If left unrepaired, water damage can lead to serious problems — both for your home and your own health. The first step is to find and cut off the water source. Depending on the situation, you may need to hire a professional to repair plumbing or roofing. Then comes the process of drying out your interior spaces, sorting through items and fixing the damage left behind.
Signs of Water Damage
- Odors: Standing water stagnates. Rotting wood emits an earthy smell. Mold and mildew smell much the same. If you enter a room or open a cabinet and notice a musty, peculiar smell, it’s likely you not only have a water leak somewhere, but damage has occurred.
- Fuzzy, discolored growths: It’s not a reflection of poor cleaning habits. Mold spores float through every waft of air inside and out. If they encounter a moist, dark area with a food source – which includes most building materials – mold, mildew and fungus will thrive. Within 36 to 72 hours, it’s entrenched. The longer it grows, the worse it gets.
- Stains and discolorations: Brownish and dark stains on your ceiling are a sign of a leak. Walls and floors may also discolor. Whenever unexpected stains appear, check for a water leak in the immediate area.
- Blistering or peeling wall surfaces: Water that invades wall material may cause paint to lose adhesion and separate, blister and peel. Wallpaper, plaster and other wall coverings may act the same.
- Damaged walls and ceilings: Beyond stains and the appearance of the wall sheathing, the wall or ceiling itself may begin to fail. The wall may warp or buckle, and the ceiling may begin to sag. Whenever the surface itself becomes soft and spongy, it indicates a definite problem. Drywall (the most common wall material) absorbs water easily and begins to swell and disintegrate. Walls or ceilings made from lath and plaster don’t fare much better.
- Damaged floors: Buckling, cracking, cupping (curving at the edges) or soft flooring are likely signs of water damage. Investigate changes in your floor immediately.
If you’re not sure you have a leak or simply want to confirm your suspicions, consider using a moisture meter on your walls, ceilings or floors. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to take the moisture reading. You can also use moisture meters to measure the water content in building materials for home remodeling.
Repairing Water-Damaged Structures and Materials
Every situation is different. If the water damage arises from a flood, for instance, it may not saturate the wall. Perhaps all you will need to do is tackle the floodwaters and repaint the wall to cover any surface staining. A leaking pipe inside a wall, in contrast, may cause it to rot from the inside out. In that case, you are looking at more extensive repairs. Even in the case of flooding, you must evaluate the type of floodwater and determine how to remove the water. Once the water or moisture is gone and the source is fixed, the damage can be evaluated. Repairing the area then depends on where it’s located and the extent of damage caused.
Mold and Mildew
Painting or otherwise covering mold and mildew won’t kill it. It can continue to spread unless it is removed. Worse, even “harmless” molds (in contrast to toxic “black mold”) can affect your health. Tackle mold with a solution of one part bleach to eight parts water. Spray the mold or mildew first, wait 10 or 15 minutes, then wipe or scrub away. For a more natural mold-cleaning solution, use either straight vinegar (which kills 82 percent of molds) or a mixture of vinegar and baking soda. Rinse thoroughly and dry completely before proceeding with any further work on the affected area.
When damage is minimal and only the exterior of a wall or ceiling is affected, stains will appear once surfaces dry out. Use a stain-blocking alkyd-based primer to seal the stain before painting. Remove any peeling or damaged paint first to ensure the best results.
If the drywall is exposed to water for less than two hours and the water is clean (not mixed with sewage or other contaminants), you may be able to save it. After a couple of hours, however, drywall becomes saturated. The problem is worse if it’s on the ceiling. Drywall is heavy by itself; when waterlogged, it grows even heavier and may begin to bulge or fall. If you have any doubt about the drywall’s structural integrity, place a level across the surface and see if it is either plumb – straight up and down – for walls, or level on ceilings. Next, try pushing a small finishing nail into the drywall with your fingers. It should meet immediate resistance. If the surface feels spongy or the nail sinks in easily, replace the drywall.
