Handling Odors After a Flood, Fire or Mold Infestation April 11, 2018 – Posted in: Blog

Handling Odors

People often seek the expertise of restoration professionals at notably challenging times in their lives. In the aftermath of a fire, flood or mold infestation, it’s imperative for restoration professionals to deliver solutions that fully address the issues at hand, as well as instill trust in the client.

Trust, in these circumstances, complements an understanding of the unique problems that arise following water, fire or mold damage. Equipped with this knowledge, professionals can deliver comprehensive solutions clients expect.

A common complaint following a flood, fire or mold is a noticeable odor that can linger long after the physical damage is addressed. Dealing with an odor is perhaps not the first step a restoration professional will take, but it is a vital part of the process.

After experiencing damage to their property, most people want to rebuild their homes — both physically and symbolically. When a reminder of the event still lingers in the air, it is challenging for clients to feel at home once again.

What Causes Odors?

Odors that are a product of a fire, flooding or mold infestation have unique causes, characteristics and necessary approaches required to eliminate them. Restoration professionals should seek first to understand the cause of the odor, as that will drive the subsequent steps toward its removal.

Successful, professional odor removal in homes starts with a plan, and no plan is complete without the knowledge to guide it. Let’s review the reasons why fires, flooding and mold infestations leave odors in their wake.

How Fires Cause Odors

A strong odor in the aftermath of a fire may be due to a few different causes: from soot, to smoke damage from wood and entrapped smells that linger in walls, furniture and clothing.

Soot is the easiest cause to identify, as it’s visible to the human eye. When soot lands on surfaces or clothing, it creates a challenging situation for effective removal. Characterized by its black, powdery or flaky appearance, soot can either be dry or oily, depending on the level of oxygen present during its formation.

Its form affects the methods that should be used to remove the soot, as both oily and dry soot require unique tools and approaches to promote safe, successful removal.

During a fire, the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons can quickly form soot, and a smoky smell will follow closely behind. This smell will likely linger — if not worsen — without the assistance of renovation professionals and industrial tools.

A strong, persistent odor after fire may be due to more than soot, however. The invisible culprit of odors is smoke damage, a smell many have experienced on a smaller scale from burned food or smaller kitchen fires. Amplified from a larger, widespread fire, the smell of smoke can persist long after other restoration efforts are complete.

The damage from smoke occurs at a molecular level, meaning it generally requires a professional’s skills and experience to eliminate the odor.

Smoke forms when incomplete combustion combines unburned gas, solid and liquid particles. Individually, the particles are too small to see, but together, they appear as smoke. Smoke can contain hundreds of unique fumes and chemicals, many of which are toxic to humans and pets.

Fire Odor

It’s important to act quickly when smoke damage occurs. Not only does lingering smoke present health risks, but the odor of smoke is as clingy as it is distinctive.

Failing to implement a smoke odor removal process can lead to an odor that will feel almost impossible to eliminate, especially if professionals aren’t called in to assess the extent of the damage.

How Flooding Causes Odors

Restoring a home to its original condition after flooding introduces some important considerations for restoration professionals, as well as homeowners. In the immediate aftermath, the focus is on damage assessment, drying the area and implementing repairs wherever possible.

Even after these important steps occur, however, many clients will notice a pungent odor that fails to dissipate on its own. Restoration professionals should be aware of three primary causes of these odors: sewage, bacteria and mold and mildew growth.

A common culprit of home flooding, burst pipes lead to a distinct smell that often tips homeowners off to the issue itself. When pipes burst, they can no longer transport wastewater and sewage to municipal sewage lines. The resulting backup of sewage and waste rapidly distributes its characteristic odor throughout the home.

An external cause of odor, free-flowing floodwater known as Blackwater is commonly filled with harmful bacteria. Any floodwater that comes into contact with porous furniture — like carpets or mattresses — poses a health risk, as the bacteria-filled water will quickly seep into the material.

If the furniture is not discarded or cleaned thoroughly, the bacteria will emit a strong, unpleasant odor throughout the home.

Flooding Odor

When homes are not effectively dried, and cleaned, following flooding, an even greater issue can occur mold and mildew growth. The growth of mold and mildew can lead to structural damage, health issues and the development of a full-blown mold infestation.

How Mold Infestations Cause Odors

Regardless of whether mold infestations occur from water damage or another cause, the odor resulting from the infestation will not go unnoticed.

Mold can present as several different types, some of which are more dangerous than others. Although the resulting odor will depend on the type, the odor from the mold is most commonly described as dank, earthy, stale or damp.

