ACHRNEWS

GAMAzine: Technicians Play Key Safety Role After a Flood

July 24, 2006
After any flood, organizations, such as the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the trade association representing the manufacturers of space and water heating appliances, and government agencies, such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), warn homeowners that, for safety's sake, they must have their heating-cooling systems inspected by a professional.

That's you. With hurricane season upon us, what can a contractor do to ensure safety?

Maximum safety can best be achieved by taking a commonsense approach, according to Carl Smith, director of marketing for North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

"Start by presuming it's a dangerous situation, then work your way down," he said. "The big problem is, most of our technicians are really sharp problem solvers, but they may take shortcuts without following procedure when they are working under pressure. It's better to react on the side of safety, rather than say to yourself, ‘I'm 23 years old and invincible.'"

First of all, it's important to make sure that conditions are safe enough for a technician or contractor to work in, he said. For instance, is there standing water? How much? Is the electrical system damaged? Does another professional need to work at the scene before you or your employees can work safely?

"You always have to take due diligence," Smith said. "Most homeowners will want everything done at one time and put pressure on you. Most of our techs wouldn't be in this business if they didn't like helping people, but sometimes they need to assess the situation. It's not only for the techs' protection, but the homeowner's as well.

"All of us want to get our lives back together as soon as possible, but the technician sometimes has to be the voice of reason, or problems could escalate."

NO PLACE FOR AMATEURS

Anxious homeowners may be tempted to do their own repairs or startups. It can have disastrous results. According to GAMA, "One homeowner suffered severe burns in a flash fire that occurred when he tried to relight the pilot on his flooded gas water heater."

"Controls damaged by floodwaters are extremely dangerous," said GAMA President Jack W. Klimp. "Attempts to use equipment with defective gas or oil control devices can result in fires, flashbacks, or explosions. And in the case of electrical appliances, the result can be injury or even death from a powerful electric shock."

"Tell the homeowner not to touch a thing," said Smith.

They may think the floodwaters reached a certain level due to watermarks on the walls, he pointed out, but those can be misleading.

"You can have a flood come in and recede, and it can dry up rather quickly," said Smith. "However, insulation will stay wet. It doesn't take much moisture for electricity to jump the gap."

After a flood – and, for most homes, that means having a basement with standing water – it is best that a qualified technician assess the damaged areas.

SAFETY CHECKS

Before you inspect flood-damaged equipment, three areas must be secured for safety: electricity, water, and gas.

Electricity: "The first thing to do is cut the power," Smith said. Even if there is no power in the community, don't risk having it come online while you are working. "You'll hear a loud noise followed by finding yourself across the room," Smith said -- if you're lucky.

Water: "Look around the outside of the structure," he said. "Look for standing water, moisture, residual dampness. Remember, you may see a water ring, but if it came up high and went back quickly you won't."

Standing water should be treated as if it's contaminated, because it is. "Generally, the longer the water has been standing, the worse it is," Smith said.

Gas: The additives that give it an odor make its presence pretty obvious, Smith said. However, if other odors are present and strong, or if there is any question as to the presence of gas or other fumes, "Ventilate first, then go in and check," Smith said. "If you've got a question like that, presume the worst."

Don't forget to check for carbon monoxide (CO). And, one more thing.

"If the appliances are in a basement, find out if there's a sump pump and where it is," said Smith. "It's a heck of a thing to step in there and twist your ankle."

After Hurricane Katrina came through the Gulf Coast last year, it left homes battered and flooded. Before one can inspect flood-damaged equipment, electricity, water, and gas must be secured for safety.

PERSONAL PROTECTION

Before you enter a flood-damaged area, make sure you have appropriate personal protective equipment:

  • Rubber-soled shoes will keep you grounded. If there is standing water, make sure you are protected by knee boots or waders.

    "You never know what you're walking into," Smith said. "You've got to protect against the worst."

