Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The steady drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet can be harmless. A lingering leak in another part of the home can cost thousands of dollars and force a homeowner to relocate for days, if not weeks.

Water damage is a major concern for today’s homeowner, a problem magnified by insurance snafus and a local real estate market in which home inspections are routinely waived to beat out other buyers.

It’s one thing to repair some water-wilted drywall or mop up a spill from a broken pipe, but the biggest peril water damage promises is the chance for mold to take root.

Bart Harrison, president of Barco Enterprises in White Marsh, Md., says the first order of business when confronting water damage is to move valuables away from the spill and dry the area instantly.

“It’ll cost you a lot less in damages if you can limit the amount of waste,” Mr. Harrison says. “Turn off any main water valves as soon as possible.”

Time is crucial since mold can begin to grow after only 24 hours of water exposure.

A home facing a minor mold problem might cause the homeowner some allergy-like symptoms such as headache, nausea and a running nose.

Prolonged exposure can yield harsher effects.

“I’ve never known anyone to die [from mold exposure],

but some molds have the potential to become toxic,” he says.

An existing home or a new home purchase may appear to be free of water damage, but appearances can deceive, says Tom Egan, owner of the West Berlin, N.J.-based National Property Damage Experts.

“Sometimes, [prospective home buyers] just don’t realize where they’re supposed to look, or things are covered up for the purposes of camouflaging or hiding a potential problem,” says Mr. Egan, whose group provides mold remediation and other household services to New York, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For example, a seller may paint over water stains to divert prying eyes.

“Look for any types of new repair work. You might want to question why they did these,” he says. If the buyer-to-be spots a refurbished ceiling or roof, he says, that should be followed up with a series of questions to discern why such changes were made.

“If you go in the attic and it’s a color other than natural wood, somebody is hiding something,” he says.

Mold is far trickier to spot. It can begin growing anywhere from 24 hours to 72 hours after a water incident. After that window, he says the chances are “great” that mold has begun to flourish if left untreated.

Killing mold is equally difficult.

“When you can see it visibly growing there are hundreds of thousands of spores you can’t see,” Mr. Harrison says.

“People think you can just spray a biocide and everything will be OK,” adds Mr. Egan. Mold needs to be soaked in a solution, such as a water/bleach combination, for several minutes before it can be destroyed.

Even that isn’t a fail-safe response in major mold emergencies.

“If you do kill it … you’ve done nothing, the allergens are still there,” Mr. Egan says. “That’s why the emphasis should be on removal [of items infected] not just treating them.”

Generally speaking, any mold problem confined to a 10-foot-square area can be conquered by the homeowner.

For larger problems, Mr. Harrison recommends finding a contractor who carries microbial matters insurance.

The homeowner also should check up on their own insurance policy before the worst happens.

Policies vary wildly on the subject, Mr. Egan cautions. Some don’t cover mold disasters, while others cap the repayment at a level that won’t cover a major incident.

Greg Gandee, owner of Service Master in Alexandria, says the 10-square-feet rule is a good guideline, but it can be misleading. If the 10 square feet in question is in a closet, that constitutes a lot of mold, Mr. Gandee says.

One mistake homeowners make when assessing water damage is assuming the problem will fix itself with time.

“They’ve spilled water before and they think it will just dry up,” he says.

There could be more water than can dry in such a time span, though, or the area in question might not let water evaporate quickly enough to prevent mold growth, he cautions.

Some carpets have a thick pad underneath that can hold water for days, he adds.

The easiest way to know a water spill has turned to mold is the smell test.

“Once it smells bad, you better call us,” he says. “It denotes some sort of organic growth.”

Louis Palido with Metcarpet Cleaners of Alexandria, says a few simple steps can help stave off potential water hazards.

About 40 percent of Metcarpet customers don’t maintain the drainage areas around their basements, which can allow water to build up during heavy rains, Mr. Palido says. The problem is easily avoided with routine maintenance, preventing accumulating water from seeping into the basement or ground floor.

Another simple way to avoid catastrophe is to change the washing machine’s hoses every four or five years. The existing hoses likely aren’t built to withstand the pressures they face week after week, he says.

Plus, many new homes feature an upstairs laundry area, meaning a serious leak could affect both the first and second floors.

A survey sponsored last year by Chubb Group of Insurance Companies found too many homeowners don’t take the necessary steps to avoid water damage.

The Warren, N.J., firm recommends homeowners set thermostats at a minimum of 65 degrees, drain and shut off pipes flowing to outside faucets and turn off one’s water supply before leaving for vacations or long trips, if possible.

The company’s survey reveals nearly one-third of homeowners have faced water damage stemming from a leaky roof, while one in five has experienced problems from a burst water pipe.

For more information on water damage and mold remediation, Mr. Harrison recommends visiting the Web sites of the Indoor Air Quality Association (www.iaqa.org) and the Indoor Air Quality Council (www.indoor-air-quality.org).

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