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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes -- and in the Carpet and the Curtains . . .

By Cheryl Kenny
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page H01

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.

Kathy Houle, shown here with her son, Jack, scoured her house to rid it of the smell of smoke. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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."

Hard Surfaces

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.

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