The Definitive Guide to Water Damage

complete guide to water damage

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Throughout our lives, we go through some pretty trying things. There are many dangers in the world. These dangers can be toward us, our loved ones, and our possessions. Life could be a lot better if we could do without these dangers, but they’re always present. Natural disasters can occur, leaving us with losses in both life and property. Earthquakes, storms, and flooding are all ever-present. However, they can also be small and annoying, like a leaky pipe or a hole in the roof.

Water damage is something that can plague anyone with a home. It can happen to any homeowner or renter—apartment or condo. Trailers can suffer from water damage, too. Most things that get wet can be destroyed by water, but some things are more susceptible than others. A monthly maintenance checklist for your home is a great way to avoid these things, but it can be difficult to tell sometimes. It's always a good idea to have homeowners' and flood insurance.

With this guide, you will learn all sorts of things about water damage. These things include how to look for water damage, repairing surfaces of water damage, and more. Restoration is possible when it comes to many things, but some things can’t be saved. It depends entirely on the classes of water damage, which will be explained below. There is also a possibility that the water damage is from “black” water, which is an entirely different sort of damage.

What is water damage?

At its base, water damage has simply been damaged by water. Seems simple, right? There are varying levels of water damage, though. The true definition of water damage is a bit more complicated. It is the wetting or impairment of function or appearance of an item or material from indirect or indirect exposure to water. This can be reversible or permanent.

Different categories of water damage can be determined if the material or item can be restored or not. Restoration includes getting rid of any microbial growth, as well as acid residue coloration. Water damage can affect most surfaces, porous ones. Things like drywall, plaster, wood, and even some tiles can be damaged by water.

Categories of Water Damage

According to the American National Standards Institute and Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, there are four categories of water. It ranges from contamination of water, which considers the source and quality after the water makes contact with the items or materials. This also assumes the health effects and structure the water touches. Categories can deteriorate to other categories over time.

  • Category 1

This water is considered sanitary and comes from a sanitary source. It does not have much, if any, contamination at all. The water in this category is usually from tubs or sink overflow, damaged water supply lines, melting snow or ice, rainwater, toilet tanks, and appliances. This category is where you can save and restore most water-damaged things. However, this doesn’t mean that microbes cannot grow.

  • Category 2

The water in this category can be considered significantly contaminated. It can cause sickness or discomfort if you make contact with it. This category can be regarded as where you will need a contractor's help for emergency response from spills. Water damage includes washing machines and overflows from toilet bowls, aquariums, water beds, and dishwashers. In this category, things can still be saved with drying and sanitation, but its not easy.

  • Category 3

This is what many consider the “black water” area. This water contains toxic contaminations such as pathogens, mold, and other harmful substances. This can be very harmful to humans, making them very sick. This water includes sewage, groundwater, seawater, water from rivers or streams, waste line backflows, and wind-driven rain from storms. Anything touched by these waters will have to be discarded.

As you can see, the water damage comes mostly from the contamination of the water. The more contaminated the water is, the less likely you’ll be able to salvage your items or materials. This means that flooding results in many possessions lost and even losing your entire home to it. However, if it’s from rain, humidity, or things like leaky pipes or a hole in the roof, you’re in luck. Then again, you have to act fast, or you’ll have to deal with mold.

Health Effects from Water Damage

Whenever water damage happens, multiple things can result from it. If not taken care of quickly or if it’s contaminated water, microbes can grow. This can be anywhere from mold to bacteria; these two are distinctly different issues. Viruses can be spread as well. The microbes are what cause many of health problems, which can affect anyone, even if they don’t have sensitivities to mold or allergies.


Likely one of the most damaging microbes water can supply, mold is harmful and annoying. Mold is a fungus that can affect people in different ways. Respiratory problems are common with mold, leading to fatigue and headaches. People sensitive to mold can suffer from nausea, vomiting, and other sicknesses. Some molds are worse than others, including the dangerous “black mold,” which has even killed people.

In many cases, people have lost their homes to mold, which can be difficult to remove. Regardless of the surface type with water damage, it will grow if not taken care of swiftly. Regardless of your sensitivity to mold, you do not want to deal with mold. Along with the health problems, it can leave a dirty and mildew smell.

Mold smells are elusive; it could be coming from the fridge or laundry room, and not even the drain in your sinks or showers is safe from an infestation and its associated odors.

