How to get Bushfire Smoke out of Your House

Each summer in Australia, communities around the country are impacted by bushfire. Threatening people’s lives, properties, their way of life, and all the wildlife that is destroyed.

Often these fires occur in state forests, which consist of dense eucalyptus trees and thick undergrowth. Unfortunately, if a fire starts in there and gets out of control, it is very hard and many times impossible for humans to put it out.

While a fire may be many kilometers away from your house, you may still be acutely aware of it’s dooming presence. 

On some days the sky can actually turn a dark orange as the sun desperately seeks to shine through the smoke. And the sky turns into a thick haze of blurry smoke, preventing you from seeing meters ahead of you. 

When this happens you realise how leaky your house is. With the smoke finding any gaps, and sneaking in. While you appreciate that this is a much lesser issue than what the communities on the front line are dealing with.  You wonder, what can I do to reduce this? What is the best way of dealing with smoke in your home? How can you get rid of bushfire smoke from the house?

Is smoky air dangerous?

Orange bushfire smoke haze

Smoky air from a bush fire causes air pollution and contaminates the air we breathe. Since bush fire smoke is a combination of different-sized particles, water vapour and poisonous gases, too much is harmful to your health. Microscopic particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres can cross into the blood stream, creating inflammation make you sick.

Does Bushfire smoke affect us all equally?

Smoky air is most dangerous to the elderly, babies and young children, and people with heart or lung conditions. If members of your household fall into any of these categories, you really should take as many measures that you can to reduce your exposure to the smoke haze.

Why are the elderly more vulnerable to smoky air?

In general older people are more likely to have chronic age-related diseases, be on multiple medications, and have weaker immune systems. According to a US study on bushfire smoke and the elderly, they found that compared to older men, older women across all races are most likely to be admitted to hospital due to smoky air.

Is bushfire smoke bad for babies?

Babies and young children are more vulnerable to smoky air than adults as their airways are still developing. They also breathe much faster than older children and adults therefore proportionally breathing more air in.

The other reason they are more effected is that particles fall onto surfaces and babies are on floors etc closer to the resting particles.

How do you deal with smoky air?

The most important thing with smoke haze is to avoid exposure to it. This is done by preventing it from entering your home or going outside.

Most importantly, STAY INDOORS WITH YOUR WINDOWS AND DOORS SHUT.

Do not use your bathroom or kitchen extraction fan.

These are ventilation systems that are designed to exchange indoor air for outdoor air. These create a vacuum and all air removed from your home has to be replaced. This will more rapidly suck air from the outside in through all the little cracks in your home bringing more smoky air inside.

Tape up your windows

Stand near your windows and see if you can feel any leaks. Use tape to cover these up. Some tapes like masking tape or painters tape are less likely to harm paintwork. But if allowed to age for more than a few weeks they can dry out and be hard to remove (a hairdryer can help soften the tape) but its best to redo the tape every couple of weeks if the smoke is sticking around.

Seal your doors.

Weather seals are inexpensive and can be left there after the smoke leaves to give you the added benefit of preventing winter draughts. If the smoke is already upon you, it is better to wait until it passes as applying a weather seal means opening the door.

You can tape your doors up (this will mean you can’t use them). Similar to your windows use the most paint friendly tape you have on hand, and don’t leave it there for weeks to age.

Another easy tip is the lay wet towels along the base of the door. The gap at the bottom is usually the largest door gap. A wet towel does a better job of trapping particles than a dry one.

Turn off and cover your evaporative cooler

An evaporative cooler brings in air from the outside, so you need to turn it off and make sure all the cooling vents in your ceiling are closed. If you are still concerned that smoke is still coming through your evaporative units vent system. You can:

  • use internal vent covers designed to prevent cold air coming through the vents in winter. These are magnetic covers that you can just put on and take off whenever you need. These will completely stop any air from coming through the vents. They also have the added benefit of allowing you to not close the vents- I know mine are a fiddly nightmare. Covering your internal vents is the best way as you don’t need to go outside. If you don’t have any vent covers on hand you can tape plastic or cardboard over the vents as a interim measure.
cooling system vent cover
  • secure a tarpaulin over the top of your unit on the roof .

Note: it is a good idea to stick a note on the control panel to remind you to and family members remove any covers before turning the unit on again

How to get bushfire smoke out of house?

So you realised too late, or the kids left the door open. What ever the reason, you might find your house full of smoke. Then you are left wondering how to reduce smoky air in the house.

