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Water World

A flood-mitigation expert walks through some dos and don'ts of the "science of drying"


Published May 11, 2011 at 8:04 a.m.

As Darrel Depot and I drive past a pair of ducks paddling across a waterlogged lawn in Williston, he shakes his head and verbalizes the obvious: His phone will ring off the hook all day and night.

Depot, 42, is owner and general manager of PuroClean, a damage-mitigation and restoration firm in Williston. PuroClean, the “paramedics of property damage,” handles a variety of household disasters, including smoke, fire and soot damage; mold; dead-animal odors; vandalism; and even the occasional crime-scene cleanup. Since Depot bought the franchise in 2005, his work has run the gamut, from dealing with burst pipes in the winter to baby chicks that caught houses on fire because someone put heat lamps too close to their feathers. “We’ve seen that three times!” he notes.

This week, PuroClean’s calls are all about water. But Depot isn’t dancing in the rain so much as running in it. As weeks of record rainfall and flooding have sent Vermont’s lakes and rivers over their banks, damaging hundreds of homes, Depot has been swamped with queries — more than 100 in the last week alone. In a typical spring, PuroClean gets no more than 15 such calls in a week.

But, as Depot explains, calling the experts after a “water emergency” can make all the difference. That’s not a sales pitch, he emphasizes, just an economic reality: The longer homeowners wait to clean up a water-damaged home, the costlier it is in the long run. Water-mitigation jobs, which average $2800 in Vermont, can double when homeowners wait just 72 hours before making the call, Depot claims.

“This flooding will roll itself all the way through the summer, with different phases of funkiness,” Depot says. As spring turns to summer, PuroClean will shift its emphasis to mold mitigation, especially in homes that were never properly dried out.

As Depot drives his hefty white pickup to a job site in Essex Town, one of about a dozen he has scattered across half the state, he explains the challenge of cleaning up after a disaster of this magnitude: not being perceived as profiting from the misery of others.

“The hardest thing now about a water-damage mitigation company is trust,” Depot explains, as we park outside a large, split-level house in a wooded neighborhood. “Most people think you’re there to take advantage of them and make a quick and easy buck.”

But, as I soon discover, there’s nothing quick or easy about water-damage cleanup. Inside, Depot leads me down into a basement, where two PuroClean employees are using an industrial vacuum cleaner to remove a thin sheen of water from a concrete floor.

At first glance, the basement appears relatively unscathed compared with scores of other Vermont homes that were inundated. But, as I step onto a thick blue carpet, a pool of water gurgles around my boots. Clearly, misery is in the eye of the beholder.

The homeowner, Bob — he asks that we not use his last name — is a beefy, curly-haired man in his mid-fifties. He leads us into an unfinished portion of the basement, where scores of personal items — sporting goods, clothes, hand tools — are stacked haphazardly out of harm’s way. Nearby, a circuit box is open, with several breakers switched off.

Bob points to a copper pipe above his head and the apparently defective valve that, as he discovered that morning, drizzled water onto the floor for more than 12 hours. He may be the only homeowner in Vermont this week whose flooded basement had nothing to do with the weather.

Bob explains, almost apologetically, that he tried hauling the family’s waterlogged belongings up the stairs by himself. But with two artificial knees, the work got to be too much for him.

“Don’t worry. These guys don’t have an artificial anything,” Depot replies, referring to his young crew members. “I’ve got you lined up for a storage container. You think that’s a good idea?”

“I think so. I don’t know,” Bob says warily. “Everything is just in disarray.”

Meanwhile, one PuroClean worker slides polystyrene pads under the legs of a sofa to get it out of the water. As Depot explains, these Styrofoam squares, which cost about a nickel apiece, can save this homeowner hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

When the employee is finished, Bob plants himself on the sofa and lets out an exhausted sigh. He has a shell-shocked look in his eyes, one that, Depot explains later, he’s seen often lately from Vermonters who suddenly realize they’re in over their heads — sometimes literally.

“Do I have to remove the carpet?” Bob asks cautiously, as if not wanting to hear the answer.

