Soda Blasting

Photo courtesy of First Alert Emergency Services

Photo courtesy of First Alert Emergency Services
The last 15 to 20 years in the abrasive-blasting world have been interesting, to say the least. One small reason is that sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, has become an everyday topic of conversation. Beginning with the restoration of The Statue of Liberty many years ago, baking-soda abrasive blasting has carved out a niche in the market generally known as sand blasting. And while sand blasting is truly a thing of the past (due to silicosis, an injury similar to asbestosis), baking soda is continuing to grow in popularity and diversity.

A few short years ago, some industrious contractors had the notion that this oddball blasting technique might be able to remove soot, carbon and residue after a fire (most baking soda innovators wouldn't write off any potential application without first blasting a little white dust at it). The process was able to remove the residues, and even some light charring from wood and other surfaces, without further damaging the structure.

This new technique is four times faster than hand sanding and brushing, and leaves wood with what can best be described as a "like new" appearance. The process also provides a more thorough cleaning than previous techniques. Blasting allows the operator to clean deep into small gaps, entirely into corners, behind installed ductwork, and in areas where the operator was previously unable to access. Recent advances in nozzles and accessories make today's blasting even more effective.

These same contractors involved with baking-soda blasting for fire restoration found a natural extension into the mold remediation arena. And just as insurance companies, contractors, builders and homeowners began to realize the full impact of mold, the process began showing promise in the battle against it.

Baking-soda blasting, whether used for cleaning graffiti in the city, a smokehouse in the country or mold right where you live, is soft, about 2.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (where diamond is 10, talc is 1), yet still angular. This angular nature of the crystal is described as "knife-like" when viewed under a microscope. Baking soda crystals are manufactured in a state-of-the-art facility, able to produce the right size and shape consistently.

Baking soda is water soluble, with a pH near neutral and a buffering effect as well, neutralizing both acids and caustics. Blasting dust and particles may be wiped off or rinsed away, if necessary. Baking soda has always had a reputation as a safe, pure product, both to the user and the environment (how many cleaning media would you use to bake a cake?). And when used in an efficient delivery system, on the correct application, baking soda is cost effective.

When examining baking soda as a medium for mold removal, we need concentrate on just a few of these attributes. First and foremost, the softness of the baking-soda crystal is the key. Baking-soda abrasive blasting effectively removes mold while minimizing damage to the underlying surface (i.e., wood, PVC, modern wiring, ductwork, etc.) When using the proper equipment setup (correct nozzles, media regulators, hoses, etc.), baking soda (crystal size and flow agent), and technique (proper air flow, pressure, angle of attack, etc.), the process allows fast, efficient removal of mold with a minimum of damage, waste and cleanup.

With the proper equipment, the amount of baking soda usage is minimized. Minimal baking soda means less cleanup and better visibility. Many contractors get the impression that there are blasting media that require no cleanup (dry ice, for instance). But is this really the case? When you sand or blast mold growth and mold spores off the surface, are they really "gone"? No, the spores are still in the area and on the surface.

Just removing the mold growth from the surface is simply not enough. I strongly recommend the same cleaning procedure for any blasting technique (baking soda, dry ice, cob meal, etc.) and after manual removal as well. This procedure is best described as a "HEPA sandwich": High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuuming, damp wiping, HEPA vacuuming, damp wiping. The only real difference between this and post-cleaning procedures for manual (i.e. hand sanding) removal techniques and other blasting procedures is the amount of material to be swept up before the HEPA sandwich is applied.

Proper equipment specification is critically important. Choosing a system that is right for the job, with all the required accessories, it the key. But this is only one part of a successful mold remediation, or smoke restoration blasting operation. Proper training and guidance of the operators, estimators, and business managers is equally important.

Compare the blasting technique to a NASCAR stock car. The best car in the world will not win a single race without a qualified driver. Nor would the car even get into the race if sponsors couldn't be found, entry qualifications met, or guidance and support to the starting line given.

When choosing a system, be sure that proper, competent, on-site training is part of the package. Also, make sure that the system you choose is supported by a team with experience, and the ability to be there when you need them in the future with technical advice, available spare parts, operator training, and equipment support.

While this is a very exciting time to be in restoration and mold remediation, it can also be very confusing. Decisions are often made quickly, based on promises and high expectations. Be aware that there are all sorts of inexperienced, or even shady, dealers attempting to get their hands in your pockets. Do your homework. Ask the right questions and make your decisions. But get the right information before you do.

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