Photo: Afanasiev Andrii (Shutterstock)
If you’ve ever woken up to a broken water pipe in your home, a broken water heater, or suffered from a flash flood that turned your basement into a swamp, you know that water can be one of the most destructive and damaging elements. If you own a home, you’ll eventually realize that water damage is one of the worst things that can happen to you — and that you need to act fairly quickly if you’re to avoid bigger (and longer-term) problems. Here’s what to do when water makes its way into your home in an unwanted and unwelcome way.
Judge the water
First things first: If you’re in shock in your living room with water pouring from a broken pipe, turn off the water. You know it where your water shut-off valve isTo the right?
Once the immediate problem is resolved – e.g. Whether it’s turning off the water or waiting out a storm, your next step is to figure out what kind of water you’re dealing with. If it comes from a broken plumbing, leaking shower, or rain, you can clean it yourself with minimal protective gear. If it “grey” water from a toilet, washing machine or dishwasherYou can still clean it yourself, but you should make sure to wear rubber gloves and disinfect yourself thoroughly afterwards.
However, if it’s “black” water from sewage or street flooding, you probably need professional help. Flood water usually contains a lot of bacteria and faeces that can make you sick, since sewage is sewage. If this is the cause of your water problem, consult a restoration professional.
dealing with the damage
If your water damage is due to clean or gray water and is not too extensive, do the following:
- Remove standing water. Use a wet/dry vacuum, universal pump or a billion towels to remove water from all surfaces.
- Discard porous materials. I hate to tell you this, but almost anything that absorbs water may need to be discarded once it’s soaked. This includes wood, furniture and drywall. If it’s something washable like a pillow or rug, you can store it if the water was relatively clean, but everything else has to go as the chances of you getting all the water out are minimal. You can cut your drywall an inch or two wider than the soaked areas on your walls and ceiling. You may be able to save wood floors if the water is relatively clean (don’t try if it’s black water) and you cleared the standing water very quickly, but your chances of success are not good. If the water has been sitting there for a while or has been absorbed by the wood, water is likely trapped between the boards and the sub-floor, and between the sub-floor and the joists. Over time, this water causes mold and blight and attracts insects—and the only way to really dry it out is to remove the soil and subsoil. You can try aggressively drying the area, but be especially paranoid about signs of mold and rot.
- dehumidify Depending on the extent of the water damage, some fans or an industrial dehumidifier (that you can rent) will be required for a few days. After removing the damaged flooring, drywall, and other materials, air the area until you notice exactly zero moisture. This may take a while, so be patient.
- Disinfect. Regardless of the source of your water ingress, clean any non-porous material such as tile or any surface it touched. Rainwater may not kill you, but it can bring a lot of dirt and germs into your home, and gray water can be even worse.
- Check for mold. The thing about mold is that it’s pretty much everywhere, dormant and waiting for some water to bring it to life. Water damage increases the overall moisture in the affected areas and invites mold to take root. Regardless of how quick you act and how well you’ve dried the room, you should wait to reseal things and check that mold hasn’t formed. Look for black dots on the affected areas; Mold and mildew can often look like dirt, but if you know the space has recently flooded, it’s probably mold. You can use one too test at home to be sure, although it may take a while for the results to come back.
- Prevention. After removing destroyed material, drying the water, and checking for mold, your final step before replacing everything is to consider what you can do to prevent this from ever happening again. If the damage resulted from a natural disaster, it might be worth regrading your property or installing pumps or drains to minimize flooding. Of course, if the water came from a plumbing problem or a roof leak, you need to get that fixed—really fix—before you do anything else.
- Repair and replace. It might be worth investing in one moisture meter, which can tell you if there is any residual moisture in your water damaged area. Once the meter no longer detects significant humidity, you can remove your fans and dehumidifiers, and replace drywall, flooring, and furniture as needed.
When to panic
If your water damage is relatively limited and you’ve responded to it quickly, chances are you’ll get through it without too much trouble or expense. But there are scenarios where panic is the appropriate response to water damage:
- An entire prefab floor is flooded. If your entire first floor (or my dear, your entire second floor) or finished basement has had standing water, this is a huge problem that will likely require a major professional cleanup. This involves ripping out your floor and at least part of your walls and getting rid of pretty much everything that has been touched by the water. Check your insurance, make some calls, and get ready to write some checks.
- You don’t know the source. It’s one thing to have a water stain on your ceiling and quickly find out that your old toilet is leaking. It’s a whole different thing when you have water damage and you can’t figure out where it’s coming from because you probably have a big problem. This could be a pipe in your wall that has developed a leak, a neighboring property that is leaking onto your property, or the nightmarish scenario of groundwater that has decided to invade your property. If you can’t figure it out, call a professional.
- The water stood for a while. If you come home from vacation and find your living room is a puddle, or if water seeps into an area of the house that you don’t go to often, you’re going to have a bigger problem, even if it’s not too big large. Water that has seeped into your floors, walls and furniture is very difficult to dry out and has likely spread to other parts of the house as well.
- You see water damage on your foundation. Floors and walls can be replaced – it can get expensive, but it’s doable. However, if your foundation shows signs of water damage, you’re in a world of hurt. If your basement or crawl space has flooded and you’re now seeing mold, cracks, crumbling, or other signs that your foundation has been damaged, call an expert right away and start thinking about worst-case scenarios.
The key to fixing water damage in your home is speed: the quicker you cut off the water source and start drying, the brighter the outlook will be.