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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes — and in the Carpet and the Curtains . . .
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.
Author: Kenny, Cheryl
Date: Mar 17, 2005
Start Page: H.01
Section: HOME
Text Word Count: 1234

It’s the unwanted houseguest that just won’t leave: the stale, lingering odor of tobacco smoke. Getting rid of it can be time- consuming and expensive. Just ask Kathy and David Houle.

Six years ago, the Houles bought a 1947 Colonial in Arlington that had been owned by chain smokers for 25 years. “We were very nervous that we weren’t going to be able to get the smell out,” said Kathy Houle.

Their worries were well founded: It took a year to get rid of the odor.

The couple stripped wallpaper and washed the plaster walls beneath it, then painted. They scoured trim, windows, light fixtures. They scrubbed the mahogany front door, then sealed the wood with tung oil.

They replaced carpeting, the kitchen’s linoleum floor and the dining room’s hardwood — changes they probably would have made without a tobacco problem — but the odor persisted.

They turned to professional cleaners, even having their metal window blinds cleaned and the nicotine-yellowed cords replaced. They hired a chimney sweep to clear cigarette odor from their fireplace. They even had their HVAC ductwork cleaned. “Getting the ducts cleaned was key,” said Houle. “[The cleaners] told me it was some of the worst they’d seen, filled with black gunk. And they said it was from smoking.”

The Houles eventually eliminated the odor, but it took countless hours of labor and thousands of dollars to do it.

A dingy, nicotine film and noxious smells are only a few of the good reasons to rid a home of tobacco odors. The smell can bother people with allergies and other health concerns. It also can discourage those who are trying to quit smoking.

The stench can even make it harder to sell a house. Chris Rhodes, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate, has seen potential home buyers “turn on their heels” when they get a whiff of tobacco. “If a house is pristine but smells like smoke . . . that’s the buyer’s first impression. There is an incredible link between smell and memory,” said Rhodes. Odors are unlikely to be a deal-breaker in Washington’s tight market, he said, but they could delay a sale under more normal circumstances.

Jeff Bishop is a technical adviser for the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, a nonprofit that certifies firms and technicians in cleaning and restoration.

Bishop said smoke odors from cigars, cigarettes and pipes (all about equally hard to get out) are among the most difficult smells to eliminate. Smoke particles are so small — about .01 to 1 micron (a human hair is 75 microns) — that they penetrate the tiniest spaces.

He outlines four principles for removing any odor, including tobacco: get rid of the source, clean all surfaces, neutralize remaining odors and use sealants to cover hard surfaces if necessary.

“Fundamentally, that’s it,” said Bishop, author of 13 books related to cleaning and restoration. “You have to get rid of that film of nicotine to get rid of the odor.”

For walls, fixtures and other hard surfaces, Bishop suggests using cleaners that include an alkaline builder, such as ammonia, and a glycol solvent (look for a chemical name with “glycol” in it, he said). Read labels carefully, because cleaners that work on durable surfaces, such as kitchen counters, may not be appropriate for wood.

For walls and ceilings, washing should be followed by a fresh coat of paint. Bishop recommends starting with a stain-blocking sealer/primer such as Kilz. The undercoat prevents nicotine particles, which are small enough to penetrate latex paint, from bleeding through.

Wood and linoleum floors should be thoroughly scrubbed with appropriate cleaners.

Carpeting should be cleaned by shampooing or steam cleaning. Sometimes even carpet cleaning isn’t enough for tobacco smells, says Jim Sellers, general manager of ServiceMaster of Arlington. “The padding under the carpet may have absorbed the odor, and carpet cleaning does not clean the pad.” In that case, carpet and padding may have to be replaced.

Upholstered furniture should be professionally cleaned and deodorized, Sellers said, because the wrong cleaner could cause colors to bleed. As with carpeting, nicotine may penetrate the furniture’s padding, rendering surface cleaning ineffective.

Henry Head, the ServiceMaster production manager who was part of the team that helped clean the Pentagon after Sept. 11, said dry- cleaning drapes probably won’t eliminate tobacco odor. He suggested that some porous items, such as lampshades, can be cleaned with a “chem sponge,” a dry-cleaning sponge often used to remove soot.

Head said normally only the covers of books must be cleaned. The pages usually will not absorb smoke odors if books are closed and kept in bookcases.

Nicotine odors can get into heating and air conditioning ducts. Tom Keys, president of Atlantic Duct Cleaning Inc. in Sterling, said removing such odors actually is easier when ducts are dirty.

“The best for us is to have the ducts dirty already, so the odors [adhere to] the dust, and we can remove them all together.” If ducts are not dust-coated, nicotine sticks to the metal, requiring contact cleaning — wiping the surface — for effective removal.

Ducts lined with fiberglass insulation require specialized cleaning techniques. Nicotine leaches into insulation, so it is sometimes necessary to replace the insulation or ductwork to remove the smell, Keys said.

Smoke particles also can adhere to the inside of chimneys; thorough cleaning can remove them.

When odors persist after the cleaning is done, it may be necessary to neutralize them.

There are two ways. One is to apply a chemical opposite of the material that is causing the odor, usually through a fogging machine that converts the chemical to a gas for maximum dispersement.

Head questions the effectiveness of those “pairing” chemicals. “To chemically counteract an odor, you must use an exact opposite,” Head notes. “Since every brand of cigarette is slightly different . . . one chemical may not be effective in treating a particular brand.”

However, IICRC’s Bishop maintains that chemical neutralizers cover a broad enough spectrum of odors to make them “fairly effective.”

Bishop and Head agree that ozone oxidation is the most effective way to neutralize smoke odors. In that process, an ozone generator converts oxygen into ozone, destroying odor molecules in the process. High-powered, whole-house generators, which require that everything that survives on oxygen — people, pets, plants — be removed from the home, floods the home with ozone, usually for three days. The cost is roughly $300.

TV infomercials and Internet sites hawk products and devices to eliminate the odor of tobacco. Head, who labels the Internet “the largest source of misinformation on odor issues,” contends that in his 15 years in the business, he has never come across an Internet product that works.

For households with smokers, Bishop recommends a HVAC air filter that catches particles as small as 1 micron. Head said ionizers, which catch particles through an electrostatic charge, reduce airborne smoke particles but do not remove particles already adhered to surfaces.

For short-term exposure to tobacco smoke, Bishop suggests limiting the smoker to one room and placing a small fan near an open window to pull the smoke out.

Smoking outside helps reduce tobacco odor but does not eliminate it: Clothes absorb the smell, which then transfers to closets and drawers.

Kathy Houle has some hard-learned advice: “Don’t buy a house with nicotine if you’re not willing to put time and money into it.”

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