How To Eliminate Smoke Odors From A Home

After picture-cigarette smoke removal from home

After Picture-My no longer stinky living room

So there are a lot of different tutorials out there for eliminating cigarette smoke odors from a home. I know. I read them all. The thing is, a lot of them are giving short-term, quick-fix advice. If you read an article and it suggests using latex primer, run far away. If it says just to wash the walls and you’ll be fine, it’s just plain wrong. This blog led me in the right direction,  but I did things a bit differently based on some information I read on professional painting forums. Removing smoke odors from a house is not easy. It sucks, actually. But, if you really want to increase the value of a home, or if you find a deal on a well-built house that has been smoked in before, come sit next to me and I’ll tell you the real way to handle it. You will definitely get filthy dirty and sore. but it’s worth it. This is a lot of information, but I just wanted to give people a good, step-by-step guide for how to remove the smell.

Before- Smoke Damaged Walls. Can we just say, blech

Step One: If you’re buying the house, you should try to negotiate the replacement of appliances. I tried to clean our range/oven and even used it for about six months. I took it all apart and cleaned as much as I could, but the smoke smell got deep into the crevices around the oven and I just couldn’t remove it. I ended up killing the microwave trying to clean all the smoke smell out of it and the fridge died after about a month because of how nasty the coils were. Plus, the smell just wouldn’t really go away, even with all the cleaning. We didn’t have the previous owners replace the appliances, figuring that we could clean them. Had I known, I would have insisted they replace or at least leave an appliance allowance because that smell just won’t come out of them and I had to spend a nice chunk of change replacing them all anyway. I would also suggest trying to get the owners to pay for vent cleaning as well. Some homeowners might try to get the house painted/cleaned as part of the sell as well. Avoid that if you can. A lot of these companies will not perform the kind of deep cleaning that is needed and many will use latex paint to go over the walls as a short-term fix. Latex paint does nothing long-term to mitigate the smell and will make cleaning the walls impossible. The walls will still smell and after a few weeks, the smoky yellowing will seep through as well, so it really does nothing. It’s tough to sell a smoky house and they will probably agree to most of these things if the house is severely damaged by smoke. 

Step Two: Don’t use your vents for air-conditioning/heating the house if at all possible. You’re going to want to hire somebody to clean out your vents and furnace, but not until you’ve gotten rid of all the smelly culprits. If you have to use your furnace, get it cleaned first thing to avoid blowing smoke around the house, but work fast to get the smell out of the flooring and walls to avoid moving more smoke odors through your vents. At the very least, remove or deep clean all carpeting since so much of the odor is held in the carpet.

Step Three: You’re going to want to do is to remove every last bit of upholstery or carpeting in every area affected by the smoke smell. Yes, carpet cleaning will help. But smoke odors are prolific and they will sink down into the carpet pad and even into the subflooring below. A carpet cleaner is never going to be able to touch that. In our home, we had discoloration of the subflooring that I had to prime over to remove all the smell in the area. You really should strongly consider getting rid of the carpet. If you bought this home to remodel like we did, you might have been planning on that regardless. You can hire somebody to do this, but it is something you can tackle yourself. The most time consuming part is going around and pulling out/nailing carpets staples back into the floor. Curtains must go as well as any other upholstered material in the home. Any fabric material is going to hold a lot of smell.

Highly recommend this product for cleaning smoke smell out of cabinets. Available at Home Depot:

Nothing works better for cleaning walls than this. Available at Home Depot:

Step Four: Go after the walls and ceiling with TSP. I recommend first taking off your outlet covers (a must) and trim (recommended). If you’re going to be using a shellac primer on your walls, it is very drippy and it will be hard to protect your trim. Not impossible, but hard. At the very least, scrub down your trim with Krud Kutter. For the walls and ceiling, mix TSP per the manufacturer’s directions with water and start cleaning your ceiling first, then the walls. I used the Libman Roller Mop and had a lot of success with it. My method was this: I had one bucket of clean water, and one bucket of TSP. I would get my mop soaked with the TSP mixture and clean the walls from top to bottom and the ceiling from the center out. When I would re-wet my mop, I would first rinse my mop head in the plain water first to avoid getting my TSP water too dirty, and then get more TSP water and keep going until my buckets started looking too murky. I’d replace both buckets and keep going. When the mop heads got filthy, I replaced them. We washed the walls and ceiling in the living room, which was the most smoke-damaged about five times. Hard work, but well worth it. Most of the smoke smell had dissipated once we did this. You will want to wear eye-protection when working on your ceiling, because that crap can and will drip into your mouth and yes, it is exactly as nasty as it sounds

Step Five: Clean all surfaces other than the walls with Krud Kutter or TSP, such as the windows, outlet covers, trim, etc. We cleaned each window five times before we got rid of the smell. My windows are oak-trimmed and although the smell took a while to come out, it did eventually come out of my windows. Wood doesn’t soak as much of the smoke-odors in as drywall does. Also, any wood that you are not going to paint will benefit from being re-stained once cleaned. The stain will refresh the wood and inhibit any smoky smell from coming out. Again, wood doesn’t hold the smell like drywall, but it still helped to re-stain, IMO.

My baby-Seriously, I wouldn’t be able to live in my house short of tearing out all the drywall and replacing it if it wasn’t for this stuff.

Step Six: Prime all surfaces that you will be re-painting with Zinnser’s B-I-N Shellac. For heavy smoke smells, it may be necessary to paint the subfloor as well to seal in smells from there. If you’re going to be painting your kitchen and bathroom cabinets, this shellac works well on wood as well as drywall, and is a good primer for wood surfaces such as cabinets and is actually recommended for this use as well even if you aren’t trying to get rid of smoke. I’ll post a tutorial on re-painting kitchen and bathroom cabinets in a separate post.

Step Seven: Replace all your lights. The insulation around lighting holds in a lot of smell and it can’t really come out. Plus, if you’re house is more than ten years old, the lighting will probably be dated anyway, so updating it will really help update the entire look of your house. If you have bathroom fans, it might be worth replacing them because they can hold a lot of smell in their motors. I recommend removing all the loose insulation around these fans as well in the attic (our insulation was brown above our  bathroom fans, so we got rid of the damaged insulation and replaced it). Yes, you can do electrical work. I believe in you.

Step Eight: Now that you’ve removed/sealed in most of the smoke-smell and if you’ve been able to avoid using your vents in the meantime, now is a good time to get your vents cleaned. Have a duct cleaning company clean them out. I also removed my metal vent covers and soaked them in TSP and spray painted them to update them as well. While they were off, I cleaned the duct with a rag and crud cutter as far as I could reach with a fancy hanger/rag thingy that I made just for that purpose 🙂

Step Nine: Now that the main smell is all gone, you might notice light smells from specific areas. Our light switch boxes were smelly culprits so I cleaned them all out by turning off the power and removing the plate and loosening the switches from the box. I then removed the little bits of drywall that had fallen into the box  when the house was built and I wiped down the inside of the box with a rag and the insulated wires as well. Again, all with the power off. Because I don’t want to be crispy.

Step Ten: Sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor/ha ha, just kidding, now you actually get to remodel your not-so-stinky house.

Congratulations! Your house should now smell nice. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but if you’re planning on remodeling a house, you would be replacing flooring, painting walls, replacing light fixtures, and updating cabinets anyway. If you are mitigating smoke, the extra step is to clean all the surfaces and seal in the smell. However, you might be able to get a good deal on a house to be able to afford those updates that may be unaffordable in a comparable house without smoke damage.

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