Drywall is heavy by itself; when waterlogged, it grows even heavier and may begin to bulge or fall.
To replace damaged drywall, first determine how far back it needs to be removed. A leak from a pipe may need only a small section of drywall removed to access the pipe and fix it. In a flooded bathroom, on the other hand, you may need to remove the drywall around the entire room from the floor up 18 inches. Use a utility knife and a straight edge to mark and cut your wall sheathing. End in the middle of a stud on either side of the opening to provide an anchor for the new drywall.
Remove any insulation in the wall (see the section on insulation) and dry out the wall interior. Only once the inside is completely dry should you patch the drywall. Replace insulation if removed, using new material. Cut a piece of drywall to measure the dimensions of the opening. Attach with drywall screws every 16 inches apart along each stud (12 inches apart for ceiling drywall). Tape the seams with drywall tape and cover the seams and screw heads with joint compound or mud. Apply thin, even layers and sand between each. Feather out each layer of mud a little farther than the last to make a seamless appearance.
Sodden Plaster Walls
If your walls or ceiling are made with lath and plaster, as is more common in older homes, there’s good news and bad. Typically, the plaster holds up better to saturation than drywall, but it can take much longer to dry out. Loose plaster, advises the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, may be able to be reattached with plaster washers. Plaster ceilings can be temporarily supported with braces made from two-by-four lumber in the shape of a “T” (place the top of the T against the ceiling).
If the inside of a plaster wall is wet, remove baseboard trim and drill holes in the wall to allow water and moisture to escape. Use hand drills or cordless drills to avoid the risk of shock, and stay clear of wiring or other lines in the wall. Pull out any insulation and set up fans to encourage ventilation. Repair the holes only once the wall interior is completely dry – a moisture meter helps tremendously. For extensive plaster and lath damage, consider replacing the entire system.
While tearing your wall apart, you may discover insulation, especially if it’s an exterior wall. Always remove the insulation. First, it may hide damage to the studs. Further, wet insulation deteriorates. It may compact, disintegrate, lose R-value and even harbor mold or other contaminants. Although rigid foam insulation may be salvaged, it’s generally easier – and safer – to replace insulation with new material.
Stained or Rotted Studs
If you’re lucky, your wall studs are solid. Push on them and try driving a nail into them if you have any doubts – the last thing you want is a structural failure, especially if it’s a load-bearing wall. Exterior walls are always load-bearing. Some interior walls may be as well. Load-bearing walls support the weight of the structure above and surrounding them. A weak or failed load-bearing wall may cause the home to collapse. If the studs of a load-bearing wall are rotten, consult a professional immediately. For walls with rotted studs that are not load-bearing, cut out the bad studs, one at a time, and replace them. If you find studs that are stained but still solid and don’t need to be replaced, spray them with a dilute bleach water mixture. Follow with an antimicrobial solution, available in hardware and home improvement stores.
If the leak is under your floor or if the floor got wet from a flood, you’ll probably have to strip it down to the subfloor. Water and excessive moisture ruins carpet and padding, seeps under floating floors, dissolves the bond between tile and the subfloor and works its way under vinyl and linoleum. Depending on the amount and source of moisture, you may be able to simply dry out some solid wood floors. Although it swells and buckles slightly, as it dries it may return to normal, especially if weighted down while it dries. Always dry wood slowly to avoid damage; don’t try to super-heat or cool the air to dry it rapidly.
Depending on the amount and source of moisture, you may be able to simply dry out some solid wood floors.
When you get down to the subfloor, mark out the area you wish to remove. Use a straight edge to create the outline, and enlarge it as you cut through the floor, to end in the middle of a floor joist (this provides an anchor for the floor patch). Punch a hole in the middle of the area to be removed, and gradually cut it larger to watch for pipes, ductwork or wiring running underneath the floor.
Piece in a new subfloor, once the area has dried and the insulation has been replaced. Use screws to anchor the subfloor patch to the joist and thus prevent squeaking floors. Cover the subfloor with your choice of flooring materials.