Maintaining Buildings & Grounds

What's That Smell?

Cleaning Locker Rooms


During my more than 25 years as a contract cleaner, I have had the opportunity — or should I say the misfortune — of cleaning and maintaining a number of private gyms. In the professional cleaning industry, gyms are often compared to restaurants as far as their cleaning needs: no matter how thoroughly and effectively cleaned they are when the cleaning workers are finished, by the next visit they are typically a cleaning disaster. This does not happen in most other types of facilities, but with gyms and restaurants it is par for the course.

However, gyms, whether private or public, such as in a school or university, can develop another problem, specifically in the locker rooms. And that problem is malodors. One private gym we cleaned had a serious odor problem. One reason for this, and one we could not control, is the fact that it had very poor ventilation. Adequate ventilation helps a locker room stay dry after cleaning and keeps it dry when used. This helps prevent the growth of mold, mildew and bacteria that can cause odors. In this example, there were no windows, and the ventilation system installed was not adequate for the size and amount of use the locker room received.

This was many years ago, and the tools we used at the time were deck brushes to wash the tiled walls and floors with powerful cleaners and sanitizers. While the room smelled fresh and clean when we were through, within a few days the malodors had returned. We were unhappy about this, the client was unhappy, and so were the members of this gym.

However, as so often happens, every challenge has a way of becoming a learning experience. We soon discovered there are many culprits when it comes to malodors in locker rooms and some of these are never even considered, are often overlooked or, if discovered, are not addressed properly. We will discuss three of these culprits in this article.


The most common malodors in a locker room are the result of mold, mildew and bacteria, as mentioned earlier. Usually these develop on walls, floors, in shower areas… and sometimes in HVAC systems, one of those areas often overlooked. Mold spores are everywhere, and because locker rooms tend to be damp, spores can thrive in several places. What we often don’t realize is that mold spores like damp areas, but they like dark areas as well. The combination — dark and damp — provides a perfect setting.

Because of this, mold can often find a comfy home on the coils or drip pans of HVAC systems, which are damp and dark areas. As it grows, it can release toxins that mar indoor air quality, which can be dangerous as well as cause malodors. Further, the mold can develop in air handlers that connect to the ductwork of the ventilation system, distribute air through the locker room and return it to the HVAC system. So in a sense, the ventilation system, which we would hope would prevent odor problems, actually turns out to be a culprit.

Unlike the other solutions we shall offer, this one does require calling in HVAC experts. Invariably, they will use ultraviolet (UV) lights and other detection equipment to see if mold or other contaminants that can cause odors are present. They will also need access to special cleaning agents that can clean ductwork, vents, coils and air handlers to kill the contaminants…and with them the locker room odors.


When managers and cleaning workers are looking for where an odor may be coming from, they are often looking at grout and tile around restroom fixtures, showers, floors, etc. While these are some of the most common areas for our culprits — mold, mildew and bacteria — another area that should be investigated is the ceiling. Locker rooms, by their nature, are damp and humid places even when an effective and clean ventilation system is in place. This humidity drifts up to the ceiling, and because the ceilings in a locker room are rarely — if ever — cleaned, the humidity becomes a breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria.

There are two reasons ceilings are not cleaned: one, in most cases the only time managers and custodial workers even consider cleaning a locker room ceiling is if the room is to be painted, so it’s simply not on the cleaning agenda; second, cleaning a ceiling is a messy, time-consuming and potentially dangerous job.

While they were not available when I was in the cleaning business, an option managers and custodial workers can consider to clean ceilings, as well as walls and floors, are indoor pressure-cleaning systems (or what are referred to as spray-and-vac cleaning systems). The term “spray-and-vac” was coined by ISSA, the largest cleaning association for the professional cleaning industry. It does not refer to a specific brand or manufacturer of indoor pressure washing systems; further, there are different manufacturers making equipment that falls into this product category. According to Wikipedia, “Spray-and-vac cleaning is a ‘no-touch’ method…used in professional cleaning in which a pressurized, diluted cleaning solution is applied to soiled or contaminated surfaces. The area is then rinsed…followed by vacuum suctioning that removes the applied liquid along with the suspended solids and dissolved contaminants that have been removed from the surface.”


We cleaned private schools, most of which closed in late May or early June and reopened in September. With no students there was no reason to clean locker rooms. While they may have been fresh and clean when school closed, by September it was not uncommon for some serious odor problems to greet us. These odors not only impacted the locker rooms, but often they found their way throughout the school.

The source of the problem, we discovered, were the floor and sink drains in the locker rooms and restrooms. If you examine a pipe drain under a sink, you will see it makes a “j” curve. There is a reason for this. Water collects at the base of the “j,” which prevents sewer odors from being released into the restroom. But over the summer, this water evaporates, which allows sewer odors to be released.

Discovering this, an option frequently used was pouring bleach down the drain. Bleach is not needed and can have a negative environmental impact. More effective options are to do either of the following:

  • Open the faucets and allow water to collect in the drainpipes; this will address the situation but will not prevent it in the future.
  • Pour a small amount of liquid primer or an “ever prime” type liquid down all drains. This prevents evaporation and the liquid remains in the drain to prevent a September surprise.


We really cannot end a discussion on locker room odors without discussing the equipment used to clean these spaces, and most specifically the mops and buckets used to clean floors. If mops and buckets are used, they must be cleaned daily, allowed to air dry, and the mop head changed frequently. Mops and buckets, while they are the oldest floor-cleaning methods, are actually one of the worst because they collect soils so quickly, which are then spread over floor areas as used. Contaminants build up in grout and pores in the floor, which become home to odor-causing bacteria.

One of the simplest ways to address this problem is to transfer from traditional buckets to trolley buckets. Trolley buckets dispense cleaning solution directly to the floor. This way, the solution stays fresh. Also, instead of using a mop, brush the floor with a deck brush to loosen and remove soils. After this, vacuum the floor using a wet/dry vacuum or a system similar to the spray-and-vac machines mentioned earlier. The goal is to keep the cleaning solution fresh at all times and wherever possible, avoid using mops.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .