Over the years tobacco smoking and the aftermath of this activity have become favorite subjects of concern for a wide variety of media, and individuals as well. Reformed smokers tend to be the biggest complainers. I, myself, smoked non-filtered Lucky Strike or Pall Mall while I was in the Marine Corps. Filtered cigarettes are frowned upon because they cannot be “field stripped.” You field strip a cigarette butt by tearing the paper apart, removing the tobacco and disbursing to the wind and then balling up the paper and discarding it. This way there is very little trace that the enemy can detect.
I managed to quit some 25 years ago at a time when you could smoke essentially anywhere. This was a number of years prior to my indoor air quality career and in a relatively high pressure job. There were times when I might have a cigarette burning in an ashtray, one perched on the side of my desk and I’m reaching in my breast pocket to light up another. Those were the days when a habit was really a habit. I’m quite thankful that I managed to quit.
Fast forward 20-some years and the restrictions on smoking have reduced the number of smokers and therefore much of the aftermath brought-on by this activity. My purpose in this article is to give some guidance for removing the odor that can linger long after any smoking in a dwelling has stopped.
These are the steps I would take in order to remove long-standing smoke odors from a house.
1) If weather permits, open lots of windows. Fresh air is a good de-odorizer. The greater amount of fresh air provided, the greater the effect on the odorous area.
2) Make coffee and leave the coffee can open. People will often brew coffee to cover up unpleasant odors, but cover-up is not all this does. Coffee beans neutralize odors, so maybe open several cans.
3) Launder or dry clean any fabric materials that can be. It might require more than once to remove all of the odor.
4) If carpets have padding and the carpets are serviceable, remove and discard the padding before attempting to clean the carpets. Sprinkle banking soda over carpets and fabric covered furniture, wait a few hours and then vacuum thoroughly. Baking soda is relatively inexpensive so use enough to have an effect. Some fabrics can react unfavorably with baking soda, so you might need to test that before proceeding. Shampooing the carpets after vacuuming using a hot water deep extraction method can be done to help remove more of the odor.
5) Walls, ceilings and hard floors may have to be washed. Especially if the previous occupant was a heavy smoker, the surfaces could be yellowed due to a tar build-up. Washing these surfaces with a cleaning solution including vinegar will not only reduce the smoke odor, it will likely make the room look brighter. The acid in vinegar cuts through the tar and helps to neutralize the smoke odor. Change the cleaning solution often as it will lose its effectiveness. Using vinegar might make the area smell like a salad for a few days, but that odor will dissipate much sooner than the tobacco smell. Light bulbs should be included in this cleaning as they tend to attract smoke and then release these odors as they heat up when in use.
6) You might want to repaint walls and/or ceilings, but if so do it after the clean-up. It is seldom a good idea to pain over any contamination.
7) If you have a forced-air heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system, it should be thoroughly cleaned to National Air Duct Cleaning Association (NADCA) standards including sanitizing the coils with an EPA registered product. Deodorizing the ducts should also be done.
8) Ozone generators, or ozone machines are often used professionally after fires to rid the area of the smoke and burnt odor and at high levels, have been proven to reduce or eliminate odors of all types, including residual tobacco smoke odors. At high levels, though, ozone is harmful to the lungs, so if this method of odor removal is used, the manufacturers' safety guidelines must be strictly followed. Some older models of air purifiers also contained ozone generators, some of which produce ozone at relatively high levels. Set the air purifier, turn on the fan of the HVAC system and vacate the house. Come back in 24 hours, turn off the air purifier, keep the HVAC fan running, open as many windows as possible and vacate the house for another 24 hours. That should be enough time to dissipate the harmful levels of ozone.
9) Lastly, if there are still lingering odors, equip your HVAC system with carbon treated filters, which will help to absorb odors on a continuing basis. Of course, it might be necessary to repeat some of the above actions to neutralize smoke odors completely.
Let’s hope you do not have to go through all of the above steps in order to create a pleasant indoor air environment, but know that in general, this odor situation can be eliminated with some patience, effort and a bit of knowledge.