Get the funk out
February 2, 2010 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: How to get rid of years of smoking residue?

Without getting into too many of the gory details, a friend of mine has been letting her ex-husband live in the basement / bottom floor of her house. He is (finally) moving out, and she and her new husband want to reclaim that portion of the house, particularly because they are having a baby in June. The problem is that the ex is a heavy, heavy smoker, both of tobacco and marijuana, and he smoked inside the house for five years or so. The entire downstairs reeks of stale smoke.

How can she and her husband get rid of the smoke residue? The furniture is all being tossed; the floors are carpeted over cement. Complicating factors: they don't have a ton of money, the downstairs and upstairs share ventilation ducts, she's four months pregnant and has a three year old daughter, and there's a beautiful hand-painted mural in the bathroom they want to preserve. I read this question but the term of the smoking plus the other complicating factors make me want more ideas.
posted by KathrynT to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Wash the walls and get rid of the carpet. May need to change furnace filters. (is the smoke smell in other parts of the house?)

If there are any windows, open them up and keep them open.

Sorry, I have no advice about the mural :(
posted by royalsong at 10:11 AM on February 2, 2010

We used TSP to remove the sticky brown residue the previous owners left in our house from smoking. You can buy the powder at Lowe's, Home Depot, etc. We dissolved it in a bucket of hot water. Then my husband used a sponge mop to swab it onto the walls, and I followed behind with towels to wipe off the gunk. (It's probably safe to use this over the mural as well - maybe test in a small area first.) We also primed everything with Kilz before painting.

Unfortunately, it's harder to get the smell of smoke out of fabrics. We never fully got rid of the smoke odor from our house until we replaced all the carpet.
posted by LolaGeek at 10:24 AM on February 2, 2010

I'd expect the mural in the bathroom is painted in something sufficiently water-resistant (oil or latex), so perhaps just dishsoap detergent will be powerful enough for that. Don't scrub too hard, use hot water. Also try one of those mr. clean magic erasers on it, in a corner, if the soap isn't enough.

Seeing as how the smoke residue is probably a tar-like coating on the walls and whatnot, it should be sufficient to wash with soapy water and rinse with a dilute vinegar solution. Safe for the pregnant lady (all non-toxic), and this also is how we cleaned the popcorn machines at the theatre (so I know it works well on grease). The vinegar should also help deodorize somewhat.
posted by lizbunny at 10:31 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: I moved into a new house in June and the master bedroom reeked of smoke. I left the windows open for a week and scrubbed the walls with soap and water. This didn't do much so I used this Kilz stain blocking primer:

Once I did that and painted the smell was gone. I think it basically seals the tar resin and odors into the walls. This stuff is definitely not odorless like it claims but it wasn't too bad. My wife was pregnant at the time but she just avoided that area of the house. BTW the baby is fine.
posted by bingwah at 10:48 AM on February 2, 2010

I used to work in an office which had previously been a working-men's canteen, and the walls were literally brown. Someone cleaned it with Sugar Soap, and suddenly the walls were white again.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2010

Museum person here:

A conservator told me that saliva is the greatest and cheapest (and grossest) way to get rid of nicotine stains and residue. This may not help with the smell issue, but could improve the appearance of the mural.
posted by 1UP at 11:13 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Any basic cleaner will remove the tar and nicotine. If standard cleaners (dishsoap, etc.) aren't working, add some baking soda to it. Both lye-based strippers and mineral spirits will also do the trick, but they're nasty-strong (don't let the pregnant woman inhale the vapors!), and they'll wipe off the mural entirely (along with any other paint).
posted by Citrus at 11:15 AM on February 2, 2010

Given that your friend is pregnant, it might be worth contacting ServPro or equivalent to get an estimate. They have all sorts of secret, deal with smoke damage to homes and upholstery from fires, and you might be able to salvage some of the furniture.
posted by carmicha at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: Nthing Kilz.

Don't forget to scrub the windows, take down any glass light fixtures and clean the globes inside and out, and don't neglect the insides of the closets.

If there is any wallpaper anywhere, the wallpaper paste is impregnated with smoke-smell too.

Give up on the carpet if possible. Even if you shampoo it repeatedly, the padding underneath is still full of smoke residue.

/bought house from varsity-level lifelong smokers
posted by desuetude at 11:39 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: I've redone some rental homes, and the only things I've found that worked were removing all textiles, then scrubbing with something like TSP and then sealing everything possible with either Kilz or shellac (the orange kind works better, but the white kind is ok too (and is much more clear). Follow up with paint of the desired color. It might be worth having someone in to clean the ductwork professionally.
posted by midwestguy at 12:06 PM on February 2, 2010

Our house was inhabited by heavy smokers when we bought it. Three washings with hot TSP water got the walls clean enough for paint and essentially smell free (we have hardwood not carpets). We did have the weird experience though that our master bed room reeked of smoke starting about three months after painting and lasting on and off for a couple months. After about six months the smell abated and it hasn't returned.

lizbunny writes "Also try one of those mr. clean magic erasers on it, in a corner, if the soap isn't enough. "

"Magic Eraser" is essentially a very fine abrasive, I wouldn't risk it on the mural.
posted by Mitheral at 12:21 PM on February 2, 2010

besides Kilz, there's also Bin. if you go with kilz, make sure to get the real badassed kilz and not that wimpy 'low oder, weaker product' kind of thing. and see if you can find real TSP instead of the tsp-replacement.

maybe i'm just being a grumpy curmudgeon and channeling my oder relatives, but i feel like this is one of those things where if you don't have to wear a respirator while working with the stuff, it's probably not a strong enough product.

and, yeah, remember to wear respirators when working in close with it and have the windows and doors open and a fan blowing, otherwise you'll have to teach yourself how to read again and retrain your neurons to route around the dead ones afterwards.

for the ever so fabulous mural, how about a clear shellac-type coat over it after washing it? (I'd check with the artist for ideas on cleaning it.)
posted by rmd1023 at 1:39 PM on February 2, 2010

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