Bacteria and Viruses

Many bacteria are around, but it can worsen when water is introduced. With nutrients in the water and a warm surface to grow on, bacteria will flourish and cause more health problems. This means that infections become more likely whenever introduced to your body. These can lead to more severe health problems. Sanitization is always necessary when it comes to water damage.

These bacterial infections can lead to strep throat, sinus and ear infections, and sometimes even death. These bacteria are very serious on top of the other possibilities of mold and microbes. Along with bacteria, there can also be viral infections like influenza running rampant in your home, which is dangerous, so getting rid of the water damage is of the utmost importance.


While not always in everyone’s mind, pests can become a problem. Weakened walls lead to cracks and holes. These are perfect breeding grounds for insects like roaches, mosquitos, and more. Water damage weakens foundations, drywall, and plaster. These make the walls soften and waste, which causes cracks and holes. Of course, this makes it very easy for pests to dig into them and make homes and breed.

Moisture also brings about wood rot, which can be even more detrimental to your home. The constant exposure of liquid to your wooden frame can break down the fibers in the wood. This makes more holes for insects to crawl in, especially ones that eat it—namely carpenter ants and termites. Water damage is a serious issue, so fixing the source is where you should start.

Safety and Health

There are ways to restore and replace areas affected by water damage. However, sometimes mold and other microbes have set in. Contamination is even more serious, especially if you’re trying to repair areas touched by it. While it’s possible that there isn’t any visible water, the microbes will still be there and can still infect you. Some things will help you keep those infections out:

  • Safety goggles
  • Gloves
  • Dust mask or gas mask
  • Disposable coveralls or other coverings for clothing
  • Hardhat for ceiling damage
  • Dehumidifier

These items will keep you safe from microbes and other things. Ceiling damage is a big possibility. This can lead to pieces of plaster or drywall falling onto your head. A hard hat is necessary for things like this. A professional will always be wearing these things when dealing with water damage. If there is any question, always call a professional.

Should You Hire a Professional?

There are many dangers when facing water damage, whether it’s in your home or apartment. The microbes can cause you to get sick, as well as anyone else in the home. Restoration is complicated and can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing. Along with these things, if you don’t get to it quickly enough, mold will run rampant.

There are many people out there who can help with water damage and mold removal. Mold will spread and is difficult to eliminate if you don’t get it all. A professional can usually restore items, but it depends on the water category and its contamination. After all, picking up a phone or contacting someone is easy! Insurance can greatly help with these things, especially finding a contracted professional.

Looking for Water Damage in a House

You can look for various signs when trying to locate water damage. A monthly, routine maintenance check is a great way to spot these signs. They can appear anywhere, be it on the floor, ceiling, or walls. They can even appear beneath the drywall or plaster, so it’s a good idea to check all areas and facets of the home. The signs can be visual or olfactible—seen and smelled. If you can’t see it, you might be able to smell it.

However, water damage can also be felt. Walls can be felt to see if they’re soft or dampened from water damage, though that point usually sees it. You should look for the source before anything whenever you see signs of it. You can’t start fixing the stains or affected areas until you find where the water is dripping. These signs are:

  • Brown, blotchy stains
  • Bowing, warping walls
  • The stench of mildew or mold
  • Damp surfaces
  • Peeling paint or bubbles beneath paint
  • Dripping sounds

As you can see, there are many different things that you can see, hear, smell, and feel. Tasting is not recommended! If you are adamant about keeping your home in tip-top condition, look for these signs for any damage. Water can seep through many things, so be aware of your surroundings and home.

Prepping to Repair Water Damage

This area gets a bit trickier than repairing the leaking area. A hole in the roof or a leaky pipe can easily be fixed. Environmental moisture can be handled with a dehumidifier. How does one repair water damage that has already been done, though? It's not easy, but it is possible. Unless, of course, there is category three water involved.

If anything is touched by contaminated water, it must be discarded. Saving walls, flooring, or ceilings connected by contaminants is nearly impossible. This means any “black” water from floodwater, sewage, or anything else like that from category 3 as listed above. Unfortunately, that also means any possessions that this water may have touched.

Each surface and material is treated differently, but some water damage can be covered with quality paint. Different types of flooring, wall, and ceiling surfaces require certain care. Drywall and tiles can be replaced, but carpet and wood are other stories. Humidity can be a factor in some cases, so some can be easy to deal with.

First Steps

The first thing anyone should do before repairing anything is find a water source. You must fix a roof hole, tighten that leaky pipe, or get a dehumidifier. Water doesn’t simply appear, after all! There is some source. Finding that source is one of the most important things you can do. You can’t repair a surface that still has the possibility of water damage. Find the water source and proceed from there.

