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Cleanfax Insider / Restoration / Disaster Restoration

Fire and Smoke

Be aware of the challenges and pitfalls with this segment of the restoration industry.

October 31, 2011
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The toughest challenges in the cleaning and restoration industry involve fire and smoke restoration projects.

These projects normally include all of the challenges involved with water restoration projects, as fires are normally extinguished with water, plus there are typically more structural repairs.

In addition, the full service restoration contractor must be able to handle their finances efficiently as fire restoration projects can last for an extended period of time.

Employees, subcontractors and vendors typically demand payment before the job is completed. Complete payment for the fire restoration work can take weeks — or longer — to receive after the project is completed.

Because there has been a reduction in the number of new construction projects, construction contractors are entering the restoration business. The contractor normally has a good working knowledge of building science but may not completely understand the role and importance of insurance companies.

The construction contractor does bring additional competition to the restoration market. Because of the nature of contracting, new construction contractors are familiar with working on low-level profit margins.

Finally, the level of damage and the repairs can be subjective. Does a material retain a malodor after the fire? People have different sensitivities to odors. Fire damage and its evil sibling, smoke damage, can be hidden from those that fail to thoroughly investigate the structure.

Existing buildings may not follow current construction practices or building codes, adding to your challenges.

Previous remodeling efforts by homeowners or less than professional contractors can lead to unusual opportunities for fire and smoke damage to be dispersed throughout a structure. For example, multiple layers of wall board can form unintended and unexpected interstitial spaces. These voids become superhighways for smoke and odor transmission.

Failure by the fire restoration contractor to control or eliminate odor will lead to frustrated customers and potential legal and financial pitfalls for the contractor.

Key communication

A successful fire restoration project begins with good communication among the contractor, the customer and the insurance company''s representative.

Agreement on what has been damaged by the fire, or the scope of the loss, is vital for the successful completion of the fire restoration project.

Selective demolition, the use of borescopes and thermal imaging technology can reveal damage that might not be obvious to the eye without complete removal of structural materials.

Borescopes allow the professional contractor to be minimally invasive and effectively view wall cavities and plumbing chases to determine if smoke and fire damage is present. Thermal imaging devices can indicate the presence of moisture as well as the degradation of insulation. Once all of the damage has been documented, the agreement on the scope of damage can be reached among the materially interested parties.

It''s all about communication, and in order to communicate effectively, you have to have accurate information to share.

Keeping it safe

Control of the fire''s odor and potentially hazardous gasses released by the fire residue should be one of the first orders of business. Smoke and fire residue are potentially carcinogenic.

There are several different approaches to controlling these odors. Certainly one of the most effective means of odor control is to remove the source of the odor. Selective demolition of materials that cannot be restored should be done as early as possible during the restoration project.

Depending upon the extent of the fire damage, the contractor may need to build containment to assist in smoke residue and odor control.

Even if containment is constructed, the use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters and activated carbon in air filtration devices may be used. HEPA filters remove the majority of the particulates from the air. Activated carbon is the most common adsorbent material used to capture and remove potentially harmful gasses from the air.

Odor removal

The contractor may also use water-based deodorants to begin deodorization of salvageable structural components and contents. The application also suppresses the release of unpleasant and potentially harmful gasses. This step may actually make the work environment safer for restoration personnel, insurance professionals and the insured.

Additional deodorization steps will normally be required during the restoration project. The use of high levels of ozone to oxidize or burn odor molecules may be used. If the odor particle has been destroyed, the odor cannot later become noticeable again. Ozone has been used in fire restoration work for a long period of time and has been proven to be effective in many applications.

As with all procedures, there are potential problems. The application of ozone may take 24 to 72 hours to be effective. Accurate assessment of the effectiveness of the ozone treatment can be difficult.

Different smoke odors are oxidized at differing rates. In addition, there are many different size machines available that produce varying amounts of ozone. Ozone may damage plants and rubber products.

Thermal fogging is another potential deodorization step. Thermal foggers are machines that change a liquid deodorant to a fog by the use of heat.

The idea behind thermal fogging is that it creates particles that approximate the size of the smoke particles. This small size allows the deodorant to penetrate much like the smoke particles have penetrated.

In addition, as airborne smoke particles come into contact with the thermal fogging particles, the weight of the smoke particles increases. The increased weight of the smoke particle causes the smoke particle to fall more quickly out of the air. The reduction in the number of smoke particles, and associated potentially toxic gasses, again makes the area safer for occupants and workers.

The use of hydroxyls is a growing trend in fire deodorization projects. Hydroxyls, like ozone, are created in the Earth''s atmosphere.

Many hydroxyl units use ultraviolet (UV) light and ambient water vapor to create hydroxyl ions. Organic particles present in the air are decomposed into carbon dioxide and water through an extremely fast chemical reaction. The theory behind hydroxyls is that the odor bearing molecule is again destroyed.

Nanoparticles can also be used as an odor control technology. These particles, because of their extraordinary surface area, are excellent in adsorbing odor molecules. This filter might be used in place of activated carbon filters.

The advantage to these filters would be that they would trap all odors, not just organic odors. A potential disadvantage to this technology is the particles are so small, they could become airborne themselves.

As you can see, there are a number of methods of deodorization alone. In addition, the successful fire restoration professional will need to be acquainted with all aspects of construction and cleaning or have valued resources to call upon.

Emotional and psychological issues

The breadth of the skill set should also include dealing with people who are dealing with an extremely emotionally and psychologically stressful situation.

Industry sources estimate that 60 percent of homeowners are underinsured by 22 percent. Along with seeing their home and personal belongings damaged or destroyed, the insured may have to find temporary housing or workspace.

If the insured does not have enough coverage to repair or replace fire damaged goods and surfaces, the situation can become volatile.


Bill Weigand is a technical training instructor with Legend Brands, and also serves on the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) board of directors.

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