Long-Term Odor Control

Often when I’m introduced as someone who services the restoration industry, I get a few polite questions: 

  1. What is the restoration industry?
  2. Do you watch the weather channel all day? (Yes!)
  3. What’s the most interesting project have you ever been involved with? (You can substitute “interesting” for “gross” or “disgusting”)

Ultimately, the conversation almost always circles back to a personal issue. For example: Do you have something that’s quick and easy to eliminate pet, sewage, smoking, or cooking odors? 

Although I understand the appeal of a quick and inexpensive solution to malodors, unfortunately there is no silver bullet to addressing odor control thoroughly and properly. This can lead to disappointment for clients hoping for a simple spray or plug-in product to eliminate their problem. However, this can be the springboard for some interesting dialogue on how to ensure a long-term odor control solution. 

Successful odor control practices involve a multi-tiered and detailed approach. The malodor could be the result of one significant event (water damage, sewer backup, trauma or fire) or an ongoing issue (family pet, cooking or smoking). After identifying the underlying issue, the first step always involves removing all source material – visible or non-visible. This is the single most important step to ensure long term odor control success.

Removing particulate and source materials are the keys to success when addressing odors. I recommend keeping it simple by removing  the “big chunks” first and working down to neutralizing smaller pieces. I will break this down further into three key steps and recommendations:

For large odor-causing particulate, such as soot, ash, sewage, body fluids, tar, or other materials of incomplete combustion resting on the surface of a substrate, consider this: 

1.  A good degreaser (botanical or synthetic) is critical in removing source material. Paying attention to detail in this first step will benefit you in the following ways: 

a. Removing the bulk of the material will remove the primary of the source of malodor.b. Liquid odor counteractants can be added to degreasers to enhance their effectiveness.  Contact between the odor counteractant and the source material is needed for neutralization.
c. Bacterial and enzyme-based products work faster when there is less organic material resulting in faster digestion times. A surface free of physical barriers also enables bacteria and enzyme cleaners to quickly penetrate porous materials to digest organic matter within the pores of the substrate.
d. Disinfectants require direct contact with odor-causing bacteria and fungi in order to kill, so a clean surface free from any hiding spaces is a must for successful elimination of these microorganisms.
e. Stain and odor sealants don’t stick very well to dirt, especially over the long term. Clean building materials enhance adhesion of the substrate with stain & odor sealants, resulting in a continuous seal and long-term effective odor control.  

Pro tip: Foaming applicators are effective to extend contact times of degreasers on vertical or overhead surfaces. Longer contact time results in less scrubbing for the technician.

Once the bulky particulate is removed, we can focus our attention on neutralizing smaller material that lingers in the pores of building materials. Examples of this type of particulate could be organic material/sewage from a leaky drainage pipe, urine or fecal residues from a house pet that have penetrated into a concrete floor, or body fluids from a trauma scene.

2. Bacterial and enzyme-based digestion products are ideal for this type of particulate and they need water, time, and moderate temperatures to be successful. 

1. Water: water cuts a pathway to carry the bacteria and enzymes to the organic material; if the bacteria and enzymes don’t come into contact with the organic material, they won’t break it down.
2. Time: time is important as the bacteria and enzymes are similar to those found in our own digestive systems. We need time to digest our food and so do the enzymes and bacteria we use to digest urine, sewage, or other body fluids. (think 24-48 hour increments)
3. Temperature: living organisms like to be comfortable, so don’t store them or apply them in environments that are too cold or too hot.

Ultimately, we are left with extremely small particles that have penetrated into the building structure via air currents, smoke or gases. To make contact with these often invisible or hidden odors, use odor counteractants in the form of a gas or vapor.

3. Some examples of these technologies can be botanical dry vapor, oxidative gases, ULV/fine mist spraying of botanical based solutions, or thermal fogging solvent-based solutions, etc.

Pro tip: If you can use a product that allows occupants to remain on site during your cleaning phase, this will decrease the time on the job.

Once these 3 steps have been completed, the organic load in the structure will be dramatically decreased and you will be well on your way to achieving odor control success. The last step is to consider the use of an odor control sealant & stain blocker that will contain any remaining odors. These products are either water-based, shellac, or oil-based. For ease of use, the water-based products have comparatively low VOC’s, are easy to apply, easy to cleanup, and some are even certified to be used on CPVC piping to reduce the contractor’s liability when coming into contact with potable water piping. Coatings are a great last step and will decrease the chance of an odor call-back when applied as part of a multi-tiered cleaning approach. 

If you start by removing large particulate first and work to remove smaller and smaller particulate, you will be successful in achieving thorough and long-lasting odor control solution for your clients. Long term success isn’t about a magic product that you can just plug in or spray. Success comes by removing all the source materials, starting from the biggest pieces and working down to the smallest. And yes, sometimes this is dirty and stinky work. But if we do our jobs properly, the end results will smell great! – or even better, not at all.

Mark Robertson

With over 20 years’ experience with environmental restoration products, Mark Robertson brings an impressive educational background, extensive problem-solving skills, and a passion for advancing the restoration market. Mark is happy to have the opportunity to help the professional contractor with a broader range of tools to perform at the highest levels. As a manufacturer’s representative, Mark is thrilled to present four high-caliber, effective product lines with decades of professional success to the restoration industry. He is committed to education and can often be seen at many industry events discussing ways for contractors to use their tools as a marketing advantage while reducing corporate liability.

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