After you find and repair the water source, the next step is to assess the damage. You should consider what type of water caused the damage. In the categories above, you should be able to discern what type it is. If it’s sanitary water, the most you’ll have to do is dry it and sanitize it if the surface hasn’t been broken.

Assessing water damage has become a bit easier as of late, too. Various effective tools like moisture meters and thermal image cameras help you see the extent of damage. We have a full article on the essentials of water content measurement. Any moisture will show on either of these devices. However, it might be deeper than these items can pick up. It’s always a good idea to double-check the area.

Prepare Necessary Tools

If you take the repairs into your own hands, there are some things you will need. Tools are necessary to fix these areas, even if they require different methods. These items are essential, though they’re not the only things you need. Remember that you’ll also need the proper safety equipment, as said above. Ensure you’re covered up, and at least wear a dust mask!

When preparing to repair affected areas, make sure you have these tools available to you:

  • Applicable material to replace with (drywall, plaster, wood, etc.)
  • Screwdriver or drill
  • Hammer
  • Crowbar or other pry bar
  • Caulk and caulk gun
  • Tape measurer
  • Oscillating Tool Kit
  • Pliers
  • Screws (3-inch preferable)
  • Antimicrobial Liquids
  • Belt Sander
  • Fans or air movers
  • Heater

Repair Water Damaged Kitchens

Since the kitchen is one of the more common places for water damage, it is a good place to start. The kitchen has many lines of water that run through it. The sink has a water line, the dishwasher, and possibly the refrigerator. Sometimes, they’re connected by one water line, but each can have its own. It’s also a bit trickier here, considering that the water damage can get behind the cabinets. If it does get behind the cabinets, it can be a lot more of a hassle to repair.

However, it becomes much less difficult on the wall around a water line or behind a refrigerator. It’s merely a matter of drying and sanitizing the area. This can be an involved process, but airflow is important. A heater can also help dry the area, but sanitation is necessary. To get the most out of your sanitation methods, sand the area to get to the wood or drywall.

After sanding it down, dab the antimicrobial liquid with a sponge or brush to the point it gets into the surface's pores. The liquid will seep into the material and kill any microbes that may have gotten in there. Afterward, let it dry once more with airflow and a heater. This should take care of any mold or bacteria from it.

Behind Cabinets

Replacing the area can be much harder if the water damage is behind a cabinet. First and foremost, you have to take the cabinet from its place. That means removing the caulk, unscrewing holders or fasteners, and more. If you are unsure of how to do this, be sure to call a professional. Cabinets can be removed, but it can cause serious damage to your walls or the cabinet itself.

If possible, you may be able to create a hole in the back of your cabinet to get to the water-damaged area. Using your fan or air mover, you can attempt to dry the area with it through the hole. Of course, you’ll have to sanitize, too, so be sure you can get to the affected area with your hands or brush. Use your moisture measuring device or thermal camera to see if you removed all moisture.

You'll likely have to remove the entire cabinet whenever the water has expanded farther than a few inches. They can be pulled away, but as said above, it can cause a lot of damage to it or the wall it’s connected to. There are many people out there who can help you remove it, so don’t be afraid to call a professional.

Repair Water Damaged Bathrooms

Similarly to kitchens, bathrooms are another home area that is more likely to get water damaged than others. However, the methods and process are similar to kitchen repairs. The thing with bathrooms is that the water damage may be category 3, or “black water”. Considering sewage is in category 3, you’ll likely have to replace the entirety of the affected areas. This includes both walls and flooring. Heavy sanitation is recommended.

Of course, the water may be coming from the main water line. If it is, then that water is considered category 1. This water is sanitary and can be simply dried and disinfected to make sure mold doesn’t grow. Not too much has to be replaced and it can be dried if you have stopped the water source.

However, depending on the flooring, it might be a bit more difficult. Normally, bathrooms have ceramic, porcelain, or even vinyl tiles. Some even have plastic laminate over them. These types were made specifically with water damage in mind. A simple scrub and disinfecting can be enough for bathroom tiles. Then again, if they have multiple layers or creases, you’ll have to lift the tiles to get under it and on the sides.

Repair Water Damaged Drywall

Drywall is what most walls and ceilings are made of nowadays. This surface can be porous if not laminated or sealed, making it susceptible to water damage. These walls and ceilings will possibly show those brown, blotchy stains. The main reason for these stains is water damage. A chemical in paint is activated by water, causing it to pool on the ceiling or run down the walls.