Do air conditioners filter out smoke?

If you have an air conditioner (not an evaporative cooler), you can turn it on. It will circulate the air, and will pick up particles in its filter.

Air conditioners are heat exchangers and air recyclers. This means that heat in your air is absorbed and pushed outside – not the air itself. The air conditioner works on the air that is inside your house already. So outdoor air is not being pulled into your home, leaving the smog outside.

Do humidifiers help with smoke?

Humidifiers may make your house more comfortable by adding moisture to the air therefore keeping your noise and mouth moist. But they are not air cleaners and will not reduce the amount of smoke particles in the air.

Does HEPA filter remove smoke?

A HEPA filter is effective against the microscopic particles that are suspended in the air from the smoke. Machines that have a true HEPA filter can remove all that are 0.3 microns in diameter and can be very effective in dealing with bushfire haze.

Does an air purifier help with smoke?

An air purifier can remove smoke and smoke odours, and clean the air making it safer to breath. But how do you know which air purifier is best for smoke?

When dealing with smoke, you need a air purifier that has both a HEPA filter and an activated carbon filter.

As InovaAir says, “activated carbon works like a sponge, it absorbs the smoke from the airstream. It is used in gas masks by firefighters and in professional grade gas respirators. Too little activated carbon, and the smoke will pass straight through.”

When buying a air purifier, keep in mind that you need to change the filters every three to six months. Make sure you are able to find the replacement filters prior to purchasing your unit, so you don’t just end up wasting your money and creating e-waste in a couple of months time.

Can I use my HEPA vacuum cleaner to remove smoke?

Many modern vacuum cleaners contain a true HEPA filter. These can be a great tool for cleaning up your home during or after a smoke event. The particles settle on your floor and will continue to get dispersed around your room until they are removed.

Babies and small children who are active closer to the ground are in close proximity to these particles, so it is best to remove them so they don’t breath them in. Vacuum all surfaces in the house to remove the most of the smog from your home. And as always, empty the vacuum into your outside bin, not the one in your kitchen.

If your vacuum cleaner does not have a HEPA filter, it will not be very effective against removing smoke pollution.

Make your own air filter system

Does a wet towel filter smoke? It won’t be as good as any professional air purifier on the market with HEPA and carbon filters but yes it can make a difference. If you are dealing with smoke inside your home than its best to give this a crack than sitting their breathing it in. Anecdotally, this improves air quality rapidly inside the building.

What you will need is a pedestal or desktop fan. A clothes drying rack, wet towels and vinegar (if you have it).

Wet the towels with the water (or water and vinegar solution), hang them on the on the clothes drying rack. Place the fan so it is blowing the air directly into the wet towels to absorb smoke.

Remove Smoke Smell With White Vinegar

Vinegar will not purify the air but it can deoderize it. This is, it can make it more comfortable by masking some of the unwanted smoke smell. An efficient way of dispersing the vinegar around your home is to boil a pot, creating vinegar steam. Just remember, you DON’T want to use your range hood fan while doing this.

Using plants to clean your air

Not only are plants a beautiful addition to your home that are known to have significant mental health benefits. They are a great staple to have in your home as they are natural air purifiers.

They are not going to reduce plumes of smoke within minutes. But they are a valuable long term addition to your home, constantly working on purifying your air.

Some of the best house plants for air purification are philodendron, spider plant, English ivy, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, bamboo palm and golden pothos. My favourite is the Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, as it is super hardy and not dependent on bright light.

What now?

Here in Canberra our hearts are especially breaking for our rural, south coast neighbours as the smoke is a constant reminder of what they are going through. It’s not just them, many regions right across Australia are burning.

Unfortunately this fire season continues to be a nasty one. Thank you to all the emergency services and community services crews out there who have dedicated themselves to keeping others safe. Thank you to their families also, who are often overlooked heroes. They pick up more at home enabling their loved ones help others and often living day in day out worrying about their safety.

Smoke rolling in over the ACT, taken from Mt Jerrabomberra on New Years Eve 2019

If you go outside during smoky days, please stay safe. Browse our P2 and N95 masks for sale. If not, a wet towel over your mouth is good. Please turn your lights on when on the road.

Lastly, keep an eye out for any opportunities you can help these burnt out communities, they will be hurting for a while. Small gestures from many people add up.

Stay safe Australia, make sure you wear your protective masks.

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