Water-A Home’s Sneakiest Enemy

September 15, 2010 | 401 Comments

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.

By Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

Water: A home’s sneakiest enemy (© Stephen Swintek/Getty Images)

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.

Repeat after me: Prevention, prevention, prevention
Preventive maintenance is cheaper and easier than, say, tearing out and replacing the floor and subfloor because of an undetected leak from a toilet or pipe. You might want to post this list on your fridge as a reminder:

1. Clean house frequently.
Sounds strange, perhaps, but regular cleaning of your home’s interior helps you spot trouble early. Pull out everything under sinks (groan) monthly and check for moisture all the way back to the wall. While cleaning floors, walls, toilets, appliances, counters, showers, sinks and tubs, keep your eyes peeled for water stains or unexplained dampness. Pay special attention to areas near water-pipe connections.

2. Pull out appliances. Every month or so, pull the refrigerator (if it has a water dispenser), dishwasher and clothes washer away from the wall to check behind and beneath for dampness. (If you can’t move an appliance, use a long-handled refrigerator coil-cleaning brush to pull out dust, checking it for dampness.)

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3. Stick around when using the dishwasher. And the washing machine. Stay awake and alert while these appliances run through the entire cycle. Otherwise, you risk the chance that a hose could burst, flooding your home. If you want total peace of mind, turn off the valves that send water to the washing machine except when you’re doing laundry.

4. Trust your nose. If you smell mold or must, follow up right away. “It’s a tip something’s leaking somewhere,” Southcombe says. Look first in bathrooms and the basement. If you can’t solve it, hire a water-damage specialist or home inspector with an infrared camera.

5. Keep drains and gutters running free.
Water can seep into your home if leaves and debris block gutters and drainpipes. Backed-up water can freeze and burst gutters and damage the roof. How often to clean gutters? It depends on how often they fill up – different at every home. Use a ladder to check every few months. While you’re there, ensure that downspouts are clear and check under eaves for leaks during the rainy season.

6. Divert water away from the house. After a rain, make a quick tour of your home’s exterior to ensure that storm water and gutter runoff are flowing away — not toward — the structure. The ground should slope away from your home, garage and outbuildings. Check the basement, crawl space or foundation frequently for dampness and locate and repair the source of any water intrusion.

As needed
7. Learn to shut off the water.
To turn off the water where it enters your home, look for a wheel-handled valve, similar to those on outside faucets, often near the water meter — in the utility room, basement, laundry room or garage or under a sink inside the house. To stop water flowing in an emergency — a burst pipe, for example — quickly shut this valve. Professionals such as Decherd and Southcombe turn off the water to the house whenever they leave overnight. If you do this in winter, also open a water tap — in the tub, for example — just enough to let the water left in the pipes drain out, preventing it from being trapped in the pipes in case of freezing. “Water expands 11% when it freezes,” Southcombe says. “If the pipe is already full of water, something has to give, and inevitably it is the pipe.”

8. Inspect the roof yearly. “Make sure you don’t have any loose shingles, and that the edging is down nice and tight,” Decherd says. “Look for deterioration in the roofing materials. Keep an eye out for dips, dimples or discoloration in the roofing material” — these are the first signs of leaks or rot.

9. Insulate and ventilate the roof. Icicles dripping from a roof line may give your home a fairy-tale look, but they’re a tipoff to a serious problem: an ice dam, where water backs up behind ice. When snow and ice blanket your home, a warm, poorly insulated and inadequately ventilated roof can melt the underlayer of snow. The melt is trapped, seeping into the house. Rot and mold can start in the roof, walls and framing. Water dripping down the eaves forms those icicles. Ice dams (learn more from the University of Minnesota extension service) are one of the largest sources of homeowner claims, State Farm’s Paul says. She advises getting professional help to etch channels in an ice dam that drain it away. (Pounding on a frozen roof can cause damage.)

10. Inspect window frames. Each summer, pull up a ladder to look around windows and doors for gaps between the sills and the house and replace caulk where needed. Probe discolored wood for softness and rot. Act quickly to replace, prime, paint and caulk any damaged wood.

11. Replace appliance hoses. In Southcombe’s line of work, the most common source of water damage is broken water lines on clothes washers and dishwashers. “I firmly believe that 76.4% of all hoses break when you close the door as you leave for work in the morning,” he says. A three-quarter-inch hose releases about 10 gallons of water a minute — a lot of water if you’re gone and it runs all day. To head off catastrophe, replace hoses, even on new appliances, with tougher hose (found in hardware stores) that’s covered in flexible, braided steel. The sturdier appliance hoses “may leak but they will not burst,” Southcombe says. Replace hoses every five to seven years.

12. Consider a flood alarm. Flood alarms connect a water-sensitive probe to an electronic alarm. You can purchase inexpensive individual alarms (around $8 to $130) to position under each appliance, water heater or sink. Or you can go the whole-house route, with a leak detection system like the one made by FloLogic System ($1,095) that automatically shuts down a home’s water supply in case of a leak or plumbing failure. Read “Moisture sensors that save your bacon.”

Source: www.MSNRealEstate.com


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