This material is relatively difficult to repair with drying. Cutting out the drywall and replacing it with a new dry one is usually easier. It involves a bit of cutting and measuring, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. After measuring specific areas, you can cut some off the new drywall slab and screw it in. Construction adhesive and masking tape are great here, so just plaster it on and paint over it! It’s as simple as that—if you’ve identified and corrected the problem.

Drywall is a good material, considering it’s easy to cut through if you need to repair it. It can be as big or small as you need it to be. This material can be cut into squares and placed into the required areas. Making patches is easy enough, but you should still be careful when using saws and cutting tools. It can also be difficult to tell how far the moisture has spread, so thoroughly use your moisture measuring tool and thermal camera.

Repair Water Damaged Plaster

Plaster isn’t so different from drywall, to be honest. This material has been used since ancient times, but technology and surfaces have improved. Most plaster is three layers deep, but water damage can go through all of them. Similarly to drywall, removing any loose or damaged plaster and replacing it can be a lot easier.

You can scrape off the plaster and any underlying water damage using a putty knife or flat-edged tool. After that, you must apply new plaster and sand it down after it dries. Painting it afterward will hide any damage that may have been done. Plaster can get messy, so be sure to put a tarp beneath. If not, you should vacuum up the pieces afterward.

Arguably, plaster is easier to repair than drywall. Because plaster is made by mixing the material, you can create as much as you need to instead of cutting it like drywall. After mixing the plaster, simply smearing it onto the damaged area is the best method. This means you don’t have to worry about cutting specific areas or measurements.

Repair Water Damaged Flooring

Flooring is a bit harder to specify, considering many different types. The bottoms of your homes can be wood, ceramic, porcelain, marble, carpet, laminate, or even bamboo. There’s more than that, but those are the more popular kinds. Each one of these things requires different methods of cleaning, especially carpet.

Below are a few different ways to clean from water damage. You won’t have to do a couple of them very much, but each one has signs of showing water damage.

Carpet: Brown spots, discoloration, and odors of mildew or mold.

Laminate: Warping and swelling, meaning some areas are not smooth, either rising or bunching up.

Tile: Loose or broken connections, detached from adhesive, making a hollow sound if tapped with a metal object.

Wood: Dark or discolored areas, raised edges known as “cupping”, and loose planks along the floor.

Most of these flooring types require cutting into the floor, which can be difficult to do with things like marble, porcelain, and other hard tiles. Get a professional’s help if you’re unsure of what you’re doing. You could damage more than your floor if you don’t consider safety. Check the subfloor after cutting out the affected area with a 1” saw.

If the subfloor is wood and is affected, you’ll likely have to replace that, too. Cutting into that and replacing it is a must; otherwise, you risk mold and mildew. If it is a concrete slab, you must scrub it down with those antimicrobial liquids and let it dry. The carpet usually has a pad or cushion that must be replaced.

Protect Wood from Water Damage

Wood is a bit different than other possessions around the house. If it’s furniture or laminate flooring, it’s possible that your wood won’t get water damaged at all. This material requires a coating of sealant, usually made of oil or some other coating base. Waterproofing wood is possible and should be done to your flooring, wooden furniture, and outside decks. This will prevent water from getting in and protect the wood from water damage.

However, waterproofing liquids can deteriorate over time. It takes a while, but it’s possible. Reapplying the coating every once in a while can help a lot. Getting some tinted waterproofing sealant is also a good idea because it will also protect the wood from sun damage. It is ideal to protect your wood from both of these sources.

Wood is a porous material that absorbs water rather slowly. Depending on the type of wood, whether hard or soft wood, can mean more density. The more density there is, the slower the water absorbs. Most furniture pieces are already coated with a fine sealant finish, but as said before, it can deteriorate. However, it’s possible to scrape off the inferior coating and use your own.

Restore water-damaged Books

While there are many possessions you can save, it can be somewhat difficult to save books. Many people have libraries in their homes that have priceless or irreplaceable books. Paper and other things like this can fall under this area as well. It’s a long, tedious process, but it can be done. Books can be salvaged, so don’t toss them away if wet!

Many restoration processes depend on how wet the book is to begin with. It also depends on the book's number of pages, considering that thicker books will take longer to dry. Usually, the amount is above or below 500 pages, according to River Campus Libraries. This will determine how you will need to dry them. The thinner it is, the easier it will be to dry them.

