AgriLife Extension offers advice on removing smoke odor from houses

COLLEGE STATION – Texas has been plagued by wildfires from Far West Texas to Central Texas to the High Plains, the Hill Country — and even East Texas. While hundreds of homes have been completely destroyed, many more sustained smoke damage.

“The odors from smoke can leave you feeling nauseous or with headaches, as well as an overall sense of annoyance at the constant smoke irritation,” said Janie Harris, Texas AgriLife Extension Service housing and environment specialist. “The smoke infiltrates homes and the lingering odor persists.”

Harris said the odor persists, even after a good scrubbing, due to tiny microscopic particles that cling to walls, furniture, floors and clothing inside the home.

“Removing the smell of smoke can be a difficult job involving time, effort and money,” she said.

Efforts such as burning scented candles and perfumed aerosols only mask the odor temporarily, she said, and while ventilation can help remove some smell, it actually only dilutes the odor.

In order to remove the smell permanently, one must remove the source of the problem, Harris said. Smoke particles tend to get into the smallest cracks and areas, so the odor may linger even after cleaning the house from top to bottom.

“Removing all sources of odors is the only way to ensure the scent will not linger,” she said. “And to do that, you may need to rent an ozone generator or hire a professional to use an ozone generator in order to destroy the smoke molecules that are left behind and are causing the odor.”

The use of an ozone generator requires a temporary evacuation from the home and the rental can be costly, she said.

“If you elect to operate the machine yourself, be sure to follow the safety precautions that accompany the rental machine.”

Emergency management professionals encourage those in areas affected by fire to follow a few basic clean-up procedures. The following helpful tips come from the FEMA website http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=3836:

- Wash and scrub all exterior surfaces, including walls, walks, drives, decks, window and deck screens.

- Wash and disinfect all interior walls and hard surfaces with mild soap or other appropriate cleaning solutions or products and rinse thoroughly. Don’t forget inside cabinets, drawers and closets.

- Launder or dry-clean all clothing. It might take repeated washings to totally eliminate the smell.

- Wash, dust or otherwise clean all household items, including knick-knacks.

- Disinfect and deodorize all carpets, window coverings, upholstered furniture and mattresses with steam or other appropriate equipment.

- Upholstery, fabric window treatments, etc. can be spray-treated with deodorizing products available at most supermarkets, but do not use odor-masking sprays.

- Have heating, ventilating and air-conditioning units and all ductwork professionally cleaned to remove soot, ash and smoke residue. Change filters when you first return to the premises and at least once a month for the first year.

- If aerial fire retardant or firefighting foam residue is present on the house and/or automobiles, use a mild detergent and brushes to scrub and dilute the dried residue and flush it from the surfaces; rinse with clean water. A follow-up with pressure washing may be beneficial but will not replace scrubbing to remove the residue.

- Ash and soot on the ground and vegetation in the vicinity will continue to generate smoke odors and airborne particles when disturbed by air movement. Until the ash and soot are diluted and absorbed by the environment, indoor mechanical air filtration may help minimize the uncomfortable and potentially health-threatening impact of these pollutants.

Depending upon how strong the smoke odors are, one or more of the following methods of cleaning from http://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-clean-smoke-damage/ may be helpful.

- Vinegar: White vinegar cuts through odors naturally. Try wiping down furniture, washable walls, floors, etc. with white vinegar. Also, try placing several bowls of vinegar around the room with the smoke damage, leaving them there for several days. If you can’t stand the smell of vinegar either, try mixing a bit of lavender oil into the bowls to help cut the odor of the vinegar.

- Baking Soda: Baking soda is another natural odor-absorber. Try sprinkling liberal amounts of baking soda over furniture and floors. Leave a few bowls of baking soda around the room for several days to help absorb the odors.

- Febreeze: A popular odor-reducing product sold in many stores, Febreeze uses a chemical compound called cyclodextrin, a sugar-like substance that absorbs odors. Spraying the area down may help to reduce the smoke odor.

- Activated Charcoal: This product, often used as a detoxifying agent, is also a natural odor absorbent. Placing bowls of activated charcoal (powdered form) around the room may help to absorb the smoke odors.

- Fresh Air: In the warmer weather, leave windows and doors open as much as possible. Fresh air will eventually dissipate the smell of smoke.

- Ozone Generators: There are products on the market known as ozone generators which may help in reducing or even eliminating smoke odor. Remember, though, that these expensive products, while effective, will not eliminate the odor completely if it has permeated the carpets, draperies, furnishings, and other materials.

Harris said getting the smoke smell out of clothing can be difficult, also. A suggestion is to try a cup of vinegar in the wash cycle, along with usual detergent. She cautioned, though, that one wash may not remove the smoke odor. If the odor is still present, wash again using the same process.

“If you dry them in a dryer when they smell like smoke, you may set the odor in the clothing,” she said.

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