Tips for removing water and drying your hardwood flooring after a flood
Water and wood just don’t mix. If you’ve been following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, this should come as no surprise. When water sits on top of hardwood floors, it can permanently ruin the hardwood as the wood will absorb the water through its pores causing warping and discoloration. So, if you have a flood or water damage (or even just a spill) on your hardwood flooring, you’ll want to remove the water and dry your floors as quickly as possible.
Speed is the key. The first 24 hours are critical, and the longer the wood is in contact with water, the worse the damage will be. If you remove the water from your hardwood floors quickly and properly dry them, you may be able to save the wood (or most of it). Most likely, you will need to sand and refinish the wood afterwards, and then your floors will look (almost) brand new. And, you’ll avoid the cost and hassle of ripping up and hauling away the hardwood as well as paying for new wood and installation. Refinishing hardwood is way less expensive vs replacing it.
Below are my top tips for water and moisture removal.
Please note that this article may contain affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.
What happens when your hardwood absorbs water?
Wood can get wet (or moist) in a number of ways – a flood from outside from the rain, leaky pipes (or frozen pipes), ice damming, a toilet overflow, a leaky roof, a hurricane or storm, an appliance breaks or leaks (e.g. dishwasher or washing machine), a fire (with water used to extinguish the fire), water spills/accidents, pet accidents, a high water table in the ground that then forces water into your sub-floor from the ground.
When wood gets wet, the wood absorbs the water and begins to expand and eventually cup (or warp). This is when the sides of the wood flooring swell and rise higher than the center of the boards, creating an uneven surface. Bear in mind that even if the water is topical (i.e. on top of the wood finish), it often penetrates through the cracks between the planks and/or can be absorbed by the plywood sub-floor underneath the hardwood. If you have engineered hardwood, the water can also pass through the planks and loosen the glue beneath so that the floors start to pop up as they expand.
When you do get water damage, it’s important to remove the water quickly and dry the floors – not only to potentially save the hardwood flooring (and sub-floor), but also to prevent mold growth (which can of course be a bigger problem and more expensive to resolve). According to the EPA, mold growth can start within 48-72 hours when your floors (or walls) get wet.
Will my insurance company cover my water damaged flooring?
Whether or not your insurance will be cover the damage depends on your insurance plan and the cause of the damage. Please note that most homeowners (less than 20%) have flood insurance. So, if the damage was from flooding (i.e. it came from outside the house), there’s a good chance you aren’t covered.
But, if the water damage was due to some sort of mechanical issue (e.g. leaky or frozen pipes, water heater bursting, toilet overflowing, broken appliance, power outage so sump pump wasn’t functioning) or a structural issue from the house (e.g. roof leak, ice damming), then there is a good chance you are covered.
Call your insurance company (and read your policy).
If your insurance company will cover the damage, they should be paying for everything associated with the claim (including mitigation/water removal, damaged furniture, and to restore your home back to how it was (less then deductible) including floors, painting, etc. If you are covered by insurance, you will probably find this article helpful: Flooded floors? What many don’t realize their insurance company will cover. This will provide tips on how to maximize your reimbursement from your insurance company. And, be sure to keep all receipts.
After a hurricane or major storm
In general, if you have serious water damage, your best bet will often be to call a professional mitigation or restoration service as they are experts in this are and have the best equipment. But, please be aware that after a hurricane, these companies get flooded with phone calls and they may not be able to get to you for a few days, or potentially a week due to the super high demand.
If you are going to hire a professional after a major storm, my advice is to call them ASAP (the sooner you call, the shorter the wait will be) and in the meantime take whatever preventative measures you can (see below) until they arrive (provided that it is safe to do so).
Best tips for water removal and drying your hardwood floors after a flood
1. Make sure you find and stop the source of the water damage.
If water (or moisture) continues to penetrate the wood, you’ll be fighting a no win battle. So find the problem and fix it before the floors get any worse.
2. Remove all of the other wet items out of the area
Ideally, move furniture and all other such items outside in the sun, or at a minimum move to another room. If the items are wet and you need to keep them inside (e.g. if it’s raining or if you live in an apartment), try to move them to a waterproof floor and/or place plastic between the floor and the furniture.
If you have carpet on top of your hardwood floor, remove the carpet and padding right away. This is the area that tends to get moldy and smelly first. And, then, be sure to remove tack strips as these are very sharp and can hurt you if your (or one of your kids or pets) steps on them. Also, if they soak in the water, they can rust and turn black as well as turn the wood underneath black, too.
3. Use a wet vacuum to suck up all the standing water
You want to quickly absorb as much water as you can. Note: you may want to turn to a professional mitigation company as they specialize on water extraction and have the best equipment. If you choose to do this yourself, here’s a wet vacuum I’d recommend. Note: keep vacuuming even after you’ve removed all visible water as there is still water from the invisible pores in the wood. You’ll see that that the wet vacuum continues to suction up water for a while.
Note: Pending on the nature of the water damage, you may also need to remove the base boards and sections of drywall. This can be important to avoid mold growth (as the dry wall absorbs water like a sponge (and capillary action can cause the moisture to “wick” up the walls). The standard that mitigation companies use is to remove drywall 18 inches above the highest point that the water reached.
4. Clean the surface with a disinfectant
Remember, you need to prevent mold in addition to preserving your hardwood floors. You should use a non sudsy disinfectant (e.g. Mr Clean). Once you’ve finished this, use the wet vacuum again to remove any leftover water.