The growth cycle of mold tells the story of its odorous origin. As mold grows and develops, it produces gases known as microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs). MVOCs are the waste products of mold.

Therefore, this type of compound relies on the actively growing mold for its production. It’s important to note that it is these MVOCs, and not the mold itself, that produces the odor found in homes infested with mold.

Mold Produces Odor

It’s important to reiterate a common theme of odors in homes: The longer it takes to address the mold infestation issue, the more prominent the odor will become. By neglecting to pursue eradication, homeowners will suffer the lasting, noticeable effects of odor permeation.

Why Do Odors Seem to Linger Sometimes?

It can be understandably frustrating for property owners who have taken appropriate steps to eliminate odors, but still can’t seem to get the smell to leave completely. Restoration professionals can provide welcome insight at this stage by identifying a checklist of items for the client to review.

For example, what steps were taken already? If the home required deep cleaning or repairs, were the efforts thorough and comprehensive? If appropriate odor-removal steps were addressed following a fire, flooding or mold infestation, it may be time to consider the less visible causes.

These causes include the presence of bacteria, which adheres to surfaces and forms additional layers of foul-smelling bacteria. The combined bacteria layers create something called biofilm — a destructive and persistent culprit of bad odors in homes.

Sometimes, however, the odor seems to persist despite the completion of every item on the odor-eradication checklist. For a restoration professional, this may indicate the necessity to evaluate the cause of lingering odors from a more scientific, neurological perspective.

How the Brain Processes Odors and Stores Them in Memory

Tackling odors is certainly not an uncommon part of a restoration professional’s job, but it can be a confusing part of the process. One challenge of odor removal is subjectivity.

The significance of odor in a home — as well as its effect on the homeowners — is neither definitive nor easy to measure. A conflict in communication and trust between professionals and clients can arise, particularly if a restoration professional does not understand the psychology of smell.

Humans’ sense of smell begins with the olfactory nerve, which is located in the back of the nose. The olfactory epithelium contains about 10 million tiny receptors, all of which are sensitive to odors in the air.

As a person inhales air filled with odor molecules, those molecules bind to the olfactory nerve’s receptors, which then communicate important messages to the brain. It is the brain’s job, of course, to interpret this information — a key process that controls memory and learning.

This process defines whether a smell is good or bad to an individual, and also displays the powerful role of human emotions in physical perception.

10 Million Brain Receptors

The limbic system, which governs our long-term memory, emotions and behavior, is linked to the smell cells in a human’s nose.

This vital connection triggers memories that correlate with certain smells, and someone’s interpretation of that smell is dependent on their own unique memories. For this reason, certain smells can be attractive to one person, yet unpleasant to another.

Owners of a restoration business should strive to understand the significance of how humans process and recall odors. Gaining knowledge and experience in how the brain processes odors will prove valuable at many points throughout the restoration process.

More importantly, the expertise gained from acknowledging psychological considerations will make any restoration company more prepared, and better-equipped, to provide high-quality services clients can depend on.

Understanding Your Clients’ Expectations When It Comes to Odors

Every restoration project is unique, and clients’ expectations differ, as well. The restoration companies are not only willing to identify those expectations, but they also use that information to deliver value and trust for every client.

When it comes to odors, clients likely — and reasonably — have specific expectations regarding how the odor will be addressed, and hopefully, eradicated. It is up to restoration professionals to ask key questions that will provide insight into those unique exceptions, for example:

  • What smells worst to the client?
  • What are the most important items in the house that were affected?
  • What concerns them most about what they are smelling?

The responses to these questions will guide initial restoration processes, as well as assist the approach to long-term client satisfaction.

In the immediate aftermath of a significant event — like home flooding, mold infestation or fire — a well-trained restoration professional has the opportunity to negate the formation of odor-driven emotional triggers. In one scenario, the professional can assist a victim of a house fire by learning which possessions provide the most emotional value to him or her.

By identifying items of value and removing odor from them first, the restoration professional can approach the process in a more organized, high-impact way. The client will appreciate the attention to detail, and the professional can take pride in decreasing the probability of the client forming an additional negative association.

Restoration professionals should also consider the impact the brain can have on the prevalence of lingering odor complaints. Successful elimination of the odor could very well hinge on a professional’s ability to view the issue from all angles, including the psychological one.

