Smoke Pencil Puffer Research

January 07, 2010
January/February 2010
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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I am a manufacturer’s representative for Chimney Balloon USA. Since Chimney Balloons are air sealing devices for the fireplace, I use a smoke pencil to exhibit the effectiveness of this product. I conducted an informal evaluation of three common types of smoke pencil to select one to complement the Chimney Balloon product line. I hope the information I gathered is helpful to anyone involved in air sealing work, blower door and Duct Blaster testing, or just detecting drafts.

I decided to test three common types of smoke pencils that do not require flame to ignite or maintain their smoke. I purchased two of them for the test and borrowed one from an insulation contractor customer. The smoke pencils were tested in a low-light fireplace flue application, in a bright-light window and door application, and in a medium-light garage application to see how visible the smoke was, how it reacted to air currents, how easy the pencil was to operate, and if the smoke was a sensory irritant in a closed in space. A technician uses a glycol glycerin–based smoke pencil to test for fireplace draft.

Acid-Based Smoke Puffers

The most common acid-based smoke puffers are the Retrotec and TT Smoke Sticks. These operate on a mixture of acids that create the chemical smoke. Manufacturer’s retail price is around $60.

Pro. The smoke consistency is very good for draft detection. I liked the squeezable smoke sticks shown in the photo because they made it easier to control the quantity of smoke.
Con. Because they are acid based, you have to pay extra for hazardous material shipping via UPS, and the U.S. mail will not ship them at all. This also presents a problem if you have to travel by plane to a work location. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not allow them on commercial aircraft.

The smoke is corrosive and irritating to the eyes and nose if you are working in a closedin area like a drop ceiling or a crawlspace. If exposed to excessive heat—if you left them in your work truck on a hot day, for example— the smoke pencils can sometimes blow out or melt down, so they are best kept away from your other tools and in a sealed container like a welding rod case. Don’t store them by your new IR camera.

Glycol and Glycerin-Based Puffers

These smoke pencils from smokepencil. com are battery-operated smoke sticks. A very small internal heating element heats the glycerin, glycol, and water solution to produce a fine steam that looks like smoke. Manufacturer’s retail price is around $25.

Pro. The smoke is nontoxic, smells faintly sugary, and is of a good consistency for draft testing. The amount of smoke and the on-off feature are easy to control with the trigger on the device. These smoke pencils have a built-in LED light that helps illuminate the area you are testing. Batteries last a long time, but rechargeable batteries are recommended.
Con. Some condensation takes place in the nozzle, so after long periods of use you will have to empty the overfill tank that collects this condensation. The smoke fluid tank holds only about 1/2 ounce of fluid, so it sometimes requires more fluid between jobs. The TSA allows these devices on commercial flights, but they look suspiciously like drug paraphernalia on an X-ray scanner, so expect that your luggage will get checked. If you are traveling by air, keep some batteries handy and a material safety data sheet (MSDS) to show the TSA if needed.
An acid based smoke pencil is used to test baseboard gaps in an attached garage.
Silica-Based Puffer

This smoke puffer sold by Regin operates by jetting out a very fine silica powder. It comes in a variety of sizes—from large models with bulb squeeze actuators to small bottle-type models. They are often used in chemical lab environments, since silica is a relatively benign substance. Manufacturer’s retail price is around $10.

Pro. The “smoke” is nontoxic. This item can be shipped or taken on a plane without any hassle from TSA.
Con. Although the silica is nontoxic, it tends to hang in the air and cause sneezing and coughing. The powder can be hard to see in poorly lit areas. The silica powder will collect as dust on flat surface areas and makes a bit of a mess. You cannot squeeze the bottle while it is upside down, or it will spit out a flaky blob of silica. It is difficult to control the amount of smoke so you can detect drafts.

Note to Rookies

Inevitably rookie energy raters will ask, “Why don’t you just use an incense stick to test for drafts?” Any experienced energy professional can tell you that you don’t want to be inspecting a home with a lit incense stick in your hand. You are constantly moving stuff around and crawling around looking for air leakage. If you use an incense stick, sooner or later you will set it down in the wrong place, or ash or an ember will fall off the stick and burn or stain the carpet. Paying for a booboo like that makes the relatively inexpensive smoke pencil look like a pretty good investment.

Jason Raddenbach is the owner of Chimney Balloon USA. He is the North American manufacturers representative for Chimney Balloon Company of Aldershot, England, and other companies who make air sealing and hearth related products.

>> For more information:
See the full smoke pencil review blog article
at www.chimneyballoonusa.com.
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