Frequently Asked Questions

Fire Damage Restoration FAQ

Q: I’ve had a severe fire loss in my home with lots of water used to put it out. The contractor specified by the insurance company didn’t do a lot of deodorizing and now, I’m getting odor coming out of the woodwork. What should have been done? I’ve heard that thermal fogging might remove the odor. What should I do now?

A: Smoke odor removal from burned structures with water damage is a multiphase process, that must begin within hours or days after the loss, and continue from tear-out to dry-in and finishing. There are two types of odor with which you are dealing: smoke and biological (fungi, bacteria). Of course, the fire is the source of the smoke odor, while the biological are caused by the water used in extinguishing the fire, coupled with time. If anything, the water exacerbated the fire contamination and odor.

Having said that, procedures to consider include, but aren’t necessarily limited to, the following:

1. Remove all structural components that are charred, or which seal smoke or moisture within pockets of saturation. In extensive losses, blown or bat insulation must be removed and replaced. It’s a mistake to be too conservative here.

2. Remove floor coverings second after they collect the fallout of ceiling and wall demolition.

3. Once removed, structural framing and subfloor materials must be carefully evaluated for damage (charring, warping, etc.). Remove and plan to replace as required.

4. Salvable wall framing should be treated with appropriate odor counteractants, which in some cases, may include an appropriate biocide, depending on the extent of microbial contamination.

5. As close to the outset of restoration procedures as possible, the HVAC must be either removed or thoroughly restored. This is particularly critical to prevent smoke particles, which range from 0.1-4 microns, from being released into respirable air. Ciliated surfaces on bronchial passages are able to filter particles down to 10 microns. Others have the potential to penetrate deeply into lung tissues where, at best, they cause irritation, and at worst, they could result in scarring of the alveoli.

6. Framing materials must be allowed to dry to within 4 percent of normal moisture content, which generally is around 10% in the Chicago area.

7. While the home is unoccupied, and as successive areas are dried in, I would not hesitate to use a combination of ozone deodorization and wet or dry fogging, to oxidize or otherwise neutralize odor. Both processes must be applied by trained professionals to avoid health risks, or the potential for damage from the process itself.

8. Framing materials should be sealed with an appropriate sealer, before replacing drywall, paneling, decking, etc. Otherwise, odor will leach out of structural materials for months, if not years to come. Simply putting up new drywall and taping and mudding joints will not seal in untreated odor.

9. As individual rooms are completely reconstructed, deodorization efforts should continue, progressing from least damaged areas back to the source. Usually, source areas are that last to be dried in and reconstructed.

10. Savable drywall, if any, should be sealed carefully and painted (two coats).

11. Airing out the structure both during and for several days after each phase of construction helps minimize VOCs that off-gas from new materials, adhesives, and coatings.

12. All salvable furnishings, contents, and removable fixtures should be processed meticulously in a restoration facility, before being returned to the fully restored home.

That’s a quick and dirty summary of some of the considerations that must be made. Industry principles for complete and permanent deodorization include four steps:

1. Remove the source of the odor as practical

2. Clean all surfaces subjected to significant contamination

3. Recreate the conditions of odor penetration with an appropriate odor counteractant

4. Seal malodorous surfaces as required

Thermal fogging is not a panacea for resolving all odor problems in your structure. It’s merely a Band-Aid for a complex problem. Proper procedures begin at the outset of the loss and continue throughout.
Not having seen your loss, I am not competent to speak with authority on how it should have been handled, nor what procedures are necessary now. I can say that restoration is developing into a science that is practiced by trained professionals. Necessary procedures are arrived at through a cooperative effort by all parties to the claim: foremost the insured, the insurance company’s representative (agent, adjuster), and an experienced contractor. There is no room for necessary restoration procedures being decided upon based on the whim of the adjuster. For the contractor to blame the insurance company for “not authorizing” reasonable and prudent restoration procedures is inexcusable. For the insurance company to decline coverage for reasonable and prudent restoration is equally inexcusable.

I would suggest that all parties rely on the IICRC Water Damage Restoration Standard, combined with information contained in the ASCR Fire Restoration Best Practices Guide.

Bottom line, insureds control their own claims within the confines of their contract (called the policy) with the insurance company.

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