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Restoring Fire-Damaged Kitchen Accessories Part 1

July 12, 2002
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If there is any room in a residence where fires are most likely to occur, it is the kitchen. While kitchens contain many different items, we'll focus on several of the most common and the procedures for their restoration.

Dishes and Glassware
The single most common category in kitchens includes dishes and glassware. Most are stored in cabinets above or surrounding the stove, which is a common origin point for fire losses. The heat and soot residue generated by a typical grease fire can reach 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit at the cabinet and ceiling area in five to 10 minutes. Often times the plastic-like finishes on cabinet surfaces burn as well, frequently followed by any wooden cabinet doors. Hot grease and particle residues generated during combustion are attracted to the cooler surfaces of the china and glassware during the first few minutes, eventually building up layer by layer. Upon cooling, a hardened, lacquer-like coating forms.

Eventually, kitchenware temperatures begin elevating to approximately that of the fire itself, resulting in expansion of the glass or china surfaces. If the fire is extinguished quickly and cabinets are opened (especially if the fire is extinguished with water), rapid cooling can result in stress fracturing of glass or china kitchenware. The damage may be hidden by the soot residue, and remain unnoticed until cleaning begins. When the soot coating is dissolved, glassware can literally fall apart in your hand.

If soot is left on dishes or glassware for extended periods of time, heavy residue can combine with moisture to form acids. Over the course of a prolonged restoration job (e.g. several months), that acid residue can actually etch (cloud) those surfaces. Metal trim on some dishware may become tarnished or discolored due to prolonged exposure. At that point, what was thought to be a virtually indestructible surface could be permanently damaged.

Although most lightly smoked glassware cleans easily with general dishwashing detergents, when heavy soot residue and heat exposure takes place, it is impossible for restorers to guarantee the outcome (i.e. that breakage won't occur). Further, aggressive presoaking followed by hand cleaning is usually required for kitchenware with heavy residue. A dishwasher cleaning is seldom satisfactory, and usually must be followed by extensive touch-up cleaning by hand.

Procedures for total restoration include:

  • Start ASAP. Begin cleaning as soon as practical to make dishware available to insureds and to avoid etching of glass or glazed surfaces when heavy acid residue is present.
  • Presoak. Prepare a heavy-duty alkaline presoak solution and immerse each item for five to 10 minutes. Place the solution in a flat-bottomed, heavy-gauge plastic or rubberized container to minimize the risk of breakage. Provide skin protection with chemical resistant gloves and face shields to prevent injury, and make sure the area you're working in is well ventilated.
  • Agitate. When heavy, baked-on residue is present, hand-clean all surfaces, paying particular attention to the edges, rims and bases or pedestals of glassware or dishware. Scouring pads work well here. Brushes may need to be used on intricately designed dishware.
  • Rinse. Rinse all dishes thoroughly. Because of the highly alkaline nature of the presoaking solution, a neutral or mildly acidic (pH 5-6.5) rinse is suggested.
  • Final clean. Finally, clean and sterilize everyday dishes by placing them in a dishwasher and using a chlorinated, free-rinsing powdered dishwashing detergent. Always be sure to hand-clean delicate and valuable dishware.
  • Wrapping and packing. Carefully wrap all dishware in clean, sanitary newsprint and pack it in an appropriate manner in a proper box. Typically, this means dishes on their edges and glasses on bases. Be sure to label each box, identifying its contents.

    Plastic Containers
    Obviously, if plastic kitchenware is exposed to excessive heat that results in distortion, the only option is replacement. However, if smoke damage is the only damage sustained, cleaning is practical and inexpensive. Simply pre-clean plastic ware by hand with detergents to remove soot stains, and then final-clean and sanitize them in a dishwasher. Be sure to use the top rack to avoid direct exposure to heating elements during the drying cycle.

    If smoke staining is present, it can be removed by sprinkling the stained area with a chlorinated, powdered abrasive cleanser and rubbing in a gentle, uniform manner. Aggressive agitation abrades away the finish and leaves the plastic surface dull. Cleaning with a chlorinated compound also goes a long way toward eliminating odor. If the odor remains after cleaning, expose the plastic to ozone gas for 24 hours. Of course, if the results aren't satisfactory, then it is back to recommending replacement.

    Pots, Pans, Utensils
    One of the main considerations regarding pots and pans is that of pre-existing soil (baked-on grease buildup, etc.). Regardless of how the buildup got there, restorers should expect to remove it if results are to be satisfactory.

    Consider the following procedures:

  • Presoak. As with dishware, begin by presoaking heavily soot-damaged pots and pans in a heavy-duty presoak for five to 10 minutes. Adding a water-miscible dry solvent (glycol) to alkaline presoaks aids considerably in dissolving older, baked-on grease residues.
  • Agitation. Follow presoaking with aggressive scrubbing, using scouring pads as required.
  • Final rinse. Thoroughly final-clean and dry the items. Running pots, pans and utensils through a dishwasher to final-clean and sanitize them is also a good idea, if practical.

    Next time we'll discuss some of the more delicate items found in many kitchens, such as fine china, crystal and silverware. Stay tuned.

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