Water, if not removed properly and quickly, causes increasingly more damage during every hour it sits. Left untreated, water damage will ultimately result in mold growth. Water can damage any kind of structure, from sixth-floor apartments with roof leaks, to bottom-floor or basement-level units with groundwater infiltration, or even an entire structure from a frozen and burst pipe. However water gains access to a structure, it will inflict damage. To minimize damage and remediate the situation, appropriate drying procedures and prevention methods must be taken, all while keeping the ultimate goals in mind: saving time and money and minimizing damage.
Basement and Ground-Level Water Intrusion
Very often water leaks in through foundation walls or up through a concrete slab because of static pressure. This type of leak is often slow and sometimes it starts out as just enough dampness to cause a musty odor, dampen your knees if you kneel on the carpet, or even cause rust on metal trim. If it rains hard enough, the leak can become more pronounced, and carpets will get wet and water will wick up the walls.
Just last week I inspected a bottom-floor condominium that had suffered repeated water damage from poor outside drainage, a situation that occurs fairly frequently. The cause? Aside from poor architectural design, two—yes two—gutters were dumping water right up against the building in an area where the exterior grade sloped toward the building in a corner. The result was constant dampness in the bedroom closet, moldy wallboard, moldy clothes and shoes, and an occupant who now wants to sell. The solution to the problem was to remove 2 to 4 feet of the wallboard, which was supporting a healthy mold colony on the back side; remove the carpet; disinfect the exposed framing; regrade the exterior slope outside that unit; and divert the gutters at least six feet away from the building.
Although we've finally put winter behind us, homeowners must not lose sight of another type of water damage that is specific to the New England area and other northern climates: frozen and burst pipes. Sprinkler lines, baseboard heating pipes, and other pipes that carry water are all subject to freezing in the winter. Very low temperatures over sustained periods of time will freeze pipes, but a more likely culprit is a hard, driving wind that carries the cold into the cracks and crevices of a building, freezing the water in the pipes. The frozen water expands, cracks the copper pipe, and then thaws. The deluge that follows the thawing will impact everything in immediate area and everything below. We've dried buildings that are more than ten stories high and have water damage on every single floor as the result of a single broken pipe. It happens, and when it does, it's important to have the team in place to react. Turn the water off, fix the leak, extract the water, and dry out the building.
This winter, we dried a converted mill condominium that had been flooded from a frozen pipe. A frozen sprinkler line let go and flooded the six-story building and the restaurant on the bottom floor. The water ran for more than seven hours because there was no plan in place and no one knew the location of the water shut-off valve. My company was called to the scene to manage the clean-up operation. We called in a plumbing outfit to secure the breaks, an electrician to bring in temporary power (both for the drying equipment and the occupants who were not without electricity), and enough drying equipment to successfully dry out the entire structure. We acted quickly enough to save not only the hardwood floors, but also the rugs, walls, ceilings, and even cabinets. The estimated savings to the insurance company was close to $1 million because the fire-rated walls, flooring, and other building materials were saved. Drying rather than replacing also saved the residents months of inconvenience.
This example underscores the importance of planning ahead. You can't schedule a disaster—whether it's a hurricane, groundwater, or a simple pipe break—but you can plan for it.
Dry Fast and Well
It is important to remember that almost all building materials, including wood, carpets, and wallboard, can absorb water. A small leak that appears to have impacted only a portion of a floor can, in fact, be a much larger problem because the water may have been wicked up by nearby walls. Many people don't realize this happens. They pull the saturated carpet or dry it out and don't stop to think about the walls. But this is a mistake. The paper backing of wallboard is a fantastic food source for mold, and wet wallboard can get moldy in as little as a few days. So once a building has been damaged by water, how do you know if your efforts to dry it are effective?
The use of infrared thermal imaging is a fairly new way to track water in buildings. To pinpoint the full extent of the water damage, the mitigation company should record infrared photographs, take moisture readings with penetrating and non-penetrating moisture meters, and develop a moisture map of the area. At that point the drying can begin. Using state-of-the-art extraction and drying equipment can help save impacted carpets and pads and dry them out in place. The proper installation of air movers and low-grain refrigerants can often dry walls without the need to remove baseboards (unless they are made of vinyl) or cut holes. For larger losses, a convectant drying system works the best.
The proper use of heat to dry large areas is more effective than any other drying method. A convectant drying system works the same way a clothes dryer does: saturated clothes tumble around in a machine and the hot, dry air that expels the moisture-laden air is vented to the outside. In the building that has sustained water damage, hot, dry air is introduced into a structure, air movers move that air around the room, the water evaporates from the wet materials, and the return system expels the damp musty air outside. It's so simple that it's hard to believe that this technology has been around for only a few years.
Whatever the source of the water damage, a quick and thorough response is of paramount importance. Left untreated, an area that has sustained water damage will very likely grow mold. Mold damage can become much more expensive to remediate than just water damage, and many insurance companies are now excluding or limiting mold from their policies. Don't get caught. Have a plan in place. Know whom to call in the event a disaster—large or small—happens. If a storm rolls through the Northeast and causes large-scale damage to condominiums, buildings, and homes throughout New England, it will be very difficult to flip through the phone book and find a contractor willing and able to help out. Do what you can to prevent water damage and plan ahead for the times you can't.