  • A handheld CO detector is appropriate if you may be working with combustion appliances, including a temporary heating or cooking apparatus (e.g., a charcoal grille) used indoors by the homeowners, Smith said.

    "If you even suspect CO, it should be a well-ventilated area. Look at things that could hurt you the most, the fastest."

  • Wear gloves that will protect your hands from floodwater contaminants. Remember, you are working in a noxious environment; any cuts or scratches on your hands will be vulnerable to infection.

    "How many people are up-to-date on their tetanus shots?" Smith pondered. "You don't want to put yourself at risk."

  • An appropriate filtration mask may be needed for protection against mold. In a flood situation, the balance between indoor and outdoor mold counts has changed. Indoor levels will be much higher than normal.

    "We're surrounded by mold every day of our lives, but some can be quite dangerous," said Smith. "You can't identify it by sight, so once again, assume the worst."

  • Of course, normal jobsite safety gear should be worn, such as protective eyewear and a hardhat.

  • Have some way to wipe your tools down, such as with a Clorox wipe.

    "There are all sorts of antibacterial products now," Smith said. "That's something you can do all the time." Of course, make sure you have a first-aid kit available, too.

    REPAIR OR REPLACE?

    According to the CPSC, "Gas control valves on furnaces, water heaters, and other gas appliances that have been under water are unfit for continued use. If they are used, they could cause a fire or an explosion. Silt and corrosion from floodwater can damage internal components of control valves and prevent proper operation. Gas can leak and result in an explosion or fire. Replace all gas control valves that have been under water."

    Klimp pointed out that it's usually cheaper, and always safer, to replace the equipment rather than try to repair it: "There are just so many things that can go wrong, the wise choice is always to start over with new equipment."

    Control valves, for example, are manufactured to extremely close tolerances. Once submerged in floodwaters, they must be replaced. However, "You can have a control valve replaced but there may be damage to other parts of the unit, like venting, piping, burners, and insulation."

    Even when controls appear to be operative, the unit should not be used after floodwaters recede. "It may work for a while," Klimp said, "but it will deteriorate over time. It might take a week, a month, or even a year, but once any control has been under water, it presents a serious hazard ... fire or explosion in the case of gas controls, fire or shock in the case of electric equipment."

    The CPSC also advised, "Electric circuit breakers and fuses can malfunction when water and silt get inside. Discard all circuit breakers and fuses that have been submerged."

    Wetted ductwork is another problem that could linger, fester, and lead to much more damage than there was in the first place. Fiberboard ductwork could well need to be replaced, at least in sections. Sheet metal ductwork may require thorough cleaning or partial replacement. All joins should be thoroughly inspected.

    LEGAL PROTECTION

    As you are inspecting the equipment, make a detailed report of what you looked at and what you saw. This could help protect you in a legal sense if, for example, the homeowner decides not to replace equipment, or if he decides to try to repair it himself despite warnings against doing so.

    "If you provide a report, there's some stuff you will know, but in some cases you may need to say, ‘I suspect but I don't know'," Smith said.

    For instance, you may suspect mold growth, but without a sampling kit and onsite analysis, you don't know.

    "It's a liability issue," Smith said. "If you've told the homeowner the risks and given them direction but they still don't listen - you can't physically take somebody to Motel 6. But if you've told them and put it in writing, it would go a long way toward showing that you did everything possible. You've met the requirements of due diligence.

    "You spell out what you see and what needs to be done," Smith said. "It's not just an estimate, it's an assessment. When there's flood damage, you would have to presume there is a problem. You need to tell people what you've done and what you haven't done. Don't cut corners on the explanation."

    Handheld tape recorders could be the answer for those onsite techs who may not be copious note takers; the tape can be transcribed later, but should also be labeled and saved.

    "You're creating a document," Smith said. "If there's a case you think the dwelling is unsafe, you're informing them on a basic level. Then they have to go in and make the decision."

    Publication date: 07/24/2006