Without acknowledgment of a potential underlying cause, the true culprit of lingering odor may go unnoticed and unresolved. In this circumstance, the client’s confidence in the professional will gradually dissipate, tarnishing the relationship indefinitely.

Brain Impact on Lingering Odor

Finally, restoration professionals should always gauge the client’s priorities, rather than assuming priorities will be the same for every client. Remember: No two restoration projects, nor clients, are the same.

The Right Tools for the Job

A restoration professional’s ability to successfully handle odors depends on more than just their willingness to learn, and understand, varying causes of odors. The tools used in the restoration process can easily be the difference between a job that’s technically complete and a job that exceeds a client’s expectations.

In the restoration industry, client satisfaction should always be a top priority. Therefore, companies should strive to only work with high-quality tools, complemented by solidified and streamlined processes, for all restoration projects.

Here are five common restoration issues following a fire, home flooding or mold infestation, and the equipment that will each project achieve success.

Airborne Particles

Airborne particles are a common concern in environments that are a victim of mold, soot, smoke and other airborne contaminants. Inadequate elimination of these airborne particles can lead to several potential issues — from health concerns to an unwanted, yet relentless, odor. Removing airborne articles requires the use of professional equipment, like a commercial HEPA air scrubber.

Commercial air scrubbers possess an incredibly important ability to remove tiny particles, as well as small debris, from the air. Top industrial air scrubbers, like the B-Air® RA-650, also provide deodorizing capabilities paired with a portable design for ease of use.

B-Air RA-650

Flooding, fires and mold infestations all spell out potential disasters for fabric and furniture. However, destruction can be minimized by using dependable industrial tools in the restoration process?

Fabric and Furniture

Flooding can cause contaminated water and bacteria to seep into the porous qualities of fabric and furniture. Restoration professionals need to act quickly in identifying which pieces to remove or replace, as water-damaged furniture and fabric can easily develop mold damage.

During this initial phase, furniture drawers should be opened — a critical step designed to expedite the drying process. Another essential drying technique involves the use of an industrial-grade tool: a commercial air mover. Commercial-grade air movers provide high-velocity airflow, as well as fast drying, which is critical in an attempt to save clients’ favorite furniture and fabric pieces.

Commercial-Grade Air Movers

Fires are equally problematic to fabric belongings and furniture pieces, as soot and smoke damage will quickly settle beneath the surface of the exterior material.

Removal of soot during the restoration process involves an initial, thorough cleaning process — ideally, this process should involve industrial-grade soot cleaning products. Prolonging this crucial step will lead to soot-covered furniture dispersing odors and contaminants throughout the entire room.

Remove and launder cushion covers, then sprinkle baking soda over the remaining upholstery and vacuum the fabric surface. Ideally, restoration teams should use a vacuum that’s equipped with a HEPA filter, as this type of industrial vacuum is built to prevent redistribution of soot into the air.

Finally, cleaning smoke-damaged clothes is possible, but it will likely require several cycles in a washer and dryer. Non-washable clothing could necessitate a trip to the dry cleaner for a special cleaning process.

Furniture and fabric are both susceptible to damage from mold infestations, particularly pieces that reside in the interior, or poorly lit, rooms. The most important action item to treat furniture and fabric mold is to address and remove it, as quickly as possible.

Depending on the original cause of the mold infestation — for example, untreated water damage — the first step may be to air out the furniture or fabric thoroughly. The mold will continue to grow in a dark, damp environment, so restoration professionals are advised to move furniture outdoors temporarily, if possible.

Just like the soot removal process, a vacuum with a HEPA filter is ideal for cleaning mold from the surface of the upholstery. The fabric should be exposed to sunlight, and in some cases, spot treatment of rubbing alcohol and water can remove smaller areas of mold.

For more severe cases, there are deodorizing products intended specifically for furniture and upholstery.

Walls, Flooring and Carpet

In comparison to fabric and furniture, damaged walls, flooring and carpet can prove to be a more challenging job for a restoration team.

Walls and flooring provide structural integrity to the building, meaning they can’t be removed — or replaced — as quickly as a recliner or sofa. Carpet, although more easily replaceable, still requires a more thought-out, and longer, process for restoration or removal.

Restoration professionals should first assess the damage, and then categorize the level of damage to the walls, carpet and flooring.

Depending on the amount of damage, the professionals can determine whether restoration is possible. If so, it’s time to retrieve the equipment necessary to move forward with the restoration processes for the remaining components.

