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Controlling Smoke Odor


This house is filled with smoke throughout, even though it was a very small fire.

One of the most difficult problems to remedy after a fire is the smell of smoke. For many people, smoke smell is a persistent and offensive odor, so it is a high priority in our restoration efforts.

Source of the Odor

Many people assume all smoke is the same gray or black substance. That is not true. Smoke composition can be affected by temperature, oxygen content, moisture, fuel type, and other factors. Every fire is different, and cleaning techniques should be customized to the smoke. The coverage of smoke in a house varies to some degree, but even a small fire can distribute smoke throughout the house. Smoke particles embed in the microscopic pores of walls, ceilings, and upholstery, then begin to gas off their familiar and unpleasant odor.

Eliminating Smoke Odor

While many products claim to be the magic bullet, effective smoke odor control is a delicate balance of available methods. A professional restorer uses multiple techniques in moderation and understands that each one has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Source Removal - Physical removal of smoke residue is the first and most important step. Ideally, if all the smoke particles could be removed by cleaning, there would be no need for further action. However, this is almost never possible.

  • Oxidizer - Smoke particles are largely carbon-based, and will disintegrate when oxidized. There are a variety of oxidizing agents available: airborne ozone or hydroxyl, liquid sprays, chemical fogs, and others. This method also has limitations, though. For example, many common household materials are carbon-based (plastics and rubbers, for example) and can break when exposed to these agents.

  • Encapsulating Sealer - Even after cleaning and oxidization, some smoke residue will remain in wood, textiles, and other porous materials. Often sealing it in place is the only way to prevent its odor from gassing. A variety of sealers are available, most commonly in the form of odor-blocking paint. They can be effective at trapping light odors, but can also temporarily mask heavy odors in a surface that was not properly treated, leaving them behind to leach through later.

  • Odor Counteractant - Odor counteractants are the least effective solution, in the permanent sense. This is the category that odor control chemicals available at retail stores fall into. They work by modifying or masking odor, but do not eliminate or prevent it. They have a use in alleviating odors until a more permanent solution can be effected. Sometimes, unfortunately, the odor cannot be completely removed, and counteractants are the only solution for the residual smell.

You can see that the challenge of cleaning smoke smell is not as simple as spraying a chemical or using a cleaner. Proper treatment requires experience, familiarity with the individual methods, and an understanding of the working chemistry. Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of trial and error, too.


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