How Not to Get Soaked

Water woes? When to call in a pro, and when not to call your home insurer.

Prevent a Burst Pipe

At a minimum, mopping up after a water pipe freezes and bursts is a messy chore. But if you don’t discover the leak for some time, you’ll face a big water bill and costly damage. Prevention is key to avoiding the hassle and the expense.

Surprisingly, homes in the South are at greatest risk because they’re often constructed with pipes located on the home’s exterior or in uninsulated attics, says the Institute for Business and Home Safety ( Insulating exposed pipes keeps them from freezing; self-sealing, closed-cell polyethylene sleeves, available from home-supply stores (about $3 for six feet), are a good choice to do the job.

Interior pipes along exterior walls that serve sinks and appliances are also at risk. During a cold snap, leave cabinet doors open so that heated air can warm pipes. Open all taps, both hot and cold, just enough so that there’s a slow drip. That will relieve the water pressure that would otherwise build up between the ice blockage and a closed spigot and rupture the pipe.

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During winter, don’t set your home’s thermostat lower than 55 degrees. If you plan to be gone for an extended period of time, drain the water system by shutting off the main valve and turning on all water fixtures until the water stops running.

If a pipe does freeze, little or no water will come out of the faucet. You can try to thaw it with a handheld hair dryer (work backward from the faucet) or an electric space heater. If a pipe bursts, turn off the water at the main shut-off valve and leave the taps open until repairs are done. A plumber will probably charge you $100 to $150 to thaw and repair a pipe. And if you have a big clean-up job, see below.

Bail Out of a Flood

when you have a flood in your home, you face a couple of deadlines after you or nature has turned off the water. Water will begin to soak into a concrete floor within six to 12 hours, which significantly prolongs drying time. And given the right combination of absorbent materials (such as paper, fabric and drywall) and temperature, mold will begin to grow within two to three days.

Don’t delay if you plan to file a claim with your home insurer to cover the cost of cleanup (see the discussion on the facing page for caveats). Once mold begins to grow, your insurer may refuse your claim because you failed to act quickly enough. If you’ve been on vacation, you’re covered because you had no control over the situation.

If the deluge came from overhead, beware sagging structural components and light fixtures full of water. You may also need to punch “weep holes” in the ceiling to allow ceiling cavities to drain. Depending on the water’s source, you may want to wear an organic vapor respirator ($25 to $30). You can mop up or vacuum the water with a wet vac. A dehumidifier and fans will help. Failing to dry out walls or dry under vinyl or wood-laminate floors can lead to mold growth and a musty odor.

When do you call in a pro? If you can’t dry the space before mold begins to develop, you probably need a restoration contractor (look for ones certified by the Institute for Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration and ask for proof of certification, as well as licensing and insurance).

Kim Hobson, of KJS Complete Cleaning Serv­ices, in Springfield, Va., says that his firm usually charges about $1,500 for a single room—to extract clean water (say, from a broken pipe), clean a carpet, replace the carpet pad, and apply an antimicrobial spray. Removing and replacing baseboards and drywall above the waterline to dry out walls doubles the cost.

Patricia Mertz Esswein
Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Esswein joined Kiplinger in May 1984 as director of special publications and managing editor of Kiplinger Books. In 2004, she began covering real estate for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, writing about the housing market, buying and selling a home, getting a mortgage, and home improvement. Prior to joining Kiplinger, Esswein wrote and edited for Empire Sports, a monthly magazine covering sports and recreation in upstate New York. She holds a BA degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.