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Preventing water damage

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Water damage is an all-too-common risk for both homes and businesses. Water damage can range from a slight problem in a single location to a catastrophic flood event with severe damage to an entire structure and its contents.

Each year, about one in 60 homes files a claim for water damage, adding up to more than five million incidents. In this article, we’ll take a look at the causes of water damage, and we’ll suggest some practical ways to protect any home or business from the most common risks.

Four Classes of Water Damage

Restoration professionals rank water damage according to four classes based on the extent of damage and the cost to repair.

Class 1 is slight damage to a portion of one room, such as drywall damaged by a leaky connection to a washing machine. Class 1 damage can often be repaired by the home or business owner who is handy with tools. The average cost to repair Class 1 damage is up to $500.

Class 2 is damage to an entire room, such as flooring that must be replaced. Class 2 also includes walls up to a height of 12 inches, as might occur from a burst pipes or storm flooding. The average cost to repair Class 2 damage is up to $1,000.

Class 3 is damage to one room higher than 12 inches or damage to multiple rooms. Class 3 damage may involve flooring, sub-floors, walls, insulation and ceilings throughout an entire house. The average cost to repair Class 3 damage is up to $4,000.

Class 4 is the most severe category of water damage. This may occur due to an extreme event, such as a hurricane storm surge or from water that has been standing in a structure for an extended period. Class 4 includes damage to materials, such as hardwood framing, brick walls and stone foundations. The average cost to repair Class 4 damage can exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

White, Grey and Black Water

Not all water is equally damaging. The complexity and cost of restoration may be different depending on whether the damage was caused by white water, grey water or black water.

White water is water that comes from a clean potable water source, such as a leaking faucet or water heater. Falling rainwater and snow melt are also considered clean, so they are included in the white water category.

Grey water from kitchen sinks, showers or washing machines is less safe because it contains contaminants, such as food waste from the kitchen, detergents from the laundry and dirty water from bathing.

Black water is the costliest form of water damage because it may contain human waste or contaminants from a septic tank or sewer pipe. Damage from black water typically costs twice as much per square foot to restore. All flood waters, whether from a lake, river or street flooding are considered black water.

The Most Common Causes of Water Damage

  • Overflows
  • Leaky Appliances
  • AC Condensate
  • Failed Pipes
  • Blocked Gutters
  • Basement Leaks
  • Drainage
  • Rain or Snow
  • Flood Water


Hot cooking grease poured into a kitchen sink may go down as a liquid, but it becomes a solid when it cools. Gritty waste, such as coffee grounds, will accumulate in drainpipes. Some people use a toilet as a trash can, flushing cigarettes, paper towels and more.

When kitchen, bath or laundry drains clog, they overflow. To prevent damage from overflows, keep grease, oil and any solids out of sink drains, and make sure that toilets are used only for their intended purpose. Overflows can also be caused by excessive water pressure or by faucets or toilet seals that leak. Regularly inspect kitchen, vanity and tub faucets and repair as necessary.

flooding in home during storm

Leaky Appliances

Dishwashers and washing machines have pressurized water going in and wastewater flowing out. Water heaters have a storage tank that can corrode. To prevent damage from water leaks, use a flashlight to look behind and beneath kitchen and laundry appliances to check for bubbled paint, loose mortar, leaks at the water connections or water spots underneath tubs or tanks. Water sensors can provide an alert as soon as a leak occurs.

To eliminate leaks, keep appliances in good working order and replace older machines. A broken water line can quickly flood a kitchen or laundry room, and a leak does not have to be large to be damaging. Even hard to find slow leaks can cause damage to sink cabinets or flooring, and over an extended period may lead to mold growth in walls or sub-floors.

Air Conditioner Condensate

Air conditioners remove water from the air. This water has to go somewhere. A central A/C unit in the interior of a home or business requires a condensate removal system to send water outdoors, where it can drain into the soil.

The space underneath an interior A/C evaporator unit may have a large pan to catch condensate. The small drain on this pan can easily be plugged by dust or debris, allowing water to collect in the pan and overflow, sometimes into the ceiling space.

Condensate pumps are often used to lift water to the drain line. These pumps can fail or become blocked with debris.  And finally, the outside drain opening can be blocked by dirt or damaged by a lawnmower. To avoid water damage from A/C condensate, inspect regularly to confirm that condensate is flowing freely.

Failed Pipes

Water damage is often caused by frozen pipes that burst or old copper pipes that corrode. If the leak is small, such as a drip under a sink or behind a water heater, water may be detected quickly, and the damage to cabinets or flooring may be minor.

