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Old 05-31-2013, 07:48 AM   #1
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


My wife and I bought a 1939 house about 7 months ago and are having 2 different smell issues. One is a cigarette smell, one is the smell of renovation or old house or paint or something.

Cigarette Smell
We bought the house in Michigan at the end of October (about 45 degrees farenheit at that point). One of the guys that lived there chain smoked in his 2nd floor bedroom with the windows and doors shut for years and years. It was gross (See pic below just for fun). Since we are both former smokers, my wife and I have a special kind of hatred for the smoke smell. The first thing I did was researched and took steps to get rid of the smell. --

I removed the carpet then scrubbed the walls and ceiling with scrubbing bubbles - twice. We had the windows and window casing replaced. I then put a coat on Zinnser's BIN on everything (possibly 2 coats, I don't remember). We had the existing hardwood floor refinished. Everything was peachy for the last 6 months. I was impressed with my own feat and bragged incessantly. Now it's been 7 months (it's about 85 degrees and humid) and the smell is back to some extent. No where near what it was before but for sensitive former smokers it is absolutely undeniable.

The house was built in 1939 so it's plaster - no drywall to penetrate. We do have forced air HVAC and I have not had the ducts cleaned so maybe that would be worthwhile (though I generally think duct cleaning is just smoke and mirrors - no pun intended). We have not tried any specific odor removers like an ozone generator, bowl of vinegar, etc etc. My inexperienced belief is that these are temporary fixes. I have, however, heard that with time the smell will dissipate.



Renovation/Paint/Old House Smell
We have renovated almost the entire house. We've removed wallpaper, gutted the kitchen (cabinets, floor, counters, painted, appliances, windows), and also removed wallpaper/kilz/painted/refinished floors/replaced windows in the majority of the house. We're actually no living there yet and every time we walk in there's is a distinct smell of something. I think it smells kind of like renovation but it's been months since we did any major renovation and I used super low VOC paint (Benjamin Moore Aura). She thinks it smells like mold or old house (depends on her mood). I will say that the former owners let the roof leak for years. Mold in the walls is a definite possibility.


Sorry for the horrible rambling post. Any advice or experience would be greatly apprciated!!


(see picture below. it's of one of the walls before cleaning. the rectangle that doesn't look as bad is where the guy hung a poster or picture or something. gross.)

Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN-20121025_174520.jpg

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Old 05-31-2013, 08:01 AM   #2
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


wow..just wow..

and gross

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Old 05-31-2013, 08:04 AM   #3
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


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Originally Posted by creeper View Post
wow..just wow..

and gross
Besides peeking my head in, we actually didn't set foot in the room before buying just b/c it was so disgusting. I did, however, see his little 15" tv with cigarette tar on it. I am not being dramatic when I say that it looked like tree sap.
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Old 05-31-2013, 08:28 AM   #4
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


The old house smell very definitely could and probably is mold. If you can find where the leak was and start there. If it leaked that long it may be contained inside the wall that is why it isn't overpowering. If you can locate the area where it is the worst you may need to make a small opening in the wall to see.
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Old 05-31-2013, 08:31 AM   #5
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


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Originally Posted by ToolSeeker View Post
The old house smell very definitely could and probably is mold. If you can find where the leak was and start there. If it leaked that long it may be contained inside the wall that is why it isn't overpowering. If you can locate the area where it is the worst you may need to make a small opening in the wall to see.
We definitely found one location of a very serious leak... it was leaking all the way down the wall. A good part of the plaster was torn out and fixed but we left the studs and there's probably a good bit that got wet which was not replaced. Alas, maybe we'll get used to the smell.
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Old 05-31-2013, 08:33 AM   #6
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


Sounds like you did all you can do for the smoke smell.The BIN should have sealed it.Only thing I can think of is the ac vents or return may have the smell in them.
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Old 05-31-2013, 08:35 AM   #7
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


I see three areas for potential odors. The ceiling fixture and box, the wall receptacle and box, and the cold air return.

Since our homes breath, each time a door or window is opened and close air is forced through all those holes. The holes are just puffing out the odors trapped behind them.
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Old 05-31-2013, 06:47 PM   #8
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


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The house was built in 1939 so it's plaster - no drywall to penetrate.
So called "drywall" (plasterboard) essentially IS gypsum plaster, with paper on both sides to give it strength, it doesn't matter if you have wet plaster walls over wood lath or sheetrock, you have plaster walls and plaster is very absorbent.
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Old 06-01-2013, 03:03 AM   #9
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


Smells in old houses can be interesting. If the guy smoked as much as you showed, even with the doors closed, I promise it circulated. I know some former smokes can be especially sensitive. You did BIN closets and everything right? I was washed and rinsed a surprising amount of orange/brown gunk out of window screens in a smoker house.

I don't know about vent cleaning either but have had reasonable results at times I guess. I have also heard horror stories of old duct work getting kind of chewed up by the process. So, I think I would concentrate on the core of the system and make sure you switch out the filters for awhile and have the blower parts of your cold air return and all cleaned thoroughly. I had a filtration system put in for a client that got rid of a lot in an older home. She could just wash the cartridges in the diswasher. I had electronic filters in my California home too and they made a big difference with pollen and things.

Those room cleaner things are usually based on negative ion generators (lightning in a box) and come with fans and filters to catch all the charged stuff. The negative ions go a little crazy and start reflecting off positive ions and carry dirt, dust and so forth smashing into a hard surface like a floor, ceiling or wall. They are used a lot in cleanrooms and hospitals. They are the heart of most industrial smoke eater systems (although they tended to be equipped to suck more airflow too). They do not do much for smells trapped somewhere.

Last edited by user1007; 06-01-2013 at 03:07 AM.
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Old 06-01-2013, 06:55 AM   #10
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


I had a tenant whose apartment was like this. I asked my maintenance person if Pepsi had exploded and was running down the window. No, it was cigarette tar.

My maintenance person said the ductwork looked bad (yellow). I tried to save money and didn't replace the ductwork going into that apartment at first but the next resident complained of a slight smoke odor. I went ahead and replaced the duct work in that apartment and it took care of the problem. (after using sealer on floor and walls)

Can you imagine what that guy's lungs looked like?

Last edited by Startingover; 06-01-2013 at 08:57 AM.
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Old 06-02-2013, 08:57 AM   #11
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Old House Smell and Cigarette Smell and Zinnser BIN


"We do have forced air HVAC and I have not had the ducts cleaned so maybe that would be worthwhile"

Well, like "Yeah, maybe".

Cleaning your ducts - and the fan too - is the logical place to start, given that all the air in the house passes through them in concentrated form, most of the time; maybe not in summer but surely in winter. A professional job would cost you some $400 and take 3 hours. Don't fall for in-and-out-in-an-hour $99 jobs either. Take the full package including deodorising spray...

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