It’s easy to feel defeated in the aftermath of a house fire. The sight of charred wood and the acrid smell of smoke are overwhelming. But in many instances, you can salvage your home and your personal belongings if you know how to clean smoke damage.
Assess the Extent of the Smoke Damage
IMPORTANT: Do not enter the structure until it’s deemed safe by a professional.
After a professional inspector has surveyed the structural damage caused by the fire, you can look through your home to gauge the amount of smoke damage. Walk from room to room, noting where the damage is the worst and any areas unaffected.
The extent of the smoke damage is related to how long the fire burned and the smoke’s origin (e.g., fuel-oil, oil, protein, low-temperature fire, high-temperature fire).
Keep in mind that smoke damage can occur in areas not even close to the fire, and ceilings often have extensive damage that is overlooked compared to the walls.
What Does Smoke Damage Look Like?
Before you call your insurance company, it’s important to identify the parts of your home affected by the fire. Smoke forms and travels quickly, so even a small fire can cause a significant amount of smoke damage. And the damage can be seen in areas of the home away from the fire’s origin.
Signs of smoke damage appear as follows:
- Blackened or soot-streaked areas on walls and ceilings
- Black dust covering surfaces
- Discolored paint or finishes
Open An Insurance Claim
After assessing your home’s smoke and fire damage, you must contact your insurance company as soon as possible.
IMPORTANT: Don’t delay. Some companies void claims if they aren’t filed timely.
A customer service representative will discuss your coverage, open a claim, and assign an adjuster. Some policies cover the cost of professional cleaning and temporary shelter if needed.
Projects To Tackle Before Cleaning
Now that you’ve assessed the extent of the damage and talked to your insurance company, you’re likely chomping at the bit to start cleaning. Before tackling the smoke damage directly, there are a few things you need to take care of first.
- Remove any valuables from the home that don’t appear to be damaged. Put them in a secure spot for safekeeping, taking note of where you’ve stored them.
- If dry and relatively warm outside, ventilate the house to dissipate the smoke odor. Open doors and windows and use fans to bring in fresh air and move the polluted air out of your home.
- Block off rooms unaffected by the fire. Either keep doors closed or use plastic sheeting and tape off the doorways.
- Clean out the pantry and cupboards, discarding open food packages.
- If your electricity is shut off, clean the fridge and freezer and prop all the doors open.
- Move upholstered furniture outside where it can sit in the sun and deodorize.
Determine If You Need Professional Help
Some people think they can DIY almost any project, but in this case you must carefully consider the size and dangers of the task.
The good news is, If you had a small fire with only minor smoke damage – think kitchen grease fire or a candle was knocked over and quickly extinguished – you can likely do the work yourself.
However, if the fire was extensive, with a lot of smoke damage, the cleanup may be best left to the professionals at a fire damage restoration company. You can easily cause further damage to your home and risk putting your health in danger if you aren’t careful.
If you aren’t sure if you need help, consult a local remediation company, especially if your homeowner’s policy covers the cost of restoration services.
Many restoration companies will immediately look at your home free of charge. They are trained in the proper smoke removal methods and have the equipment to protect technicians from smoke residue.
Are There Items You Can’t Clean?
Fortunately, you can clean many of your smoke-damaged items. Items that are charred or burnt may not be salvageable.
You can wipe down non-porous items and usually wash porous items like curtains, clothing, bedding, and upholstery to remove harmful smoke chemicals, and odor. If the smoke damage is extensive, cleaning specific items may take numerous washings or even professional dry-cleaning. You’ll have to determine whether all that effort is worth salvaging some items or whether it’s easier and more cost-effective to throw them out and replace them.
Supplies Needed to Clean Smoke Damage
- Rubber gloves
- Goggles to protect eyes
- Mask to protect lungs
- Dry-cleaning sponges (also called chemical sponges)
- Two buckets
- Hot water
- Cleaners such as commercial soot remover, vinegar, bleach, rubbing alcohol, or paint thinner
- Trisodium phosphate or liquid soap for degreasing
- Rags or microfiber cloths
- Vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter
Steps For Cleaning Smoke Damage After a Fire
Cleaning smoke damage is complicated. Inhaling the smoke can damage your lungs, and the smoke causes odor, discoloration, and corrosion that is difficult to remove.
You must take all the safety precautions necessary and do a thorough job while cleaning.
Vacuum Ash and Soot
The first cleaning process step is vacuuming loose soot and ash throughout the house using a vacuum fitted with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. You can use your vacuum or rent an industrial one. If you are using your own, use the upholstery or handheld brush attachment to minimize spreading soot around.
Be gentle as you’re vacuuming to prevent pushing soot and ash into floorboards, carpets, upholstery, etc. Once you’ve removed as much as possible, you can now move to cleaning the walls, ceiling, floors, and other surfaces.
Clean Walls and Ceilings
Cleaning your walls and ceilings is a four-step process. You’ll use a dry sponge to remove smoke, then a cleaning solution and a degreaser to clean soot, and finish with a rinse of clean water.
- Remove the bulk of the smoke using sponges specifically made for smoke restoration projects. Take the sponge and rub it softly on the affected areas. Never use the same spot on the sponge for more than a few passes, and always use it dry. Continue rotating the sponge until the entire thing is blackened. Then grab a new sponge or cut the sponge’s top layer off with a sharp knife.
- Mix your cleaning solution in warm water, and use rags to wipe the drywall. Once your rag gets dirty, switch to a new one.
- After using the cleaning solution, use trisodium phosphate or liquid soap in hot water to scrub the oil-soluble smoke and soot particles from the walls. Once your rag gets dirty, switch to a new one. A standard concentration is one tablespoon of TSP per gallon of warm water.
