A quick call to our agent with copies of the letters from the agencies strongly suggesting no repairs are made were included. Hours later, we had an official reply: we would likely be covered if at some point in the future, any problems arose, but that would not prevent a lawsuit being filed based upon our having ignored the warnings while performing repairs instead of replacements. Their advise: repairing flooded appliances exposes us to increased exposure to liability and they strongly urged we replace or walk away from the work.
Hurricane Agnes in June 1972 delivered more than 16" of rain to our area, which resulted in massive flooding. As an apprentice plumber, it was my job to enter into the flooded basements and set up each sump pump. Bear in mind that submersible sump pumps were not the norm — pedestal sump pumps were, due to cost — so the work often required we suspend the motor above the water and the owners would lower it as the waters receded.
Chest- and neck-deep water was not unusual and the practice of entering into flooded basements came to an abrupt halt when I encountered a floating chest freezer with its motor submerged and still running! Today's flex-hose kits were not available, so each one was hard-piped with the promise we would return to provide a permanent sump-pit installation: call the office when the pump stops running and no more water is entering your basement.
In the weeks that followed, every mechanical contractor worked tirelessly installing sump pumps and repairing heating equipment: water heaters, boilers and furnaces.
In contrast to 1972's Agnes, 2011's Hurricane Irene arrived with lots of pre-disaster declarations, evacuations and warnings of Agnes-like flooding. Local contractors snatched up every available sump pump and waited. Although hundreds of thousands ended up without grid-connected power for days/weeks (our home included), the rainfall was heavy, but not enough to cause many calls for sump pumps.
With the ground saturated from the wettest year on record, the stage was set for Tropical Storm Lee to wreak havoc. In our area, more than 10" of rain fell within that first Tuesday and although the blinding rain let up to fall in showers, it continued for days. Flooding was immediate and so were the results: hang up the phone and the next cry for help rang. Everyone from plumbers to wholesalers to DIY centers ran out of sump pumps. Work was non-stop for three days and as anticipated, the emergency calls changed from sump pumps to no-hot-water as if someone had thrown a switch.
Unlike Agnes and its 1972 aftermath, there was a new twist: position papers from GAMA, FEMA and my home state of Pennsylvania all strongly recommended replacement, not repairs, for any submerged water heater, boiler or furnace. Push-back from consumers was immediate: "Can't you just let it dry out and turn the power back on?"
Technicians with the proper skills felt compelled to exercise those skill-sets by trouble-shooting and repairing because, let's face it, it feels great to rebuild and restore functionality while saving folks the expense of replacement. Following Agnes, I learned what must have been a decade of experience within days while working on repairing all manner of gas- and oil-fired equipment with the seasoned veterans, now dead men. With each rebirth, our pride in workmanship was renewed and we had war stories to share.
We live in a different era now, however, and liability insurance is critical and a large portion of the overhead we all must carry. A quick call to our agent with copies of the letters from the agencies strongly suggesting no repairs are made were included. Hours later, we had an official reply: we would likely be covered if at some point in the future, any problems arose, but that would not prevent a lawsuit being filed based upon our having ignored the warnings while performing repairs instead of replacements. Their advise: repairing flooded appliances exposes us to increased exposure to liability and they strongly urged we replace or walk away from the work. That's four authoritative bodies "strongly urging" replacement.
A line in the sand
We decided the best most reasonable course was to clean and repair only if the flood-waters had not risen above the burner to engulf gas valves and/or controls. Advanced electronics (often housed in the lower blower compartment) and blowers submerged led to replacements only. A new and frustrating twist: FVIR water heaters with combustion chambers that were difficult to access and repair parts that rivaled the cost for a new water heater. As fast as the storm blew in, we shifted gears to provide ever-changing proposals, offering the variety of available options. By the end of the week, suppliers in our area were running out of water heaters!
As of September 30, sump pumps continue to be installed; a truck-load of soggy water heaters has been hauled-off to be recycled; and there seems to be no end in sight for installing new boilers and furnaces. FEMA has done an amazing job of getting out inspecting and cutting checks for assistance while insurance companies have been simply amazing in their ability to avoid payments and financial assistance. I can't help but wonder if they won't find a convenient exit strategy for claims resulting from repairs undertaken when folks were strongly-urged to replace.
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