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How Does Smoke Damage Affect Your Home's Contents?

Smoke Damage
Author: ServiceMaster Restore

Just because your house fire is out and your house is still standing, doesn’t mean that the damage is done. A surprising amount of damage from fire isn’t actually caused by things burning. Instead, it’s from the smoke residue. And that soot and smoke damage can keep worsening, even after the flames are out.

In fact, smoke can affect areas that weren’t even touched by flames. It can spread to rooms where the fire didn’t, and cause damage there. In some wildfires, smoke damage even occurs to nearby buildings that weren’t in the fire, at all!

Smoke brings high temperatures from the fire along with it, but that’s not the only reason it’s harmful. It’s the acidic content, as well. Between the heat and the corrosive properties, smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death for indoor fires, and one of the biggest obstacles to getting your home and your life back in order following a fire.

Where there’s smoke, there’s usually soot. Soot is another byproduct of fires. It’s a powder-like or greasy substance made mostly from carbon. Soot presents many health hazards, and prolonged exposure carries a risk of cancer, including skin cancer, and cancer of the esophagus, lungs, and bladder. It’s one of the reasons that diesel exhaust is dangerous, and it’s responsible for over a quarter of hazardous air pollution on Earth. It goes without saying that you don’t want soot in your home.

Smoke and soot can affect your home’s structure and belongings alike. It’s different than the harm that fire causes and fixing it can be one of the most lasting and difficult aspects of fire damage cleanup. Fortunately, there are things you can do about it—and experts you can call.

How Does Smoke Affect Your Home?

Smoke often contains several different acids. The makeup may vary depending on the fire that caused it, but you can usually count on acids related to carbon and sulfur. Scientists still occasionally make new discoveries about what smoke is made of. As recently as 2011, researchers discovered a kind of acid in smoke that they hadn’t previously known about. And even smoke that isn’t acidic can still cause harm.

One big effect is on the metal in your home. Depending on the kind of smoke and the kind of metal, this effect can range from tarnishing to outright corrosion. From small details like doorknobs and kitchen fittings to structural elements and even the pipes in your home, smoke poses a danger. Corroded pipes are at risk of leaking and causing water damage on top of everything else.

Smoke also causes permanent discoloration of porous materials that are often used in home construction. This includes plastics, and marble that may be used in countertops or tiles. This discoloration can start to occur in just minutes. Likewise, hardwood floors are porous, giving smoke plenty of places to hide. In some cases, a good mopping and deodorizing can work. But many times, the floor needs to be refinished or even replaced.

Even if your floors and walls aren’t porous, they may still be at risk. Smoke odor and permanent stains can set in on walls and synthetic carpet. Acidic residues left behind may eat away at wall coverings like paint or wallpaper.

You can do a little bit to reduce the harm on your own. To start, rub any affected metal surfaces with olive oil or vegetable oil and leave it there. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it will slow or prevent pitting and discoloration until professionals can arrive for a full cleaning.

Common Items That May Be Damaged By Smoke

  • Carpets. Carpets and rugs made of synthetics may be permanently stained in a matter of days. Cleaning is often possible, if the carpets aren’t damaged by heat, or water, or any chemical agents used to fight the fire. But the cleaning must be done before the damage becomes permanent.
  • Curtains and upholstery. Curtains and upholstery can similarly yellow. Cleaning fabrics often requires special tools like alkaline cleaners. Trying to vacuum these things can actually spread soot instead of cleaning it. It’s best to call in experts who know how to clean smoke damage.
  • Furniture. Smoke can harm your furniture, whether it’s made of porous wood or corrodible metal. Like upholstery, the other parts of your furniture are at risk if you use the wrong cleaning agent. It’s easy to damage varnishes, paints, and wood stains when trying to clean smoke damage, just as it’s easy to rust metal.
  • Clothing. Soot can be stuck in clothing, just like other fabrics around the home. Like those other fabrics, they may require special cleaning techniques and solutions, and time is still of the essence before staining becomes permanent. Tossing clothing into the washing machine may cause smoke odor to set, and it may not get all of the sooty oil out of your clothing. Chemicals left behind in soot can cause skin irritation, making it all the more important to get them cleaned thoroughly, promptly, and professionally. Some dry cleaners will handle smoke-damaged clothes, but not all of them do.
  • Appliances. The corrosive effects of smoke extend to the inside and outside of your appliances. Smoke odor can permeate the interior of your refrigerator and other appliances, and the caustic effects of smoke residue can damage the electrical systems.
  • Plastic. Plastic is highly porous, which means that it collects more soot than just about anything else in your home. Plastics will start discoloring in minutes. If possible, wipe them down with an alkaline cleaning solution. Most things should wait for professionals, but if you can act on your plastic and PVC, you should do so quickly.
  • Porcelain. Porcelain (like bathroom fixtures) can discolor within hours if not cleaned. Wipe residue away to prevent etching. You may also want to wash it with soap. Both of those measures can buy you some time before the professionals come in.