- Rinse the walls with clean, hot water to remove any cleaning product residue. If your rags or sponges pick up gray or black color, repeat steps two and three.
Once the walls are cleaned, follow the same steps on the ceilings. Use a step ladder to reach the higher surface, and keep in mind they may be harder to clean than the walls.
Tips for Cleaning Walls and Ceilings
- Focus on small sections at a time.
- Work from the floor up toward the ceiling to prevent streaking.
- Regularly change the cleaning solution and rinse water.
Clean Windows & Other Glass Surfaces
Windows are significantly more straightforward to clean than walls and ceilings. Clean the windows using a commercial soot cleaner or a vinegar and water solution. Then use a degreaser to remove any film or smoke residue left.
Wash Smoke Residue From Floors
Gently scrub hard flooring—hardwood, laminate, linoleum, or tile—with warm water and dish soap to remove the smoke and soot residue. Rinse with clean water. Dry hardwood floors quickly to avoid water damage.
Start by vacuuming your carpets to remove loose soot. If there isn’t any soot stains or discoloration from the smoke, sprinkle the carpets with baking soda and allow it to set overnight before vacuuming it. The baking soda will help deodorize the carpet. If there is staining or discoloration, or the smoke odor is intense, you can shampoo the carpets to get a deeper clean.
Clean Smoke-Damaged Upholstered Furniture
There are different ways to clean upholstered furniture to remove smoke damage.
- Sprinkle the upholstery with baking soda, let it sit for 24 hours, vacuum, and repeat as necessary.
- Remove cushion covers and wash them in your washing machine using cold water. Hang the covers outside to dry where the breeze and sunshine help eliminate odors.
- Lightly spray the cleaned upholstery with a deodorizing product formulated to work on smoke-damaged textiles and fibers.
Clean Smoke-Damaged Wood Furniture & Cabinets
Remove soot and ash from the wood using your vacuum’s handheld attachment, carefully cleaning the grooves and carvings. Then use a dry chemical sponge to wipe away the soot, similar to how we discussed cleaning your walls. Always wipe with the grain to avoid scratching.
After using the chemical sponge, wipe the wood down with a cleaning solution and degreaser if needed. Use a clean damp cloth to remove any remaining residue, and then apply a quality wood conditioner or polish to restore the finish.
Clean Appliances & Other Non-Porous Surfaces
Cleaning your appliances and other hard surfaces like counters is similar to cleaning windows. Start by using a commercial cleaning solution or vinegar and water solution to remove most of the soot. Then use a degreaser to clean the oily smoke residue, and rinse with clean water.
Clean Smoke-Damaged Clothes & Linens
You must clean clothing and linens thoroughly before use, not only because soot and smoke cause damage, but they are also health hazards.
Note: Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on laundering and spot-test the textile before treating.
Wash clothes and linens using a quality, enzyme-based laundry detergent on as hot a cycle as the fabric allows. You can also add a cup of baking soda to the wash to help remove the smoke odor. Use a quality fabric softener or freshener during the rinse cycle (do not use softener on towels), and then hang items outside to dry naturally.
If laundering is ineffective and the smoke smells still linger, contact a local dry cleaner for help.
Get Smoke Smell Out Of Your Books
Books are notorious for trapping and holding smoke smell, so you’ll need to deodorize them too. There are different ways to do this.
- Put your books into a large bag, pour in half a cup of baking soda, and tie the bag closed. Leave the books in the bag for at least eight hours. When you remove them, dust the baking soda off.
- A simpler approach is to open each book, set it on its tail edge, and spread the pages open to allow airflow. It will take much more time to see progress this way, but it can be done outside if the weather permits.
How to Remove Lingering Smoke Odor
After remediating the smoke and soot damage in your home and personal items, you may still notice a smoke smell. The following products can help with odor removal.
- Baking soda naturally absorbs odors. Leave an open box or bowl of baking soda in the affected rooms, similar to how you use it in your fridge to trap odors.
- White vinegar works wonderfully as a natural cleaner and helps eliminate odors. You can spray undiluted vinegar on non-porous surfaces and let it air dry.
- Activated charcoal is another odor absorber that can be left in affected rooms to minimize the smell of smoke. You can use the powdered form or buy linen bags containing activated charcoal.
NOTE: Deodorizing sprays may only provide temporary relief, or, in a worst-case scenario, can react with the smoke odor to create an additional, unpleasant odor.
If none of the above methods eliminate the smoke odor, an ozone generator can break down the smoke molecules. These machines add energy to oxygen (O2) to intentionally create ozone (O3). The ozone then reacts with the smoke molecules, giving them an extra oxygen molecule. The extra oxygen changes the smoke molecules’ structure and removes the smell.
Basic homeowners insurance policies cover smoke and fire damage if the fire is accidental. Your exact coverage depends on the policy, but you should have dwelling and personal property coverage at a minimum.
It depends. If the smoke damage is minimal, it may be safe to stay in the house and clean up the damage simultaneously. If the damage is extensive or the home is structurally unsound, leave immediately and contact a professional restoration company for help.
The cost of having a professional repair the fire and smoke damage depends on the severity of the fire, the location of the damage, and the amount of damage caused. Restoration typically costs homeowners between $3,157 and $29,118, with a US national average of $13,761.
For a more detailed breakdown of restoration costs, refer to our in-depth pricing guide.
You can paint over smoke damage if the area is property cleaned and prepped correctly. Follow the steps above to clean the wall using a cleaning sponge, commercial soot cleaner, and a degreaser. Then prime the wall using a quality solvent-based stain-blocking primer. This type of primer keeps the stain and odor from bleeding through the new paint.
The aftermath of a fire can be overwhelming, especially cleaning up smoke damage. If you need assistance at any point, reach out to the pros for help!
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