The worst sound a home owner can hear is drip…drip…drip. Water damage is among the most common causes of home owners’ insurance claims. The biggest cause of water damage claims is leaks, drips and burst pipes that occur within homes. These are becoming more common in part because modern homes contain an increasing number of bathrooms and water-using appliances.
While this sort of water damage usually is covered by homeowners’ insurance, insurers can deny claims that stem from failure to notice and correct a slow-developing problem. And even when water damage is covered, home owners still can face hefty out-of-pocket deductibles and potentially higher insurance rates after filing a claim.
Here are some of the most common mistakes home owners make…
Mistake: Using rubber washing machine hoses. These are prone to cracking and bursting.
What to do: If rubber hoses currently connect your washing machine to the water supply, upgrade to braided stainless steel. A pair costs only $20 to $30. This is especially important if your insurance policy or condo association requires stainless steel hoses…and/or if your laundry room is upstairs—a burst water line upstairs can do costly damage to the walls and ceiling of the room below. Stainless steel hoses are available at home-improvement stores and online. It’s an easy do-it-yourself job, as long as you’re able to move your washer to get behind it—just remember to turn off the water before removing old hoses. (Have a bucket ready because a small amount of water still might come out.)
Mistake: Failing to check under sinks for drips. Sometimes water damage isn’t caused by a dramatic burst pipe but by a slow drip, drip, drip that goes unnoticed.
What to do: Every month or so open the doors of cabinets under sinks and glance inside for any drips and puddles. Take a sniff for musty odors. Look behind toilet bowls and washing machines for drips or puddles as well, and behind your refrigerator when you periodically pull it away from the wall to clean its coils. You might be able to solve drips yourself by checking and tightening connections and replacing water lines or gaskets. If not, call a plumber.
When you look behind your washing machine, also remove anything that’s fallen onto its water lines or drain line. Such things can stress lines, increasing the odds that they will burst. If your washing machine sits in a drain pan—this is particularly common when laundry rooms are upstairs—remove anything that has fallen into the pan. It’s designed to be a fail-safe in case the washing machine leaks, but the pan itself could overflow if an item blocks its drain.
Mistake: Failing to check on your air handler. An air handler—that’s the indoor component of a central air conditioner— typically has a pair of drain lines to cope with the water it removes from the air. The primary drain line is designed to drip whenever the air conditioner is in use. If your air handler is in your attic, this water likely drips out of a three-quarter-inch PVC pipe located in a discrete spot outside your house. (If your air handler is in your basement, it might send the water to a floor drain, sump pump or condensate pump.) But most air handlers also have a secondary drain line that acts as an emergency backup—and if your air handler is in your attic, this line likely drips water in an easy-to-notice spot, such as near a door. The secondary drain line is in an obvious spot for a reason—if it drips, it means the primary line is blocked and you need to take action.
What to do: Determine where your primary and secondary air-handler drain lines are located, by following the drain lines leading away from the air handler or ask the HVAC pro who services your air conditioner. (The secondary line likely begins at a drain pan located under the air handler.) If your secondary line drips, use a wet/dry vac to suck any blockage out of the primary drain line. You can purchase an adapter that allows the end of the vac hose to attach snugly to the end of the drain line. Or call an HVAC professional to clear the blockage.
To greatly reduce the odds of blockages, pour a cup of bleach down your primary drain line every three or four months to kill off algae that might be growing inside, potentially leading to a blockage. There should be an obvious spot to add this bleach—look for a cap or lid that can be flipped open to access the PVC pipe. When you do this, also confirm that the secondary drain line is firmly attached to the pan under the air handler—these sometimes come loose, leading to leaks.
Mistake: Allowing water to sneak into gaps by tubs, showers or sinks. A little water inevitably drips off of you when you step out of the shower or tub… or splashes onto the countertop when you wash your face at the bathroom sink. That shouldn’t cause a problem— unless that water can get into a gap or crack between your shower or tub and the floor or between your sink and the adjacent countertop. Over time, these seemingly insignificant splashes of water could rot wood inside the vanity or floor.
What to do: Monitor the caulk around the perimeter of tubs, showers and sinks for cracks and gaps. If you see these,remove old caulk and replace it with a new bead of silicone caulk. (Leaving old caulk might prevent new caulk from sticking to surfaces on both sides.) Get in the habit of toweling off before stepping out of the shower or tub to reduce the water you drip onto the floor. Install towel racks within arm’s reach so that you can dry off. Also: Apply a bead of caulk behind the top edge of the trim rings that surround shower handles where they enter the wall. It’s very common for water to get behind these and cause damage inside the wall.
Mistake: Adding raised landscaping near the perimeter of the home. Raised beds can cause water to pool against the side of the foundation, especially if the highest point of those raised beds is not directly against the side of the house. That pooled water eventually could seep into the home through tiny cracks.
What to do: Grade landscaping so that it encourages water to flow away from the foundation of the home, not pool against it. Gutter downspout extensions can help divert water away from the foundation as well, and they often cost less than $10.
Mistake: Failing to maintain sump pumps. Basements are the most vulnerable part of the home for water damage—anything from a failed water heater to a backed-up sewer line could cause water damage here. Basements vulnerable to flooding often have sump pumps designed to remove water—but those sump pumps are hidden away in the corner where home owners often ignore them.
What to do: Every three to six months, inspect the sump basin and intake screen and remove debris and obvious obstructions. Pour a bucket of water into the basin, and confirm that the pump works. If your sump pump has a backup battery, replace the battery every few years (or as directed by the manual). If it doesn’t have a battery backup, consider replacing it with a pump that does. Check your basement frequently for signs of water. If you store anything of value there, do not leave it sitting on the floor.