By Al Tibbs, CIAQT, CIAQM, CIAQI
CEO & Chairman Closer Look Environmental
Recent floods in Northern Ohio have led to thousands of Ohio homeowners with flooded basements. Poor or slow responses from insurers has led to other problems. Improper assessment of water damage, improper or lack of proper equipment and slow response times are adding to additional costs due to ensuing damage. A fast and appropriate response to basement flooding is critical to managing claim costs. If initial response times are 4-5 days after the flood, the damage may already be done and the cost of cleanup has escalated significantly. Even with a timely response, inexperienced contractors lacking proper equipment to remediate the conditions caused by flooding will do little to reduce claims.
I have assessed several homes which were damaged by recent flooding in Northern Ohio and have found that many homes, a week after insurance company contractors have been there are still visibly wet with relative humidity levels at above 60%. In addition, many basements still contained water damaged boxes, drywall and other porous items. The conditions present represent ideal conditions for microbial contamination to amplify. This lowest initial cost attitude is leading to much larger claims, ensuing damage and claims of "bad faith" against insurers. During initial assessments of the home, I have also found that leaving saturated drywall and spraying the surface with anti-microbial agents is common practice. This may limit surface activity, but does little on the interior surfaces of walls which are saturated with water and are ideal locations for fungal amplification. Another common practice witnessed is companies removing initial standing water and carpet, leaving wet drywall, etc. and leaving no fans or de-humidifiers to finish the drying process. Porous furnishings, such as couches and chairs have also been left sitting in basements with humidity levels of over 70%.
The responses above are part of the reason for increased litigation in water damage claims. Litigation resulting from responses such as those noted are not the fault of attorney’s or policyholders, but are the result of poor initial response and a lowest cost approach to claims. Below is an excerpt from IICRC S500-Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Water Damage Restoration and EPA Guidelines.
Porous materials which have been wet for longer than 24-48 hours have the potential for microbial amplification and may have to be discarded. These items include drywall, carpeting, books, paper items (boxes, etc.). It is suggested that a professional cleaning company be contacted as soon as possible to properly dry the wet areas. If any indication of fungal amplification is noted during the drying process, those items may have to be discarded. It is further suggested that all cleaning of water damage be in accordance with guidelines set forth in IICRC S500 – Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Water Damage Restoration and EPA Guidelines.
There is a high probability of contamination of the backup of the floor drain in the basement and caution should be exercised in cleaning up the area. The water which backed up from the floor drain should be considered to be "Category 3 – Black Water" and may contain pathogenic agents and be grossly unsanitary.
Drying should be carried out as following the four principals outlined below:
1. Excess Water Removal
4. Temperature Control
(Reference: IICRC S500 - Standard and Reference Guide for Professional (Water Damage Restoration)
Following the above guidelines and using company’s that have employees trained in the IICRC S500 Standard and Reference Guide could undoubtedly save insurers millions of dollars in claim costs each year. This could be achieved without an excessive increase in initial response costs.
By contracting cleanup projects with qualified companies, the actual long term costs could be reduced considerably. Much of the contamination found during water damage and flood assessments results from improper containment of damaged areas, improper cleanup methods and disturbing contaminated materials before taking proper precautions (e.g. containment). A small area of fungal amplification resulting from a basement flooding event can turn into an extremely expensive cleanup by not following proper procedures during initial response.
Most fungal species found in the indoor environment have no intrinsic ejection mechanism for spore dispersal, and aerosolization of spores from a surface is determined mostly by physical, not biological, constraints. Aerosolization is highly dependent on water content of the substrate and physical disturbance (Ward et al. 1995, Wilkins et al. 1998). Thus, aerosolization usually occurs only when surfaces or reservoirs supporting growth are mechanically disturbed (e.g., remediation work)1 .
After a claim of water damage has been filed, whether from flood, sewer backup, broken piping, roof leak or other causes. If the claim is not investigated in a timely fashion, within 24-48 hours, it should be assumed that microbial contamination exists and proper procedures should be implemented to reduce the risk of further contamination. It is important in such situations to use contractors that are experienced in dealing with microbial contamination and can take proper precautions. Simply tearing out areas that have visible damage can result in disturbing fungal reservoirs which may result in contamination throughout the entire structure including the HVAC system. The same is true for removing carpeting and spraying anti-microbial compounds on wet drywall after flooding without properly drying the area(s) involved. There is also the possibility that this type of response could be seen as bad-faith on the insurers part at a later date. The way to reduce the cost of mold claims is fast and qualified response, not cutting corners on cleanup procedures or manpower.
The Closer Look Environmental "Rapid Response" program addresses these issues by implementing immediate response by a qualified team of indoor air quality, construction and remediation professionals. This can limit and/or prevent damage before it occurs. Once proper assessment, drying procedures and containment of the problem have been addressed, the general contractor can begin repairing the damage in the proper fashion without the risk of increased costs due to remediation costs which arise from slow response time and disturbing contaminated materials with following proper procedures.
The Closer Look Environmental "Rapid Response" program involves the following:
- Measuring building parameters including temperature, relative humidity, surface temperatures and humidity, material moisture levels.
- Visually assessing the damaged materials for fungal amplification.
- Implementing proper containment of water damaged areas.
- Implementing proper drying procedures. (e.g. industrial de-humidifiers, air movers, air scrubbers).
- Determining source of water and determining if danger of further damage exists.
- Determining other sources of contamination present, not related to claim in question.
- Consult with repair contractor to assure that proper procedures are followed to protect property from microbial contamination.
- Evaluating and if required, isolating the HVAC system return duct system from contaminated areas.
One common mistake we encounter when evaluating flooded buildings is contractors using hygrometers which have not been properly calibrated and basing decisions on erroneous readings. The use of hygrometers to determine conditions when dehumidifiers and large fans are operating gives no indication of humidity levels at the surface of the water damaged materials. Surface humidity and water activity aw can be very different from RH% readings taken under the conditions described above.
To all life forms on earth, from man to bacteria, water is necessary for life. From microbiological point of view the total amount of water present in a material is not always equal to the amount of water available to the micro-organism. The amount of available water or moisture is defined as water activity aw. The expression of water activity, the available moisture at equilibrium is defined as:
vapor pressure of water in substrate
vapor pressure of pure water
The optimum humidity range for bacteria and fungi  is given as above 70% RH.2
Proper response times, along with experienced and properly trained technicians is a critical component to a successful cleanup of water damage. By implementing an immediate strategy of mitigation, insurers could begin to gain some control over the escalating costs of water damage claims. Much of the cost today is the result of unqualified contractors and slow response times which allow problems to proliferate. Closer Look Environmental believes that the "Rapid Response" program will help to expedite successful cleanup projects and substantially reduce the costs to both insurers and building owners.
1. INDOOR AIR QUALITY HANDBOOK, John D. Spengler, Jonathan M. Samet, John F. McCarthy, Indoor Concentrations and Normal Ranges 46.5-46.6, 2001 McGraw-Hill
2. MICROBIOLOGICAL ASPECTS OFTHE SELECTION AND DESIGN OF AIR-CONDITIONING SYSTEM, Berit - Reinmüller, Building Services Engineering, KTH, Stockholm, Proceedings of Healthy Buildings 2000, Vol. 2,727-732
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