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Ending Odor Problems in Correctional Facilities
By Robert Kravitz, President AlturaSolutions
Published: 05/21/2012

Nose odor Correctional facilities are 24/7 buildings that house hundreds or even thousands of inmates in very close quarters. Many of these locations are old and have less-than-adequate ventilation systems. It is not uncommon in such situations to develop odor problems in restrooms, shower areas, common areas, and virtually any area frequented by inmates.

One Chicago-area correctional facility experienced serious odor problems in their showers. Administrators assumed the issue was essentially “here to stay” because there were no windows in the area, nor was there adequate ventilation. To deal with the situation, a locker room air freshener system was installed to essentially mask the odors with fragrance.

While odor-control systems such as this do have their place and can prove very beneficial in busy locations such as airports and convention centers, these systems do not actually remove odors--they simply mask them. According to Mike Sawchuk, Vice President and General Manager of Enviro-Solutions (manufacturers of Green and bio-enzymatic cleaning chemicals), unpleasant odors are invariably the result of soils and bacteria building up in grout areas, the pores of tiles, on walls, and even on ceilings. Warm temperatures and humid conditions in busy locations such as showers are the perfect setting for all types of bacteria, mold, and mildew to thrive.

“Masking the odors may help for a while, but because the source of the problem has not been removed, as the soil load and bacteria grows the problem will likely get much worse,” says Sawchuk. “Eventually no odor-control system will be able to mask the odor. Only proper cleaning using effective cleaning procedures, frequencies, tools, chemicals, and products will eliminate the problem.”

Locating the Problem

One of the first steps in eliminating odor problems is to find the source of the issue. But this may be quite difficult; in fact, in a correctional shower area, the source could be just about anywhere – in the grout, under the floor/tiles, drains, urinal pipes, etc. While tile and grout are often the culprit, it is not uncommon that even after these areas are cleaned thoroughly using powerful cleaning agents such as bleach and disinfectants, odors either continue unabated or disappear for a few days only to make a strong and unpleasant reappearance.

Some facilities have turned to ATP (adenosine triphosphate bioluminescence) testing systems in order to locate the source of odor problems. With these systems, surfaces are swabbed and the swab is then placed into a handheld computer that looks very much like a television remote control. These machines then indicate how much ATP is present on the tested surface. While the presence of ATP does not conclusively indicate that odor-causing bacteria are also present, a high reading usually serves as an accurate “red flag” that germs and bacteria are present and that these areas need to be properly cleaned.

If an ATP system is used to locate the source of odors, it is important to test all surfaces--because, as referenced earlier, the source could be just about anywhere. One area that is often overlooked, especially in shower areas, is the ceiling. Ceilings are frequently neglected during cleaning, which is one reason why they can become the source of an odor issue. They also can remain moist for hours, making them a perfect home for germs and bacteria. Ceilings must be included in regular cleaning, especially when odors are a problem.

Chemical Solutions

The traditional chemicals used to kill bacteria and eliminate odors can also actually cause their own odor problems. For instance, bleach, along with many disinfectants, is not only powerful, but can also leave behind very strong odors. These odors can harm indoor air quality and are sometimes even transported from one area to another via ventilation systems, an issue that can cause respiratory problems for both staff and inmates.

Green chemical alternatives can help minimize, if not eliminate, this issue. Most proven-Green cleaning chemicals do not have a fragrance and are designed to have little or no impact on indoor air quality. However, many facilities are taking a look at another cleaning option that is proving especially effective in dealing with odor problems: bio-enzymatic cleaning chemicals.

Bio-enzymatic cleaning chemicals are formulated with specialized enzymes and “good bacteria” that actually digest other bacteria and soils on surfaces. However, according to Sawchuk, what makes them even more effective is the fact that “as long as the surface remains damp and no other cleaning chemicals, such as bleach or a disinfectant, are applied to the surface, the bio-enzymatic cleaner can continue to eat away bacteria for several hours after application, ensuring odors do not resurface.”

Sawchuk adds that through the BioPrefered program, the federal government is now encouraging public buildings such as correctional facilities to select bio-enzymatic products due to the fact that they are both Green and sustainable. “However, not all bio-enzymatic products are proven-Green or sustainable,” adds Sawchuk. “Only those accepted by the BioPrefered program and are Green certified meet this criteria.”


Once the source of an odor has been identified and the problem has been resolved, correctional administrators should not assume that the issue has been permanently resolved. Facilities must maintain a proper, thorough cleaning program that stops problems before the start. Notes Sawchuk: “In the military, they use the expression ‘keeping up is easy…catching up is difficult.’” When bio-enzymatic products have been used, Sawchuk recommends making them a consistent, ongoing part of your cleaning arsenal. “These are a very environmentally friendly way to clean surfaces and deal with ther sources causing odors. And if they are used regularly, surfaces not only stay cleaner, but odor problems also become less and less of a problem.”

Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor and now a writer for the professional cleaning industry.

Other articles by Robert Kravitz


  1. Valle on 02/25/2013:

    The air inside, an enclosed environment can stagnate and become saturated with germs, chemicals, air pollution’s, and other harmful particles. As people our bodies absorb these elements through breathing. An all-natural paint additive has been developed. Air-ReNu, turns any newly painted wall surface, into an effective and permanent air purification system, no electricity or filters required. The Air-ReNu all-natural, technology permanently maintains healthy indoor air quality and continuously removes offensive odors.

  2. jamestown0509 on 06/02/2012:

    You CANNOT eliminate odors in any jail or prison regardless how many times you clean the blocks, clean the bars or the floors. If you were a correction officer you would know the problem is the inmates, not the facility. Inmates come from all walks of life and many of them are not clean when they come into a facility. You can make them shower but the problem is the clothing they wear stinks. I have seen inmates wear shorts for weeks and not wash them, the same with socks.

  3. Erford A Harrison on 05/30/2012:

    Having visited many detention facilities during my long career in the detention design and the manufacture of components for jails I certainly relate to this problem. It is an odor like no other. However there is a solution, at least for facilities that are being built now. The use of steel modular cells coated with non porus coatings which are both tough and durable. Also custom built shower liners made from the same material is a solution for those hard to clean shower areas. These can be custom made to fit most any configuration. My company, Steelcell of North America, makes these products and anyone interested can visit our website, www.steelcell.com. If you need further information the contact information is on the site and we would welcome your inquiries.

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