Water: A home's sneakiest enemy
They can be a nightmare for homeowners: Burst pipes, exploding water heaters or the slow, steady, hidden drip of leaky appliance hoses. Here's what to do if you find yourself in a water emergency, and 12 ways to prevent disaster.
Water may be the indispensible source of life, but it can be a villain when it's leaking inside your home.
Just ask Will Southcombe, director of training for PuroClean, a cleanup and restoration company with franchises in 43 states. He's been in the field for decades and has seen the worst that water can do.
Tales of woe
Southcombe's line of work provides some memorable tales. One couple he knew left on a two-week vacation and, when they returned, "opened the door, and about 6 inches of water came out of the living room."
Somewhere in an upstairs bathroom, a pipe fitting had broken, probably soon after they'd departed. Water gushed unchecked for nearly two weeks. "Every room on the first level had water. The basement was full," Southcombe says. "Every piece of wood in the house was warped. It was a 100% loss — it was covered by insurance. They bulldozed the home and built over."
The story's not really unusual, water-damage experts say. And "probably 80% of what we do could have or should have been prevented," Southcombe says.
Accidents that vigilant homeowners can prevent include:
- Malfunctioning dishwashers
- Leaky washing machines and ice-makers
- Broken and backed-up toilets and sinks
- Bursting appliance hoses
- Leaky pipe fittings
- Frozen pipes and gutters
- Leaking roofs and ice dams
- Gaping windowsills
- Foundation cracks
- Unsealed wooden decks
Southcombe tells of a customer who came downstairs in the morning to find that the back corner of the refrigerator had fallen through the floor. Cause: a leaky ice-maker. True, the house was old and the floor was made of particleboard, but the fridge probably had been dripping, unnoticed, for about five years.
The lesson? Keep your home dry. It's your most important home-maintenance job. If a leak is running silently under your fridge or inside the walls, you're facing possibly thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars of damage.
Whenever water touches anything organic for long — wool carpet fibers, paper, wood or the bits of sloughed-off skin, pet hair and dirt found in even a well-vacuumed carpet — rot and mold get started. Depending on the materials and the temperature, mold can begin in a day or two. Rot takes longer. Repairing or replacing rotten or moldy structural wood, engineered wood products, drywall and carpet will set you or your insurance company back a small fortune.
Much of the trouble that water causes goes unseen until too late. "Water doesn't necessarily wave a red flag as it runs into your home and does its damage. It's very, very sneaky," says Mark Decherd, founder of DryOut, a Fort Myers, Fla., company that maps and treats damage from water in homes.
Will insurance cover it?
Water is rising (so to speak) as a source of insurance claims from homes and businesses. That doesn't even include floods and other natural catastrophes, says Heather Paul, spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance. "The vast majority of those water losses are preventable," she adds.
"Out of every $100 paid in insurance claims, $12 goes to water damage and freezing claims, not including water damage from flooding rivers and seas," says Bob Passmore, of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, an industry group.
When faced with water damage at home, a homeowner invariably asks, "Will my insurance cover it?"
For an insurer to cover your claim for water-related damage, the cause must have been "sudden and accidental," says Jeanne Salvatore, of the Insurance Information Institute. If your kitchen floor rotted because you put off fixing a leaky kitchen sink, for example, you're probably not covered.
"It's considered your responsibility as a homeowner to maintain your home," Salvatore says.
On the other hand, if you maintained your pipes and kept up with your home's maintenance but one winter the pipes burst, the damage will be covered under standard homeowners insurance, Salvatore says.
Southcombe says he believes insurers are becoming stricter. Where they once might have overlooked neglected maintenance and paid the related claim, these days they're more likely to stick to the letter of the policy, he says.
Even when insurance does kick in, there can be significant headaches for homeowners. Ask Mary Birkmeyer, of Longview, Wash., who, with her houseful of Christmas guests, awoke to find that the water heater had sprung a leak, ruining a hardwood floor. The family had to live with exhaust fans and humidifiers running night and day for three weeks in an effort to salvage the floor before the insurer finally decided to replace it.
Their insurer has said it won't cover water damage to their home again. So the family, now extra vigilant, installed inexpensive, individual alarms under appliances and pipe joints to alert them to dampness. "The alarms have saved us on several occasions," Birkmeyer says. Even if you can continue getting coverage after a claim, your premiums may rise.
Emergency action plan
When it comes to water damage, your energy is best spent on prevention — and we'll get to that in a minute. But it's also good to know how to handle an emergency. Say you're running a bath and then your mom phones. She goes on and on and suddenly — yikes! — you remember the bath. But it's too late: Water's everywhere, flooding the floor, running out the door. Here's what to do:
1. Move furniture. Remove everything you can from a wet carpet (dyes and stains on wood furniture may bleed onto the carpet); if you can't move a piece of furniture, put aluminum foil or a plastic bag under the legs.
2. Lift draperies. Leave draperies in place but get them up off the floor by putting them on clothes hangers and hooking the hanger onto the drapery rod.
3. If water reaches a wall, pay attention. If you can spot water in the carpet or it reaches a wall juncture, treat the problem seriously. It may have traveled unseen four or five feet along the floor, through the carpet pad, possibly reaching cabinets, walls, insulation, other rooms and the subfloor, elevating the risk of mold, Southcombe says.
4. Get help fast. A quality company or professional will assess your problem for no charge. Search online or in the Yellow Pages under "water damage" or "water restoration." Call and ask, "Will you do a free assessment?" Make sure they use an infrared thermography camera to find cold spots (indicating evaporating water). Or ask an insurance agent to recommend a trusted firm. (You can say, "I don't want to file a claim; I just want to know who you'd use.") Do this immediately.