Great Balls of Fire

December 11, 2007
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One of the benefits of our new house is that we have three fireplaces–one in the dining room, one in the living room and one in the family room. All three chimneys were swept this fall, and we’ve been using the fireplace in the living room nearly daily (burning those enviro-logs we picked up at Home Depot). Having a fireplace creates a wonderful, homey smell when the fire is burning. These days, that homey smell has turned into a smoke-filled tavern smell, and here’s why.

On Friday we lit a fire in the family-room fireplace for the first time. As luck would have it, a huge downdraft occurred as we lit the fire, forcing smoke into the room. It took about 30 minutes to clear the smoke–open windows, fans running–and then we let the fire burn out on its own.

When we got up on Saturday morning, no one could go in the family room. It smelled like we’d had a fire–and I don’t mean in the fireplace. I swear there is smoke damage in the room, and we’re at a loss as to how to fix it.

In desperation, I washed down the walls, the floors and the furniture using Murphy’s Oil Soap diluted in water. (I’m so pleased that Murphy’s is considered to be a green cleaner. It’s what I was raised to use on wood floors and pretty much every other surface in the house.) When that didn’t work to get rid of the smell, we burned those Oust “odor-evaporating candles” (actually we burned all three in the package), and we kept the windows open again for about 2 hours. After the candles the room smelled like sweet soap, not smoke, but by the time we got up the next morning, the acrid smoke smell was back. It hits you the minute you near the entrance to the family room.

Today, I decided to try some other green ways of getting rid of the smell. This morning, I put out bowls of vinegar around the room, because someone told me it’s an odor neutralizer (though I must admit that vinegar in the laundry did nothing for my daughter’s soccer cleats, which, I’d bet, could win that Odor Eaters Rotten Sneaker contest). Later on my husband put out bowls of baking soda. One of his work colleagues had had a fire in her house, and she told him that baking soda is what the fire-recovery company had used to get rid of the smell. That seems logical, considering so many people swear by their box of Arm and Hammer baking soda in the refrigerator to get rid of odors.

It’s only been a couple of hours, but the smell is still here. I have no idea how long this is going to take to work or if the vinegar or the baking soda will even work.

Interestingly if you smell specific things in the room, nothing actually smells like smoke. It’s just the general je ne sais quai of the room that leaves you smelling smoke.

My concern now is that we’re going to have to fully repaint the room, assuming the walls have absorbed the odor, to get rid of the smoke smell. I’m also concerned my daughters are going to get clever and end up mixing the vinegar and the baking soda together to create their own special kind of volcano that will erupt all over the floor. And you know who will be left to clean it up.

4 Responses to Great Balls of Fire

  1. dniles on December 12, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    I concur with the recommendation to clean the “soft” materials in the room. But of greater importance is to have an expert look at your chimney. Such backdrafts should not occur in properly designed and positioned chimneys. If it happened once, it will happen again, either with the full force you experienced, or subtly. I’m not sure about your local regulations, but where we live, there are codes about how high a chimney must be above the roof structure, and those heights are intended to prevent the kind of problem you have experienced.

  2. Mom2MiniDogs on December 12, 2007 at 12:18 am

    If you have cleaned the hard surfaces such as the walls, blinds, windows, brick around the fireplace…then you need to move on to clean the soft surfaces such as washing curtains, cleaning your upholstered pieces, cleaning the lampshades, cleaning the carpets, washing the pillows, etc. We had a couple of woodstoves and downdrafts hit every once in a while and it was a full top to bottom cleaning job. I hate woodstoves and fireplaces because they are so dirty. You have to clean the fireplaces of ash, the ash makes dust, the wood has spiders and dirt on it, snakes in the woodpiles, downdrafts that fill the house with dangerous smoke as well as making a big clean. And that is before you get to having to cut, haul, stack wood. I’ve done it all and did it for 18 years and HATE it! In my new house I made sure we had a heat pump with gas logs for backup. I’ve never missed the headache. If I ever want a wood fire we make one in our little outdoor fireplace.

  3. Daisy on December 11, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Oh, my goodness. I’ve had the smelly room, but never quite that bad. I recommend baking soda in the carpet (if there’s carpet) and then vacuum. Did you wash the walls already? It would beat painting them. Hopefully it’s just the fireplace and flue, as lisa suggested.
    Oh, and did you know that fireplace ashes can go in compost? Chemical charcoal ashes shouldn’t.

  4. Lisa on December 11, 2007 at 4:24 am

    I’ve read that you can place a shallow pan of the baking soda in the fire pit of the fireplace (after cleaning out the ashes) over night and it will help. The smell is more than likely coming from the fireplace and flu, nothing in the room.

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