There will be a few things you need whenever you’re drying your books and papers:

  • Fans or air movers
  • Freezing or wax paper
  • Freezer
  • Wooden boards
  • Plastic containers or cardboard boxes
  • Absorbent paper (unprinted newspaper)

Books that have been fully soaked or submerged should be treated differently than ones that may have been partially wet. If the book is less than 500 pages, you should do the following:

  • Do not open or spread the book.
  • Wrap the book in a plastic sheet, unprinted newspaper, or other absorbent paper.
  • Stand up the book on its top or bottom to let the water drain away.
  • If the color is bleeding, wrap it in aluminum foil rather than paper towels.
  • Keep the air circulating with the fan or air mover. It’s a good idea not to aim it these air movers directly at the books.

After Draining

Whenever the books have drained enough, you should freeze-dry them in a freezer. This prevents mold and mildew from growing on the books. Putting them in fast-freezing areas ranging from -15 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit is a good idea. Any home freezers are unlikely to get this cold, so you may have to bring them in plastic crates or cardboard boxes to a professional.

When you are frozen and ready to dry them, use the vacuum freeze-drying method. You should use this method because icy water skips the liquid state. That means it becomes vapor, and it will protect your ink and pages. Even professionals can help you with this, so if you don’t have a freezer cold enough, call someone to help you.

Partially Wet Book Restoration

  • Use the plastic sheet and absorbent paper like before.
  • Put a paper towel into every 18-20 pages and lay the book flat.
  • After about an hour, the paper towels should have absorbed enough water to stand the book up and fan it somewhat.
  • The book should be less damp so you can proceed to the next stage.

Damp Book Restoration

  • Use more of the plastic sheets and absorbent paper beneath it.
  • Stand the book up, fan it, and let it dry with the air movers and fans.

It’s a tedious task, but if you have books, it can help a lot. These methods may not work on all books, especially ones with water-soluble components. Also, if there is category 3 water involved, it’s quite likely you won’t be able to save it. A professional may be able to restore it in this case, but try to save any book that might be ruined by black water.

Never underestimate the power of thoroughness. You can restore even the wettest book thoroughly and diligently without much wrinkling or bleeding ink. However, a book cannot be restored if you take too long. Mold will grow between the covers, and it will be ruined. Books can be incredibly heavy, though. Never put yourself in danger to save a possession!

Restore Water Damaged Photos

Sometimes, our photographs are all we want after a disaster. These glimpses into the past can strike fond memories of family and fun. It can be saddening to find that your pictures may have gotten wet from something, whether it’s humidity, a flood, or any disaster. It can be a big loss, but the photos are restorable.

Water damage usually comes in dirt and grime on the photos. Luckily, technological advancement has proven that photographs are much sturdier than before. Whenever a photograph is damaged by water, there is still a chance to save it. As always, you must work quickly. Otherwise, the photographs can get ruined by sticking to other things.

Funnily enough, water is a photograph’s best friend when restoring them. Ensure they don’t dry to the surfaces they’re pressed against, and treat them gently. If they dry to surfaces, the emulsion could peel away when taking the photos away. Put your photos in cold, clean water and let them sit there. Leaving them there is fine until you get to each one individually.

Steps to Restore Water-Damaged Photos

  • After they have been in the cold water, use a sponge or cotton ball to dab away any impurities from the photos gently.
  • If necessary, gently separate the damaged photos from the surfaces they’re applied to. Remember, if you’re rough with it, it can cause irreversible damage.
  • After removing impurities like dirt and dust, hang them up to dry. Make sure that they are not subject to dust in this area.
  • If the photos curl after drying, all you have to do is use the sponge or cotton ball and wet the back of the photo. Place the photo between two pieces of acid-free paper and set something flat and heavy atop it.


This guide is all about water damage. If you can take anything from it, remember to take care of water damage immediately. Leaving water damage for later will harm your health and the home itself. Mold can grow and weaken the structural integrity of your home. Water damage must be taken care of immediately.

Any surface or possession can become water-damaged. Many of these things are restorable if you get to them quickly enough. However, depending on the water type, things may need to be discarded. Floodwater, groundwater, and sewage water are types of water that you can’t save things from, though. It has so much contamination that even more dangerous microbes can grow.

Depending on the water category, you can restore anything touched. When repairing water damage, you must always sanitize afterward. Sanitizing removes any possibility of microbes growing, but a lot of work can be involved. If you’re ever unsure, there are many people out there who can help you. Call a professional if you need help!

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