Incorporating the “Why” Into Odor Removal Training

In my 22 years of property restoration experience, I’ve had both the opportunity to be taught and to teach. I often find what’s missing from our conversations today is the “why.” Now I’m not as seasoned as a lot of folks in our industry, but I had the definitive trial-by-fire education associated with a boomer generation of leaders. Often, most of my early training was conducted on the job. That was perfect for my young adult mind, which was ripe with ADHD and burned out from too many hours at a desk in high school. It was very much so an environment where your success was measured by whether or not you could follow instructions.

“Go clean this and remember it’s not clean until it passes the white glove test.” This was a common line by one of my early field supervisors. As I’ve stopped spending all my hours on jobsites and transitioned into a leadership position, I’ve learned that this method of on-the-job training isn’t sufficient anymore. Quite often our younger Millennial and Gen Z technicians will refuse to tackle a given task until they understand the “why.” This was annoying to me at first because all I wanted to do was train as I was trained. It seemed easier to simply bark orders than it did to spend additional time explaining the “why.”

Years later, I can tell you this was very short sighted. Explaining the “why” behind each of these steps to odor mitigation meant I didn’t have to repeat myself. The knowledge just stuck. So, here’s the “why” behind these basic steps of odor removal.

With odor removal, I tend to adhere to the following basic steps. The beautiful thing about teaching it in this way is you can give technicians the method separate from what the actual odor is. The method doesn’t change. Whether it’s a fire, unpleasant cooking odors, or a pack of cats left unattended for far too long, the process is universal. For a deep dive on the why behind how our nose and brain works, as well as a great reference on how to conduct inspections, please read Patrick Moffett’s article titled “Odor Neutralization – Assessment & Removal” found on scrt.org.

STEP 1: SOURCE REMOVAL – DEMOLITION

I usually define this for our field techs as the stuff I don’t have to tell you to remove. For a fire restoration project, this is the charred lumber. For the unpleasant cooking odors, it’s the tin foil wrapped around the stove and sometimes the cabinets and stove itself. For the cats, it’s removing the carpeted flooring. The goal here is to remove whatever you can see that’s contributing to the odor. It’s usually pretty obvious and pretty easy to teach.

STEP 2: SOURCE REMOVAL – CLEANING

I usually define this as the stuff you can’t see easily with the naked eye. I always refer to this as source removal, never cleaning alone. This helps cement in the young restorers’ brain why this step is so important. We’re not needlessly cleaning; we’re removing the source of the odor. Additionally, great care should be exercised in selecting the correct cleaning method/agent based on the odor. For a fire restoration project, this is the combustion particles you don’t see until you test with a dry sponge. For the unpleasant cooking odors, this is the cabinetry that’s not visually affected. For the cats, this is the concrete subfloor that needs a good clean.

Most sources of odors cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is why it’s important to rely on a comprehensive cleaning method to ensure success. Commonly this is top to bottom, starting at the furthest point from the room exit, cleaning three times using the HEPA sandwich method. I find it’s crucial to walk new technicians through an entire room at least once. This will set the expectation for how long the work will actually take. Far too often, new technicians will be in a rush to clean and not do a great job. I always make sure to emphasize that if you have a lingering odor at the end of following the process, you may have missed something at step one but it’s more likely you missed it at step two. Verification that step two is done successfully is very important. This is where my predecessors got it right. Checking for the effectiveness of your cleaning can be done using a variety of methods from basic (ex. white glove, chem sponge) to advanced (ex. ATP testing).

STEP 3: ODOR TREATMENTS

Only after you’ve completed removing the source of the odor can you continue on to performing some sort of odor treatment. At this point, you should have made a substantial impact in the odor already. I’m always very clear to convey the job of an odor treatment is to counteract the source of the odors we cannot remove. Far too often young restorers will rush to step three to find the odor they are trying to treat is still persisting. To drive this point home, I’ll say over and over again, “We do not mask odors, we eliminate them.” For odor treatments, there is no shortage of options for us as restorers here. Quite often we’ll perform some sort of odor treatment as a part of our cleaning. For fire restoration, we’ll often use a smoke odor counteractant in our cleaning solution, and we have thermal fogging, hydroxyl generators, and ozone generators as options. For our unpleasant cooking odors, we’ll use a separate odor counteractant for protein odors, and we have the same suite of tools with thermal fogging, hydroxyls, and ozone. For the cats, we’ll likely perform some sort of enzyme treatment on the subfloor in addition to using hydroxyls or ozone. For a deep dive on the difference between ozone and hydroxyls, please read Michael Pinto’s article titled “Hydroxyl Radicals Hype or Reality” on the Wonder Makers Environmental website.

STEP 4: SEALING

The last step of the process would be to seal in any odors you couldn’t remove or treat. This step is usually reserved specifically for structural building materials that cannot be removed as a part of step one (subfloors, framing, etc.) and is not always necessary to perform. I often tell our technicians to only use sealers when they have exhausted all other options. Many times, I’ll be asked, “Why don’t we simply use sealers on every job?” In a world where the general population is becoming more and more chemically sensitive, if we don’t need to, we shouldn’t. I’ll also explain that sealers are often used by less-than-competent restorers to cover the fact that they’re not true professionals who know the value of cleaning. Our job as restorers is to restore the property with the least amount of impact to both the structure and the pocketbook. For fire restoration and unpleasant cooking odors, we’ll usually apply a sealer to exposed framing. For our cats, we’ll apply a sealer to the subfloor areas that were the most impacted.

I’ve been saying for years now, “He who can educate the most technicians in the least amount of time stands to find great success in our industry.” Taking the time to engage in training our team here at Premier Restoration Hawaii has generated the greatest amount of ROI of anything we’ve ever done. That includes purchasing equipment! I would encourage all leaders and owners in restoration companies to take time to explain the “why.” This will likely result in a more engaged workforce that requires less oversight.

Anthony Nelson

Anthony Nelson is the President of Premier Restoration Hawaii, a full-service mitigation and restoration company providing a one-stop solution for water, fire, mold, and wind damage to residential and commercial properties. Anthony brings 20 years of industry experience to the PRH team. He joined the company in 2009 as an estimator and was promoted to operations manager within a year. In this role, he aggressively grew the company from eight to 55 employees by 2016, when he was promoted to senior vice president of operations. Anthony has unified PRH’s 150-plus employees across the company’s four different island locations on Oahu, Maui, Hawai’i Island, and Kauai as one cohesive team.

Anthony holds many professional certifications and accreditations including Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC) Master Water Restorer, IICRC Master Fires and Smoke Restorer, Building Sciences Institute (BSI) Certified Building Thermographer, and the Linders Health Institute Infection Control Risk Assessment Accreditation. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cleary University, Michigan. He is a resident of Makawao, Maui.

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