“That’s your call,” Depot tells him. “We can dry it out for you, but if you’re thinking of getting rid of it, now’s the time.”

From a layman’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine this waterlogged carpet will ever be usable again. But Depot points to a silver machine the size of an industrial floor buffer, called a weighted roller extractor. An operator stands on the device and pilots it around the room like a Segway. Like a miniature steamroller combined with a self-powered mower, this $6000 contraption uses its considerable heft to squeegee water out of the carpet and underlying pad, and then vacuums up the excess moisture.

A roller extractor is just one of many high-tech gadgets now employed in the 21st-century “science of drying,” Depot explains. He pulls out another nifty device called the GE Protimeter, which measures the presence of water in solid materials, including hardwood floors, stucco, masonry and concrete.

Depot holds the meter up to his hand, and the digital readout climbs into the hundreds. Then he holds it to a solid block of wood, and the numbers drop down into the double digits. Next, Depot sinks the metal probes into a section of carpet that, from all appearances, is dry. But the digits climb again into the red zone, indicating the presence of moisture beneath.

“You never see the whole story with water damage,” Depot explains. “And the longer something sits in water, the longer it takes to dry.”

An average “dry down” like this one can take three days. During that time, Depot’s crew will bring in other heavy equipment, including blowers and dehumidifiers, to extract water from the carpet, walls and furniture.

As we walk by an electrical outlet, Depot instinctively reaches down and unplugs an appliance — always with the right hand, he notes. “You don’t want electricity crossing your heart,” he warns. In fact, homeowners with a significant amount of water in their homes should alert an electrician, he advises, especially if outlets are underwater.

As we leave Bob’s house and drive to the next one, off Butler Drive in South Burlington, I express surprise that a house on seemingly high, dry ground far from the lake can flood. Actually, it’s quite common, he says; in the last two weeks alone, his firm serviced four other houses in this neighborhood.

“I’ve seen water damage in the Hill Section of Burlington,” Depot adds. “You think you’re on the highest part of the ground, at the top of the hill. But you never know.”

Depot leads us down into another basement, which is humming with industrial fans and humidifiers. The center of the room is cluttered with piles of children’s toys stacked on a Ping-Pong table. Like the basement we just left, this one has a weight bench in one corner.

“I hate weight benches,” Depot mutters. “Can you put anything heavier in a room? Maybe a player piano, or a roll-away sleeper sofa.”

Unlike Bob’s basement, however, this one is almost dry. Along the baseboards, about two inches of drywall have been cut away to allow the dehumidifiers to get at the moisture that was wicked up by the drywall and insulation and would otherwise remain trapped by plastic moisture barriers. Later, the homeowner can tack up a four-inch trim, and the walls will look as good as new.

Houses like this, which were built in the last decade, are so airtight that any moisture that gets in can be difficult to dry out. “Nobody builds for mold or water damage,” Depot notes. “They all build for energy efficiency.”

Though this dry down is nearly complete, Depot pulls out a $5000 infrared camera and points it at one wall. The camera, which measures relative temperature variations — damp materials run cooler than dry ones, and thus appear in blue on the screen — is used for mapping areas of the room that are still damp.

To demonstrate, Depot holds his hand against one wall for 10 seconds and then removes it. There’s no visible handprint to the naked eye, but when he aims the thermal camera at it, Depot’s handprint is clearly visible in red.

I ask him what homeowners should do if they come home and discover a basement full of water. Despite all the high-tech gadgetry, Depot’s answers aren’t rocket science: Move easily damaged items to drier ground and sort out those that can soak up water, such as books, photo albums and clothes. Unplug appliances, switch off circuit breakers (assuming it’s safe to reach the box) and move furniture, even durable items, to dry ground or up off the floor.

Finally, he adds, don’t wait before calling your insurance agent and a disaster-mitigation expert. Especially in tough economic times, many do-it-yourselfers think they can handle a job like this themselves. As Depot puts it, “During a recession, our biggest competitor is still a Shop-Vac.”