5. Use a dehumidifier
Place a dehumidifier in the center of room. If you can get more than one, that’s even better. Be sure to clear the water every few hours (and make sure the filter is clean as well). Make sure the dehumidifier runs for at least 24 hrs, but you may need to use it for 2 to 3 days or even longer, pending on the severity of the water. In some cases, it’s advisable to use a dehumidifier for several weeks.
Reduce foot traffic to the area while the floors are drying. This will allow them to dry faster and more evenly.
6. Supplement with large fans (and air conditioning)
Accelerate the drying process with fans. Point the fans towards the floor. Also, be sure to open the windows around 2 inches for better air circulation/ventilation (and keep the door open). This will allow excess moisture to evaporate and create more cross ventilation. (If it’s raining or extremely humid outside, then keep the windows shut and just keep the doors to other rooms open and use a dehumidifier). Put the fans on the highest level (i.e. full blast) and point them towards the floor. If you have some that oscillate, even better.
If you have air conditioning, keep it on (or turn it on). DO NOT apply any type of heat. Heat can cause splitting and cupping. And, it can add more moisture to the area and can promote mold growth, so avoid it like the plague.
Oh, and this probably goes without saying, but make sure your fans a clean and remove any dust before you use them. And of course make sure all plugs/wires are out of reach of the water.
7. If you have a level below the water damaged area, reduce the moisture in the sub-floor as well.
Chances are that some of the water leaked into the sub-floor beneath the hardwood flooring, and you want to dry this out as well. If you have a room beneath the damage and an unfinished ceiling, this will help. Add fans in this room as well (and if there are windows in this room, open them as well if it’s not raining). If you have an extra dehumidifier, use it here, too.
If you ceiling is finished, you may want to consider cutting a small square hole in the ceiling (that you will repair after) to allow the sub-floor to dry out faster.
8. What if some boards start to pop up and buckle?
The wood may continue to swell as it absorbs more moisture (and the moisture may continue to soak through via the plywood sub-floor. If it gets to a point where the wood buckles or you can’t walk across the floor, remove a board or two. This will relieve some stress and allow better ventilation for the sub-floor.
9. Once the floor is visibly dry, check for signs of mold or mildew
If you see (or smell) any signs of mold or mildew, you’ll want to immediately scrub the floors with a mixture of baking soda and water. You may also want to consult a mold/remediation specialist as well. Note: I’m not an expert on mold. But, I do know that it can easily grow in moist and wet environments, especially when it’s warm. If you have it or suspect you might, I’d recommend taking the safe route here. This may include removing sections of the hardwood as well as calling a mold specialist.
10. Use a moisture meter
Note that it may take 4 to 6 weeks (and occasionally longer) for your floors to fully dry. It’s critical that you wait for the floors to dry and settle before you sand them. Otherwise, you will have all sorts of issues as the wood may continue to contract and the floors won’t cure properly. You may find that if this happens that you will need to sand and refinish them a 2nd time (and this of course will cost more money and you’ll be wearing down your wood).
You’ll want a moisture meter to test the moisture content in the wood. They are inexpensive and you can buy one here on Amazon. Make sure that you or your installers test the moisture of the wood before sanding (or replacing) the hardwood. Test in multiple places as it’s possible that some areas have more moisture than others (and remember that the sub-floor may also be retaining moisture so that it will take longer for whole area to fully dry). The moisture content should be between 6-9% before any hardwood is installed (or dropped off for acclimation) or sanding starts.
Do not let your insurance company or flooring contractor rush you. Your insurance adjuster wants to close the case as soon as possible, and your flooring contractor may be anxious for more work. But, check the moisture meter. If your floors aren’t ready, wait.
11. Sand and Refinish your hardwood floors
Generally at this point, you will need to sand and refinish your floors. The water usually wears down the polyurethane, and often there are some pieces or portions of the floor that need to be replaced (sometimes just a few pieces of wood need to be woven in). Even if there is some polyurethane left on your floors, it is probably much thinner and somewhat compromised and won’t last too long, so you are better off refinishing the floors now (especially if this is covered by your insurance company.
The good news is that most water damaged floors can be sanded and refinished. When you have minor cupping, this will generally sand out during the process. I’ve seen a lot of damaged floors and many are salvageable. Usually, we only need to replace and weave in a few small sections. Bear in mind that this of course depends on the how much water was absorbed and how well (and quickly) the floors were dried. Call in a professional to get their opinion.
Reminder: Before the floors are sanded, be sure to double check the moisture content with the moisture meter.
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Quick notes on finding contractors:
Please note that you can use whichever contractor(s) you prefer to work with. You are NOT obligated to use the contractors your insurance company recommends. In fact, it’s not legal for them to do this. Use whomever you feel comfortable with. In my experience, generally the mitigation/clean up contractors they recommend are good, but the be wary of the other contractors as the insurance company often doesn’t know the best contractors in your area. Check references and online reviews.
When it comes to hardwood flooring and water damage, expediency is key. If you are able to remove the water quickly and properly dry to floors, you have an excellent chance of saving them (or most of them). From there, you can sand and refinish the floors. From there, you can either do the same or a different color for your hardwood.
Below are some additional articles that should come in handy, including info on which stain colors are most stylish and best brands of polyurethane to use. I’ve also provided the link for the article to help you maximize your insurance compensation.
- Flooded floors? What many people don’t realize their insurance company will cover
- What are the best brands of polyurethane?
- What stain colors are most popular?
- Dark vs light hardwood flooring – what are the pros and cons?
- How to prevent scratches in your hardwood floors
Complementary products that will prolong the life of your hardwood floors
If you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here.
For more info, check out my Ebook – Discover the 6 Secrets to Refinishing Hardwood floors.
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How to save your hardwood floors from water damage (or a flood)