Monday, August 1, 2011

Aromatic hydrocarbon outgassing

OK, so as you may know, the Midwest has basically been baked for about a month now under a heat wave like few others in history. Here's the unexpected consequence: even though the carriage house is air conditioned (with four small window air conditioners, which do a surprisingly fantastic job for only about $100 a month), the heat and humidity is still steaming out all manner of aromatic hydrocarbons.

That apartment was built in 1945/1946, so the only aromatic hydrocarbon worth talking about is the redolent odor of sixty years of stale tobacco smoke.

Now, I have to tell you, tobacco smoke only adsorbs to a certain range of surfaces, and the plaster walls are not among those surfaces - except inside the interior walls, which are an early form of plasterboard on wooden studs, with plaster on top. So there was a certain amount of stench wafting from all the outlets, particularly the old-construction boxes I installed myself (because they had more gap around them). Caulk, some ozone treatment, and a judicious amount of urethane foam and a free hand with the Zinsser 1-2-3 primer (which, I believe I have stated before, I love like life itself) solved most of that, although the effort is still ongoing. Which is good, because, for example, painting the bathroom cabinet was on my mighty list for the carriage house [a brief aside here: some items on that list are checked off! But I've been too busy to write.].

Once the outlets were solved, we noticed that all the cracks behind trim around the windows and doors stank (bare wood inside). The shelves in the hall closet stank.

But the place that only started outgassing yesterday (that I noticed) is the fridge nook.

So - and this is really disgusting - I'm sitting here working, and the ice cubes in my Coke taste like cigarettes.


  1. Um...Yummy?! I lived in a "vintage" apartment in Logan Square (Chicago) for a few years. The rent was $475 a month, utilities except electric were included and the landlord let me paint, rip up carpet, take tile off the walls - whatever I wanted as long as I didn't call him! Anyway, every summer even with with a dehumidifier and A/C going my entire apartment would have the faint (and sometimes not so faint) odor of cigarettes. I don't smoke.

    All this time I thought it was ghostly cocktail parties from the past wafting the smells of cheerful drunk smokers through time into my apartment. One of my friends back then worked at a bar close to my house and some nights she would fall asleep on my couch - she swore she could hear the clinking of ice cubes in rocks glasses when she was falling asleep.

    We all had wonderful (if a tad excessive) times when I lived there and we really thought it was the "haunted" parties that happened in a super natural parallel world that gave the place it's vibes.

    IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ANY OF US that the old horse hair and lathe behind the plaster probably absorbed enough smoke to give us all cancer.

    Anyway - I just love your blog. My husband has similar aspirations of buying one of these old places for cash and a time fixing it up. We haven't been able to find a place we can afford in a neighborhood where I wouldn't require armed security to walk me to my car. I might have chanced it when I was younger but we have a daughter...

  2. Well, the aromatic hydrocarbons aren't what give you cancer - certainly not in the amounts that come back out of walls. It's the tar, all safely locked in the lungs of Chicago past.

    The nice thing about this story is that now that the heat is gone, so's the odor, which is fortunate, because after I put oil paint down on the closet floor (which looks marvelous!) the family vetoed any further paint until it's cool enough to sleep with the windows open. Wimps.

    I love my blog, too, and my house. Sadly, however, loving the house is not enough for my wife (especially) to continue living in this neighborhood. It's not dangerous here, but there's just so much shirtless, toothless, tattooed, chain-smoking, welfare-subsisting, foul-mouthed, shiftless, redneck Hoosier trash that one Hungarian theoretical physicist can be expected to tolerate over the course of a lifetime.

    I get tired of the high-decibel hooting of their mating calls in the dusk twilight, but that's just because I have to move every two years or I start going stir crazy.

    So as much as it tears the beating heart out of my breast, because after two years I'd really only started to scratch the surface, I think we'll be moving on next spring-ish. I'm lobbying to keep the place as a hobby, given that we don't actually owe anything on it and I fully expect the market to recover sometime in the 20's, but I think Puerto Rico and then - thank God - Europe is in our future.

  3. "I get tired of the high-decibel hooting of their mating calls in the dusk twilight..."

    You made me laugh so hard I almost couldn't breathe. Hopefully you will keep the place as a hobby house.

    Having had the eye opening experience of living around tribes of redneck types, I suggest getting someone (a relative?) to live in your house when you move to PR. It will keep the locals from liberating any or all of your plumbing/wiring/radiators/etc. in between welfare checks. At the very least a vacant house might become a love shack for the feral teenagers!

  4. Actually, you'd be surprised. While there is looting, people know which houses are really abandoned and which aren't - and it's the really abandoned ones that get looted. After all, those owners have demonstrated they don't care one way or another.

    Even if they're living on welfare, these people actually have a pretty strong moral sense.

  5. In Chattanooga there are plenty of neat old houses I would have loved to work on. Here, not so much. The boom years here started post 1960. My dream house here would be converted cargo containers. Most of the old places are rehabbed, and just about everything else is just out of reach here.

  6. Zinsser 123 Is as you have found a indispensable friend in almost every project. However In my use I have found that a freshly Zinssered home too needs a little help to help with off Gassing.

    Check into Nasa's Air treatment for the space station and get yourself a unit to behind those walls etc.

    once you have nailed your odor to the wall you can rent it out and go into business to pay for it.