How to Clean Smoke Damage

Depending on the material, you have anywhere from minutes to days to begin smoke damage restoration. Generally, the sooner you can deal with it, the better. But there is a list of priorities, as well as information on how to clean smoke damage from some common household items. Some materials are more resistant to soot than others, which means time is precious when trying to clean up after a fire. The best thing is to call in the experts, but in the meantime, here are some tips:

  • Within minutes you should wash as much porous material as you can. Clean porous flooring like tile, marble, and wood, as well as plastic and PVC. Damage to these materials becomes irreversible very quickly. For plastics, use an alkaline cleaner. Wood can be cleaned with a vegetable oil soap like Murphey Oil Soap.
  • Within hours metal starts to corrode. Wipe metal down with cooking oil to buy yourself some time for a more thorough cleaning. The oil will act as a barrier, helping prevent further damage and rust. Wood furniture may start to lose its finish, so clean it as much as you can. A dry cleaning sponge, found in the paint section of most stores, can help here. For finished wood, an all-purpose cleaner can help you stave off damage until the pros arrive. Porcelain fixtures start staining during this time, so wipe them down and clean them with soap if possible.
  • Within days you start seeing permanent discoloration to fabrics like clothing, upholstery, curtains, and carpeting. You may start seeing discoloration on your walls, as well. It may be tempting to vacuum these things, but most household vacuum cleaners aren’t powerful enough. Instead of cleaning soot, they’ll simply transfer it to the next thing you try to vacuum.
  • As soon as possible you should call restoration professionals. Cleanup and restoration experts have special equipment like alkaline cleaners, HEPA vacuums, and protective clothing to save as much as possible as fast as they can.
  • Don’t try to wash papered or painted walls on your own, clean carpet, or touch anything sooty with your bare skin. (Instead, wear rubber gloves, to prevent the transfer of oil from your skin setting the soot.) Trying to clean certain things without the correct equipment can worsen the problem and exposing your skin to soot can be a health hazard, as well as spreading soot to other parts of your home.

What Can Be Salvaged From Smoke Damage?

Whether something is salvageable depends greatly on what it is and how quickly it’s cleaned. Many plastics, PVCs, and metals will likely need to be replaced. But a trained professional can quickly evaluate what’s salvageable, and what’s a waste of time to restore.

Bringing in a pro isn’t just about getting the proper equipment to save your belongings. It’s about having someone there who knows how smoke affects things, and how quickly. It’s about someone who can look at the tile floor and know if it can be saved, or if that time is better spent trying to save your metal appliances. It’s about having enough hands to do both, if possible. The fact of the matter is that getting smoke damage restoration experts into your house as soon as possible is the best way to save as much of your home as possible.

Avoid Costly Damage to Your Home

Calling a ServiceMaster Restore professional as soon as possible can help you assess the damage to your home, prevent that damage from worsening, and head off any problems that could affect your family’s well-being. Insurance often helps with the cost, and our professionals’ expertise about what can and can’t be salvaged will help with the overall cost, in the long run.

Our network of local experts are ready to help, and they have the experience and the equipment needed to help. Contacting your nearest ServiceMaster Restore location quickly can make the difference when it comes to reducing the effects of smoke and soot.