The smoke coming from the homes on a street in the Crystal Oaks subdivision Thursday wasn't a sign of crackling hearth fires, but something much less cheery:
Citrus County Utility Department employees set off a smoke bomb in the sewer system of the tiny neighborhood to sniff out the source of a disgusting stench residents say has bothered them for five years.
Utilities operations supervisor Robert G. Merkel carefully watched the roofs of the nine homes to see whether the smoke passed from the sewer system up through the sewer vent pipes that poke from the top of the homes.
He also inspected inside some of the homes and around them, to make sure sewer gases weren't escaping from a broken connection.
The 9 a.m. test failed to find any leaks.
"Everything went just like clockwork," Merkel said after test was over. "I guess it's back to the drawing board."
Residents of N Entry Oaks Point weren't pleased.
"Bob, something has to be done," said Margaret Knickerbocker, who by now is on a first-name basis with the utilities supervisor and knows about a number of sewer system inspection techniques.
"I walked outside yesterday and it almost killed me," added her husband, Richard Knickerbocker.
"I know we're trying your patience," Merkel replied. "We'll get to the bottom of this."
Merkel has put video cameras in the sewer system and installed a chemical device designed to reduce the stink. Nothing so far has been able to pinpoint the source.
Knickerbocker and his wife said the noisome smell has been a mystery for years. It comes up during the summer and winter, on windy and still days, day or night.
Indeed, a faint sewer smell was present Thursday morning, though not as bad as it can be sometimes, residents said.
"It's like when you go to the dentist and your teeth stop hurting," said George Smith, who has lived at the bottom of the gently sloping street since 1990. "It's never as bad when we bring people out here."
The smell is variously described as rotten eggs or chemicals or just plain raw sewage. Whatever it is, it stinks.
"It can be pretty gross," said Connie Taylor, a two-year resident of the block. "I thought something crawled up (in the sewer system) and died one day."
Some neighborhood residents suspect the lift station which is a few hundred yards south of the neighborhood, a theory Merkel discounts. Others think there were problems when the sewer system was installed.
No matter what the cause, the stink has driven residents to keep their doors and windows tightly sealed day and night.
The Knickerbockers considered building a pool, but decided against it after spending a stomach-churning night at a pool at a neighbors house.
"Sometimes it make you want to throw up," Richard Knickerbocker said.
Residents aren't really angry with the county. They just want something done. If there is a sore point, it's worries about the health effects of the smell.
"They won't tell me what the health implications are," said Margaret Knickerbocker, a nurse who retired with her husband and moved to Citrus from Long Island last year. "Nobody wants to give me an answer."