Get Rid of Foul Smells

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Get Rid of Foul Smells
Learn the science behind odor removal

By Scott Barrett

My doctor once told me noses have three enemies: a common cold, a plastic surgeon's scalpel and foul odors. Bad odors are like nasal memories. No, make those nasal nightmares--nightmares that a sensitive sniffer never forgets.

The nose-odor conflict occurs on many fronts, but the absolute foulest of the foul odors are the ones that infest our automobiles. Carwash owners face many kinds of odor problems every day. The importance of odor removal is immeasurable to customers. Removing foul odors can double a customer's satisfaction and double the chance of a return visit. Of course odor removal takes a little more effort than merely spraying a perfume across the upholstery or hooking an aromatic air freshener to the rear view mirror, according to Bud Abraham of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR.

"Fragrances or deodorants just mask the odor. Things like sprays and those little trees that you hang from your mirror put a nice smell in your car, but they really don't eliminate any odor," Abraham says.

Understanding odor

There are two basic categories of odors: organic and chemical. Organic odors are byproducts of the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. Organic materials emit odor as a result of bacteria. The only way to eliminate the odor is to kill the bacteria. Examples of substances that produce organic odors are mildew, sour milk and urine.

Chemical odors are microscopic particles of a chemical that have been deposited onto a surface. If the particles are light enough to float in the air, humans can smell them. Examples of chemical odors include tobacco smoke and the sulfur particles produced when a match is lit.

The first step in automobile odor removal is to locate and remove as much of the odor source from the carpet or upholstery as possible. Customer communication is very important. Ask the customer if pets ride in the car, if anyone eats in the car on a regular basis or if anyone has smoked in the car.

Visible problems should be handled in three initial steps: vacuuming, scraping dried deposits and cleaning spots thoroughly. Proper cleaning of the carpet and the upholstery will eliminate the majority of odor problems. However, since 100 percent of the contaminants cannot always be removed, some odors often will remain.

Next, it's time to get technical. The following are some traditional odor-control chemicals being used by operators:

Odor masks work by masking odors with a heavy perfume or desensitizing the olfactory senses of the person who is subjected to a smell. Odor products designed to fight odors in this manner work by combining or pairing aromatic oils with compounds that have malodors. The result is either substantially reduced odor or no odor at all.

Encapsulants are agents that surround an odor source and prevent it from off-gassing.

Absorbents are normally crystalline structures that attract odor molecules and trap them within their internal matrix. Activated charcoal and baking soda are examples of absorbents.

Bio-Enzymes are genetically engineered bacteria and enzymes that actually consume odorous materials such as animal excretions and spilled fuel oil, thereby eliminating them as an odor source.

Disinfectants deal with odors caused by organisms such as mold and mildew. Killing the organism stops its ability to generate odors.

Combating specific odors

While the odor-removal industry is fairly standardized, sometimes it is necessary to use specific anti-odor weapons for certain situations. Tobacco odor is one smell that won't simply go away by rolling down the windows and airing out a car overnight. Tobacco smoke clings to every ounce of fabric and smells worse over time, because a car's interior is pressurized, allowing tobacco smoke to permeate empty cavities.

"Tobacco odor can linger for a very long time in the closed environment of a vehicle," says Frank Walker, public relations manager for AirSept, Inc., Marietta, Ga. "The way to deal with tobacco odor is to use a chemical that will convert tobacco-odor molecules to a water-soluble state. The natural evaporative process then eliminates these molecules," he says.

Operators often hear customers complain about a rotten-egg odor being emitted from their air-conditioning system. This is a common problem, Walker says.

"If you smell an offensive odor only when you turn on your air-conditioning system, the cause is inside the system," Walker says.

The source of air-conditioning odor is often the uncontrolled growth of bacteria and other microorganisms in the evaporator area of the system. These microscopic contaminants are naturally present in the air and are constantly being drawn into the evaporator during air-conditioner operation. If the condensation that is a by-product of air-conditioning operation remains in the evaporator, it provides an ideal breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria, mold and mildew. One method of elimination is coating the evaporator with an anti-microbial that will inhibit the growth of odor-causing microorganisms. One example is AirSept's Air Cooling Coil Coating, an acrylic coating with hydrophilic properties that make it difficult for odor-causing moisture and contaminants to attach themselves to the air conditioner's interior surfaces. When moisture and contaminants cannot combine, the common source of air-conditioner odor is eliminated, Walker says.

Alternative methods


An electric air-treatment device can provide high output of an odor-neutralizing dry vapor over a short period of time.

This is, of course, the 21st century. We may not have flying cars yet, but we do have 21st-century methods of conquering odors. Biological odor eliminators can be sprayed into a car from a bottle or dispensed through a fogger. Foggers take a water/chemical mixture or a water/biological odor remover and create a fog inside the car. The fog lands on every crack and crevice but doesn't get the interior too wet.

One of the most-talked-about alternative odor fighters is the ozone generator. Ozone generators break oxygen (O2) molecules down into two O molecules. These single molecules then combine with other O2 molecules to become O3 molecules. Due to the extra molecule, ozone is very unstable and highly oxidizing. When it is introduced to an area, ozone attaches itself to the odor molecules and oxidizes them into their basic elements--carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which have no odor. Ozone can oxidize organic substances such as airborne bacteria and destroy odors and toxic fumes.

Industries worldwide have been using ozone since the 1800s for water purification and more recently in a wide range of applications for air treatment including fire restoration. Ozone generators are also very economical because no one has to monitor them, no adjustments are needed and no employees are needed to make them work. The carwash employees are free to go on to the next car while it operates. When the timer shuts off, the nozzle is removed, the car is aired out and the process is complete.

The downside of ozone

Unfortunately all is not perfect on the ozone front. Ozone is a recognized lung irritant, which decomposes rubber and adhesives and attacks textiles and pigments. The more often a person is exposed to ozone, the higher the required concentration for detection. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that ozone can be harmful to human health. An EPA study suggests that ozone, when inhaled, can damage the lungs, cause chest pain, worsen chronic respiratory diseases and compromise the body's ability to fight respiratory infections.

But there are precautions that carwash owners can take to ensure the safe use of ozone generators. Ozone is generated on-site, thus eliminating transportation hazards. Also, the generation system can be shut down if an ozone leak develops. Another safety advantage is the physical characteristic of ozone that allows it to be detected (smelled) at concentrations much lower than harmful levels.

Carwash operators using ozone generators for odor removal also need to follow some of the ozone safety basics. First, ozone is designed to be used in an uninhabited area so no one should sit in the car while it is being treated with ozone. After treatment is complete, carwash operators should open the car doors and roll down the windows. The half-life of an ozone molecule is only two to 13 minutes; therefore, customers won't have to wait too long before they can drive away safely. Carwashes that install ozone generators should also ensure safety by incorporating proper operator training programs.

For operators who prefer not to use ozone, Vaportek, Inc. offers a dry-vapor alternative to ozone. The Vaportek Restorator is a portable electric device that can freshen interior space with non-toxic technology. The Restorator uses an odor-neutralizing compound that modifies the olfactory nature of unwanted odors to the point of odor disappearance. Since the device does not introduce any moisture into the treatment area, damage risk is lowered significantly.

"Our products...remove imbedded odors by permeating surfaces in affected areas with a neutralizing, dry vapor that is created by diffusing natural aromatic oils into the air. If the source of the odor is removed prior to treatment, malodors will not return," says Vaportek's Marketing Manager, Carol Abrahamson.

Well, that's a look at the state of odor control in 2001. As the science of odor continues to develop, those odor-causing organisms may be headed down a one-way street to extinction--at least inside the automobile.

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