How to fix the drain gas problem in your Chinese apartment

We awake in the middle of the night. Not because of a noise. Or a light. It’s a smell. An overpowering, saturating, wrong smell actually woke us up. For the second time! The first time was the night before, which also happened to be the first night in our Chinese apartment. I get up and follow my nose. Turns out sewer fumes are pouring into our living space through the kitchen and bathroom sinks and the shower drain. No U-bends, but plenty of rotten cabbage and leeks.

We’d recently arrived in Tianjin as language students. After looking around and asking our teachers, we’d deliberately picked the most average-looking, average-priced neighbourhood to rent in, thinking (rightly) that this would be a smarter move than living in the foreigner-concentrated, more expensive neighbourhoods (this experience and that apartment is described in Ditching the Laowai Ghetto). But living in China means living in a Chinese apartment. Each of the neighbours’ apartments we visited employed a different method for combating the drain problem; I remember one just stuffed plastic bags in the top of the pipe when they weren’t having showers. Even our foreign friends living in shiny new developments had the same problem, just not as bad. Two years later we changed apartments but still had the same problem. Here’s how we dealt with it in both locations.

The Sinks
The sinks are the easiest. All you need to do is get under the sinks and jerryrig U-bends. It’s likely you’ve got cheap, flexible plastic hose instead of pipes under there, hose which is so deteriorated that if you bump it it’ll crack, so go buy some more at a hardware store before you mess with it. Bend it into a U-bend shape, maybe hold it in place with rubber bands, and you’re good to go. We did this in both our apartments and had no problems, except that in our second apartment I had to take the entire bathroom sink right off the wall to get at the hose. Still, undoubtedly worth the end result.

The Shower Drain
These things can be a major pain. Our first apartment was a little more old school. The drain pipe actually stuck up exposed with a little moat around it and a metal cap that fit over it like an igloo. The idea is that the bottom/rim of cap will be submerged in water so the gas gets trapped. Even when we wiggled the cap just right so it sat all of two millimeters lower over the pipe, it still never worked. We ended up putting a hot water bottle in a plastic bag that was hung from a wire that we could lift up and hang on a nail when we took a shower. After the shower we’d lower it back over the drain, the idea being that the water-filled bag would seal around the hole. It was better than nothing, but not great, and a pain to clean.

In our second apartment the drain was flush with the smooth tile floor. And, conveniently, there was a spare tile under the sink. So I super-glued a piece of those plastic doorway strips that all the businesses hang in their doorways to keep the dust out to the bottom of the tile, and we just used the squeegee (a Chinese bathroom necessity) to slide it off or back over the drain. Occasionally we’d get gassed out while taking a shower, but other than that this solution worked great. I’ll definitely do it again if faced with the same situation.

Anyway, if you’ve been suffering sewer gas as a result of U-bend-less Chinese plumbing, I hope this helps! And let us know if you have your own success stories.

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6 thoughts on “How to fix the drain gas problem in your Chinese apartment”

  1. We had this problem in Guatemala too! It was HORRIBLE! We never found a solution to it like you and your ingenuity have. The shower drain was flush with the tile floor that was on a solid foundation of concrete…

  2. I’m a master plastic accordion pipe bender now as well :) (file that under skills you never thought China would teach you).

    For the shower, in every apartment I’ve lived in that had this problem, I simply put the plunger over the drain when it wasn’t in use.

    A plunger being an even bigger Chinese bathroom necessity, I find :)

  3. I’ve had this problem also in both Shanghai and Beijing, but my newest apartment (just built 2yrs ago) doesn’t have this problem. The shower drainage has some special plastic device inside that lifts up and down automatically when I’m showering.

    Looks like there’s progress in the higher end buildings (in Beijing at least)… higher end I guess means priced higher than 40k/metre on the north 4th ring.

  4. I’m in my third Chinese appartment and I can’t recall ever having had this problem, or heard of other people having had it. I’m pretty sure I saw U-bends in all the right places here. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate to live in buildings whose builders hired professional plumbers.

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