With our changing weather patterns, homes that never previously experienced flooding are faced with river and lake water reaching into their basements. Sand bagging is of course the first defense, hoping to slow the water down, but what can we do to minimize danger and damage when the rising river threatens the basement?
There are three critical phases to water rising in a basement:
A few inches of water – your plumbing drains are probably totally blocked and your heating system may need to be shut down;
A few feet of water – once water rises up high enough to touch electrical outlets you are in phase two;
Water that reaches the electrical panel – game over for power to the house. If you don’t disconnect the power before this stage, the water could cause an electrical fire.
There are two dangers when you mix electricity and water:
you can cause a short circuit which can blow out the power or even cause a fire (wonderful, a fire in a flooded house);
if you are standing in the water it can be electrified and if you touch the electrical panel, perhaps even just a plumbing pipe, you could get electrocuted.
The absolute first priority, even before sandbagging, is to be ready to secure the electrical system of the house as best you can. When there is no water in the basement, it does not require an electrician to identify the circuit breakers associated with all low lying electrical connections – generally the wall outlets. Simply plug a lamp (or radio) into each outlet, first assuring that the lamp functions, then switch circuit breakers until the lamp goes out. Put a little piece of red tape next to every low lying circuit breaker so you know easily which circuits could come into danger. An ideal electrical layout will have all of those lines on their own circuits and you will not be turning off lights or other outlets in the house – but in reality there are often other things connected to these lines.
If the lights do go off someplace, prepare a battery driven light, or a light from an extension cord that will provide light if you need to turn off the water endangered circuits for the duration of the flood.
Any appliance sitting on the floor will probably be knocked out as soon as your basement collects just a few inches of water: refrigerators, freezers, water pumps (unless they are submersible) and the furnace. If possible, take appliances to the upper floors of the house, or raise the freezer off the floor to buy time. If you run extension cords through the basement during a flood, any connection between extension cords that sits in water will be a danger. Do not run extension cords through the basement windows, you need these to be as water tight as possible in case the sandbags give way.
This is all preparative work before any flooding or during the first phase of flooding. If the sandbags give way and water is rushing through a window, you do not have time to do this but you probably do have time to flick off all those red labeled circuit breakers!
It is never recommended that someone standing in water reach over and touch an electrical circuit box. That should be left to an electrician. But let’s be realist, in a time of crises there are not enough trained electricians available. So what are the professional precautions? Wear rubber boots, wear rubber gloves. Then use a dry wooden or fiberglass stick to reach over and flick the breaker switches. To do that after the water gets into the basement I would recommend that the panel door be taped or wired open when you do the initial circuit identification described above. With the door open and the circuits identified with your red tape, you should be able to disconnect all those low lying circuits – or even flip the main breaker and shut the house down safely.
ELECTRICITY AFTER THE FLOOD
After the water is gone you must have an electrician inspect the wiring before turning anything back on that got wet. You could turn it on and it seems to work properly while in fact there are resistance shorts that are heating up the wiring. Don’t burn your house down after the flood.
If you do not require any heat in the house, turn off the fuel supply to a fuel fired furnace or hot water tank as soon as there is a real threat of flooding. If you are trying to stay in the house and hope to have minimum water in the basement, turn off the fuel supply as soon as the water approaches the height of the burner, where you can see the flame. Also switch off any electrical line that goes to these appliances.
During your preparation, locate the valve to close off the fuel supply so you know where it is and what tool you may need to shut it if you can’t simply turn it off by hand. Identify any circuit breaker on the electrical panel that provides power to these heating appliances.
Natural Gas : Turn off the valve at the meter.
Propane Gas : Turn off the valve at the gas tank.
Oil : Turn off the valve where the fuel line comes out of the bottom of the tank.
There are safety devices that should shut this down if water puts out the piolet, but safety dictates to simply eliminate the remote possibility that any gas or oil might just bubble through the rising water in the basement. Shutting off the valves also protects against fuel leaks from someone accidentally disconnecting the supply pipes while walking around in muddy water.
