closed as much as possible.
  • Open doors on cabinets below sinks to allow warmer room air to circulate around plumbing at night.
  • Be sure garden hoses are disconnected from outdoor spigots. Cover your outdoor spigots / hose bibs with Styrofoam insulating caps or alternatives.
  • Make sure everyone in your home is familiar with the location of the main water shut-off valve. You will need to know where this is in case of a water emergency, like a burst pipe.
  • Make sure the water meter box in your yard remains properly in place to keep cold air from freezing water inside the meter. If for any reason your water meter cover is damaged or missing, contact Charlotte Water by dialing 311.
  • Unplug automatic lawn sprinkler systems. Irrigation line breaks and sprinklers spraying onto sidewalks and roadways will quickly lead to serious public safety hazards and expensive repairs. If you must irrigate your lawn this time of year, do so during daylight hours when temperatures are well above freezing.

If private pipes freeze but there are no visible leaks detected or obvious burst pipe:

  • Don’t panic. It may take several hours to fix.
  • Open faucets just slightly (to give melting ice/steam a place to go without added stress on the pipe) and know where to turn off the water via ‘master valve’ in case a thawing pipe bursts or begins to leak.
  • Keeping your house warm, opening indoor cabinets to expose any plumbing to warmer air, and wrapping frozen spots with towels soaked in hot water can help with the thawing process.
  • Look for the possible locations where your plumbing may be frozen (plumbing where pipes enter the building and before water heater like a crawl space, garage, or basement).
  • The City does NOT recommend using ANY electrical appliances to heat pipes directly; doing so presents a private plumbing damage risk or the possibility of electrocution/fire/burn hazards.
  • Be advised some private plumbing companies may not make home service calls simply to thaw frozen pipes. Doing so means added (and possibly unnecessary) expense to the customer and extra workload for the plumber during a period of high service call volumes due to actual burst pipe emergencies.
  • If a frozen private plumbing pipe is already leaking or suddenly bursts:
  • Shut off the closest available master water valve on your private plumbing.
  • Call a professionally licensed plumber for assistance.
  • If you live in an apartment complex and/or don’t have control over the building’s water supply, be sure to contact your landlord or building manager ASAP.
  • If your private plumbing does not include a master water valve and you need your water service line shut off at the City meter connection due to a leaking or broken water line, the customer account holder will need to call CharMeck 311 (or 704-336-7600) anytime and specifically request an emergency shut-off. Even if 311 is closed, there is an option after the greeting to reach a dispatcher 24/7. Charlotte Water staff will respond as soon as they can. Once the private plumbing repair has been made, call 311 to request/confirm the restoration of water service from the meter.

Protect Your Irrigation System & Backflow Device (if you have one)

  • Turn off or winterize automatic lawn sprinkler systems. Irrigation line breaks and sprinklers spraying onto sidewalks and roadways will quickly lead to serious public safety hazards and expensive repairs. If you must irrigate your lawn this time of year, do so during daylight hours when temperatures are well above freezing.
  • Codes require certain types of commercial and residential water customers – those with irrigation systems, for example – to install and maintain backflow prevention assemblies at their connection. It’s important to protect your equipment from cold weather damage that can cause system leaks and high water bills.
  • Prepare your backflow device for winter (best completed by December):
  • The best way to prevent freezing on an irrigation backflow connection is to drain the assembly of all water for the winter. Turn off your irrigation system at the shut-off valve and drain system, open test cocks, and Shut-off valves on the assembly to discharge any water. Leave valves open 1/8 of a turn! Fully Open or Fully Closed will trap water behind the ball in the valve and that will leave the valve susceptible to freezing and damage to the valve.
  • Whether your device/connection remains in use for the winter, be sure the backflow cover fits securely to the ground to prevent air infiltration. Check your cover for any cracks, holes, splits, etc.
  • Wrap old blankets or beach towels around the assembly for temporary protection during the peak of the cold temperatures. 

Did you know that water in the mains that travel from the water treatment plants to your home does not freeze? Learn why here.