Professional elbow grease needed to clean off oily soot

April 22, 2009

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With all of the electronics in our lives today, an urgent, repetitive beeping sound is, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary.

Walking toward the house the other day, I kept hearing one, but a check of all cell phones, laptops and sundry gizmos revealed nothing.

I couldn't figure it out until I walked through the door and discovered the sound coming from the smoke detector.

I refrained from my normal response in these situations -- which is to smash the smoke detector with the heel of my shoe -- on the grounds the house was actually filled with smoke. All things considered, I decided the situation merited further investigation.


Feeling each door for heat before entering the rooms and grabbing the phone book to find the number for 911, I made my way through the house, but saw no flames. Still, I got the cat out and looked around for valuables to save. Finding none, I continued the reconnaissance and narrowed the search to the oil furnace.

The oil company, responding with impressive speed, said we were victims of a "puffback," a random event in which the heating unit -- for reasons known only to the furnace -- belches soot and smoke out of the ducts.

The only real harm was a layer of oily soot throughout the house that I, being a guy, of course did not notice until Beth pointed it out to me.

With a heavy sigh, she reckoned a high-powered scouring effort was in order. She resolved to go through the house one room at a time, being skilled in the science of elbow grease and cleaning prowess. I was nowhere to be found at the time, being skilled in the science of making myself scarce.

After about 30 minutes, a plaintive wail wafted down from the bathroom. Traditional cleaning efforts, it seemed, only made things worse.

"Well, shucks," I said brightly, "I guess we'll just have to live with it."

For some reason, this was not the right answer.

Several phone calls to insurers and professional cleaners revealed these puffbacks are not all that uncommon, and when one occurs, a fire/smoke reclamation specialist is called for.

Using a special sponge, probably developed by NASA, Mark of Lookin' Nu cleaners showed us our walls were all about three shades darker than their intended colors. I absently wondered how long it would have taken me to notice that. Everything, it seemed, had a layer of gook on it, even the cat.

So we're in the process of getting what has to be the most thorough cleaning a house has ever received. Every dish has to come out of every cabinet, every article of clothing out of every closet. Even the basement has to be scrubbed -- and since the contract makes no distinction between new grime and pre-existing grime, the benefits hardly need to be stated.

Nor does the new problem need to be stated: With everything in the house so sparkling clean, we hate to set foot in it. We haven't cooked, or otherwise used the kitchen in days. Theoretically, we could live in our office building, which is a converted mobile home located among the barns (this presents its own problem; this week, I walked into my office and, no lie, found a chicken in it).

Problem II: In its new, pristine condition, Beth now wants to do a lot of minor "touch-up" and "routine maintenance" projects to make everything perfect, where as I am perfectly content to "rest my case" on the efforts of the professionals.

Problem III: The professionals don't do cats.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at, on or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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