However, a broken pipe that remains undetected or that leaks forcefully inside a wall can require restoration of drywall, insulation, flooring and more.

To prevent water damage from failed pipes, inspect kitchen, bathroom and laundry baseboards for signs of a leak inside the wall. Check your water bill to see if water usage is higher than normal. Protect older pipes from pinhole leaks by installing a water pressure regulator to prevent water leakage from overpressure.

Frozen Pipes

Even new buildings are vulnerable to leaks caused by freezing pipes. In the most severe cases, a frozen pipe could burst and flow undetected while a homeowner is away, resulting in severe and widespread damage.

Homeowners and business managers in areas that are subject to freezing temperatures should ensure that their water supply systems are protected from freezing. Seasonal homeowners should make arrangements for a neighbor to check on their property while they are away.


Each autumn, falling leaves slide down the roofs of thousands of homes, clogging the gutters and downspouts. When downspouts are blocked with leaves in the fall or ice dams in the winter, subsequent rains will quickly fill the gutters with water that leaks into eaves and runs down walls, pooling beside the structure.

This is what gutters are designed to prevent. To avoid damage from foundation leaks, home and business owners should make sure that gutter systems remain clear and capable of quickly removing the large amount of water that is collected by the roof in a downpour. Gutter guards are an effective solution to maintain clean gutters.

The man on ladder cleans the gutters on the roof. Spring and autumn problem with leaves in gutter.

Basement Leaks

Water leaking in a basement is a special problem since there are many potential causes, and they can be difficult to prevent. Basement water can come from cracks in the foundation wall, hydrostatic water pressure, unlevel property drainage, a faulty sump pump or other sources.

To prevent water damage in the basement, walls and windows should be inspected for leaks after a heavy rain. Gutters must remain clear, and downspouts should be lengthened to carry water well away from the foundation. Roof fascia and eaves should be inspected for signs of leaks and sealed if necessary. Test sump pumps to ensure that they switch on as needed and remove water efficiently.

Property Drainage

The slope of a property should be evaluated for pooling, as well as the drainage direction of sidewalks, driveways and parking areas, which can be tilted by roots or settling soil to send water toward foundation walls.

Poorly graded soil or lawn areas that gather standing water may require a French drain or other system to move water from the property to storm drains.

Special attention should be paid to exterior walls to ensure that plantings, walkways and other features do not allow water to pool near the walls and foundation. Maintain trees and minimize landscaping that would interfere with drainage.

Inside the home, install a sump pump in the basement and a backflow preventer to stop sewer or stormwater from backing up into drains.

Falling Storm Water

Roofs and walls that never leak during a light rain can sometimes be overwhelmed by the combination of high wind and heavy rain or snow that occur during a severe thunderstorm, blizzard or hurricane.

Wind-driven water can be forced through cracked caulking or weak seals around windows and doors, and water can be blown into a chimney cap, roof vents, eaves and seams. To avoid water damage from storm water, use metal flashing, caulking and paint to make sure trim joints are waterproof, and replace worn seals around windows and doors.

Fight Storm Water Damage

If you suspect any silent but steady leaks, consider a water flow monitoring system to analyze your water flow, water pressure and water consumption.

Keep emergency supplies to protect your property in case of a storm, such as tarps, sandbags and a portable sump pump. Consider a generator to keep pumps running.

Rising Floodwater

Flooding can cause extensive damage, including structural damage to a home or business. When ocean or river water rises, little can be done to prevent damage from inundation by flood water. Flooding is not included in most homeowners or business insurance, so it is important to consider separate flood insurance coverage.

Safety is More Important Than Property

If flood conditions threaten, the primary consideration is safety. A structure in a flood-prone area should be evacuated until flood waters have receded.

After a flood, safety is still more important than property. Never enter flood waters in a vehicle, never approach powerlines, and always be aware that flood water is black water. Even after flood waters recede, a structure may be unsafe, both structurally and through exposure to contamination and mold growth.

Prevention is Protection

While a homeowner or business manager can’t avoid every condition that might cause water damage, we can educate ourselves about the most common causes, and we can take preventive steps to keep our kitchen, bath and laundry water supply and drain systems in good working order. Just as important, we can make it a habit to check for the simple faults and failures that can eventually lead to water damage.

Not sure where to start? Talk to someone who wants to listen.

A great plan starts with a conversation. Let’s talk about what you need.

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