GAS AND OIL AFTER THE FLOOD
After the flood you will want to use heat to help dry out the basement, but do not attempt to turn it back on until it has been inspected by a certified heating contractor.
If the streets are covered in water and there is an inch of water on the basement floor, most likely the city discharge system is no longer functioning and for those of you with a leaching field now in the bottom of the lake, the drains in the house won’t be working any better. You may still have fresh water available, or at least a source of water you can boil, but no way to get rid of the waste. That means that the toilets, showers, and even sinks are all condemned. If you do try, you will probably discover that whatever you try to flush or drain away is just rising up with the rest of the water in your own basement!
If you do find city sewage in your basement that is not coming from your own house or you can feel water rising up from the floor drain, you do not have a back-flow damper, or if you do, it is not working. One of the first things to do during the restoration is to install this safety valve(s) under the basement floor that lets your water out, but no-one elses back in. Follow this link for more information on Back-Flow valves. Without a working backflow valve you will need to stuff rags into floor drains, shower drains, toilet drains and plugs in sink drains and sink overflow drains to stop water from entering the basement through the plumbing drain system. You may even need to weight down these "plugs" against the pressure of the water outside.
Whoever wants to stick it out and fight back the rising river must set up composting toilets, use bowls like in the old days that you fill to wash yourself and then you throw the dirty water out the window. You are now officially in camping mode. If you are not prepared for that or willing to undergo the adventure, move out to higher ground for your daily necessities and consider the house a work site where you try to save what you can.
You will quickly learn that even with good sandbags around the house, some water trickles through. You will have slowed down, but not stopped the water from reaching the foundation wall. If you have slowed it down enough, good water pumps might be able to keep the basement water to just a bit on the floor. Of course gas powered water pumps, or a gas powered generator to make electricity to run the pumps is the best in an emergency situation because the electrical power could go out at any time. Also they will continue to work even if you have turned off the power supply yourself. But never run a gas powered motor indoors -- it must be totally ventilated.
If you have simply run the pump discharge through the basement window, you will quickly realize that creates a large breach in your water barrier. You could replace the window with plywood with a sealed hole for the pump pipe to exit – that can give you a lot more time to wait for the river to recede. Better yet, run the discharge up the stairway and out from the upper floor – keeping the basement as well sealed as possible.
Remember to keep the pump itself out of the water if it is not specifically sealed as a submersible pump. That may mean installing the pump up on a higher level of the house with the hose going down that stairway.
If you have ever watched a powerful water pump or two working to empty a basement, you were probably surprised to see so much water coming out and the level of the basement dropping so slowly. There is a lot of water in a basement. Usually everything gets damaged equally by the level of water in the basement. There is one trick that could save some important appliances, like the furnace and perhaps the food freezer.
If you were to bring some of those sandbags into the basement, and create a barrier around a small section of the basement, like the furnace room, you will discover that a water pump can keep water low in that small area even if it is rising seriously in the rest of the basement. What is happening is that you are using all of the pumping power for a small basin, even if the larger basin is spilling over. This doesn’t work in all circumstances nor forever, but it could buy you a few hours of safe time for some critical household appliances – still pumping out the basement but with at least one of your pumps set to a priority task. Flood control is all about time – holding out until the river recedes.
AFTER THE FLOOD
Once the flood is over, keep those pumps going until the basement is dry – then change them out for large fans to start drying out the rest. If the water got into the walls, cut them open and remove the wet drywall as well as any wet insulation – and get it all outdoors. Take dated photos, but do not wait for an insurance adjuster, again time is of the essence. As a general rule, once the water is gone and oxygen can get to wet organic material, you have 24 to 48 hours to dry the basement out to avoid the growth of mould.
Click here for more information on Flood Restoration. Flood restoration specialists will gut walls, dry everything and check electrical wiring as emergency tasks, then set about seeing just what needs to be done. If you want to tackle clean-up yourself, familiarize yourself with the recommendations relating to cleaning up mould. Given the size of the problem in a flooded basement you may wisely decide to hire a professional, preferably one trained and certified in the official protocols for mould clean-up established by the IICRC, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, a North American standards body. Anyone else may be following the advice of a kid at the renovation centre.