Walls pose a unique risk for clients and restoration companies alike, as they may contain hidden structural damage. For this reason, it is always advised to have a professional team carefully inspect the walls, evaluating for any occurrence of mold growth, cracks or water damage within insulation and drywall. Moisture meters are often used for this analysis.

Walls Hidden Structural Damage

Two pieces of equipment can expedite drying walls after water damage: industrial dehumidifiers and air movers.

In the aftermath of a fire, walls should be assessed for soot or smoke damage. Restoration professionals should remove soot carefully, using a milder cleaner before employing a more powerful bleaching agent that can leave noticeable marks on the wall surfaces.

Restoration professionals should also know how to clean smoke damage from painted walls, as this is a common need for both residential and commercial properties following a fire. Blistering and bubbling are common symptoms of a painted wall that has suffered excessive heat, and this can be repaired by sanding down the affected areas before applying spackling paste.

Following water damage, commercial air movers can also provide necessary drying assistance for flooring. In smaller spaces, like a kitchen, a compact yet powerful air mover like the B-Air® VP-25 is an optimal choice. If the water-damaged floor happens to be concrete, clients may wish to add a coating of polyurethane or epoxy during this process.

Hard-surface flooring can generally be effectively cleaned within five days of the fire. Carpet, however, may require additional steps to remove the damage from a fire, flooding or mold infestation. Restoration companies should use a HEPA vacuum to remove any dry soot from carpeting, and the cleaning efforts may be improved with a high-quality steam cleaning system.

Water damage to carpets can cause immediate issues, but as we know, it can also lead to the development of mold infestation. Because mold and bacteria can grow in wet carpet within 24 to 48 hours, it is imperative to act quickly and definitively.

If the restoration professional determines keeping the carpet is an option, they should use a commercial air mover quickly to dry the surface.

Books and Papers

Books and papers are also susceptible to damage from fires, mold and flooding. First, a restoration professional should review the books and papers for damage, then provide a recommendation as to whether they can be saved. Insurance companies will, in many cases, replace them. This option should be considered viable, if necessary.

Any that have been determined to be salvageable should be vacuum frozen if they sustained any water damage to stop mold growth and slow the disintegration of the paper.

Even after a fire, documents will often suffer water damage from firefighting efforts. If there is no water damage, only soot, then thermal fogging will likely be necessary to remove smoke from the documents.


Finally, many clients will look to the expertise of a restoration company in the aftermath of a fire or flood, hoping their more expensive items can be saved.

Restoration professionals should always advise clients to leave all electronics off following a fire or water damage. Turning electronics on in water damage can cause them to short out, which is also a possible outcome of turning on a soot-covered electronic device.

Leave All Electronics Off

When a fire occurs, clients can understandably focus on the immediate damage from the actual fire, but neglect to consider smoke and soot are equally damaging to electronics.

Therefore, it is important for restoration companies to communicate the necessity of carefully evaluating all electronics before the client attempts alternative repair techniques. Restoration professionals should determine whether the cost of recovery will surpass the value of the electronics.

The type of electronic device will increase or decrease, the success rate of restorative approaches. For larger electronics, like printers, refrigerators or TVs, the restoration company should remove the equipment to a safe and clean location.

At this point, a thorough analysis of the extent of the damage can occur, as well as a determination of the outlook for successful data recovery and the probability of expected performance.

Work Toward the Right Goals With the Right Equipment

Following a fire, flooding or mold infestation, restoration companies have a unique, rewarding opportunity to return clients’ lives to normal after a traumatic event.

The ability to consistently provide great service is dependent on a few important factors: customer service, knowledge and the ability to analyze a situation and implement the appropriate solutions, as well as the use of high-quality equipment that will complement the hard work of a restoration team.

After all, without the right equipment, those appropriate solutions cannot be put into place. When companies choose low-quality, unreliable odor removal equipment, the project risks failure, missed deadlines and the deterioration of valuable client relationships.

Equipment is an extension of the team, a reflection of the quality clients can expect to receive and an important tool for employee satisfaction.

Restoration companies set timelines for projects, and they also set goals for the company — whether it’s data-driven, or just to improve certain aspects of the company’s operations.

For restoration companies that are looking for dependable, high-quality and durable equipment that is built to last, B-Air® is a preferred partner. Nearly 20 years of dedication to rigorous design and manufacturing processes have led to today’s world-class selection of B-Air® equipment.

Handling odors after flooding, fires or mold infestation is a process left to the professionals. In the restoration industry, it’s never too late to continue learning and improving company practices, as the efforts to improve client satisfaction will always be worth the effort.