Photo: Afanasiev Andrii (Shutterstock)
If you’ve ever woken up to a broken water pipe in your home, a busted water heater, or have suffered through a flash flood that turns 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 will eventually come to the realization that water damage is one of the worst things that can happen to it—and that you need to react pretty fast if you’re going to avoid bigger (and more long term) problems . Here’s what to do when water invades your home in unwanted and unwelcome ways.
Assess the water
First things first: If you’re standing in your living room in shock as water pours from a broken pipe, turn off the water. You do know where your water shutoff valve isright?
Once the immediate problem is solved—eg, shutting 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’s from a broken water pipe, leaking shower, or rain, you can clean it up yourself with minimal protective gear. If it’s “Gray” water from a toilet, washing machine, or dishwasheryou can still clean it up yourself, but you should be careful to wear rubber gloves and to sanitize yourself thoroughly afterwards.
If it’s “black” water from sewage or street flooding, however, you probably need professional help. Floodwater usually contains a lot of bacteria and fecal matter that can make you ill, as sewage is, well, sewage. If that’s the source of your water problem, call a restoration professional.
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Dealing with the damage
If your water damage stems from clean or gray water and isn’t too extensive, here’s what to do:
- Remove standing water. Use a wet/dry vacuum, utility pump, or a billion towels to remove water from all surfaces.
- Dispose of porous materials. I hate to tell you this, but just about anything that absorbs water might need to be discarded if it got soaked. This includes wood, furniture, and drywall. If it’s something washable, like a cushion or rug, you can save it if the water was relatively clean, but everything else has to go because the chances you can get all the water out are minimal. You can cut your drywall an inch or two wider than the soaked areas on both your walls and ceilings. You might be able to salvage wood floors if the water is relatively clean (if it’s black water, you shouldn’t try) and you dealt with the standing water very quickly, but your chances of success aren’t good. If the water sat there for a while or was soaked up by the wood, water is likely trapped between the boards and the subfloor, and between the subfloor and the joists. Over time, that water will cause mold and dry rot and attract insects—and the only way to really dry it out is to remove the floor and subfloor. You can try to aggressively dry the area, but be extra paranoid about signs of mold and rot.
- De-humidify. Depending on the size of the water damage, running some fans or an industrial de-humidifier (which you can rent) for a few days is going to be necessary. Once you’ve removed the damaged flooring, drywall, and other materials, air the area out until you detect exactly zero moisture. This can take a while, so be patient.
- Disinfect. No matter what the source of your water invasion, clean any non-porous materials like tile or surfaces that it touched. Rainwater might not kill you, but it can bring a lot of dirt and germs into your house, and gray water can be even worse.
- Check for mould. 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 humidity of the affected areas, inviting mold to set up shop. No matter how quickly you reacted and how well you dried the place out, you should hold off on sealing things back up and check to make sure mold hasn’t started to grow. look for black dots on the affected areas; mold and mildew can often look like dirt, but if you know the space was recently flooded, it’s probably mold. You can also use an at home test to be certain, though it may take a while for results to come back.
- prevention. Once you’ve removed ruined material, dried out the water, and assessed 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 was due to natural disaster, it might be worth looking into re-grading your property or installing pumps or drains to minimize flooding. If the water came from a plumbing issue or a roof leak, obviously you’ll need to have that repaired—really repaired—before you do anything else.
- Repair and replace. It might be worth it to invest in a moisture meter, which can tell you if there’s still residual moisture in your water damaged area. Once the meter no longer detects significant moisture, you can remove your fans and dehumidifiers and replace drywall, flooring, and furniture as needed.
When to panic
If your water damage is relatively contained and you reacted swiftly to it, chances are you’ll get through this without too much trouble or expense. But there are scenarios when panic is the appropriate response to water damage:
- A whole finished floor is flooded. If your entire ground floor (or, sweet lord, your entire second floor) or finished basement had standing water, this is an enormous problem that likely requires a full-on professional remediation. This will involve tearing out your floor and at least part of your walls and getting rid of just about everything that was 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 figure out that your old toilet is leaking. It’s something else entirely if you have water damage and you can’t figure out where it’s coming from, because chances are you have a big problem. This could be a pipe inside your wall that’s developed a leak, a neighboring property that’s leaking onto yours, or the nightmarish scenario of groundwater that has decided to invade your property. If you can’t figure it out, call a pro.
- The water sat for a while. If you come home from a vacation to find your living room is a puddle, or if water infiltration happens in an area of the house you don’t often enter, you’re going to have a bigger problem even if the scale of it isn ‘t too large. Water that has soaked into your floors, walls, and furnishings will be 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 can be done. If your foundation shows signs of water damage, however, you’re in a world of hurt. If your basement or crawlspace flooded and you now see mold, cracks, crumbling, or any other sign that your foundation has been compromised, call an expert in immediately and start thinking about worst-case scenarios.
The key to dealing with any water damage in your home is speed: The faster you cut off the source of the water and start drying things out, the more positive the outlook becomes.