Water Damage and Wood Flooring: What You Need to Know

Water is one of the fundamental necessities for life on this planet, and is a critical ingredient in many substances.  You, yourself, are almost 60% water.  We drink it, bathe in it, swim in it, eat food grown with it – the list goes on and on.  Considering how ubiquitous, essential, and common water is, it’s all the more amazing that it can also do such devastating damage.  Water is one of the biggest hazards in the home.  Unwanted moisture and water damage can contribute to a myriad of home problems, health problems, and can even render your home uninhabitable.

Today, we’re going to look specifically at water damage and wood flooring.  We’ll explore the sources of water damage that can have an impact on flooring.  Additionally, we’ll talk about the various categories of water damage, and how they dictate different levels of inspection, remediation, and restoration response. 

Then, we’ll look at what water does to wood floors, and talk a bit about the different kinds of wood floors and how they respond and handle this damage.  Next, we’ll focus on the key hazards created by water damage to wood flooring – not just physical and aesthetic problems, but much more serious health hazards like mold, mildew, bacteria, and fungal growth. 

Further, we’ll look at the different steps for identifying water damage, inspecting for water damage, and hiring professionals to remediate and restore your wood flooring.  Finally, we’ll talk about one of the premiere testing companies who can help inspect and determine the extent and impact of water damage on your wood floors – FunGuy Inspections. 

Where Does Water Damage Come From?

Water damage can have a diverse range of causes, both natural and man-made.  In some cases, water damage is very obvious, from things like floods.  In other cases, signs may be less obvious, especially in the case of slow leaks from appliances and the like.  Some of the most common causes of water damage to wood flooring include, but are not limited to:

  • Natural disasters such as excessive rainfall, hurricanes, and floods.
  • Leaking appliances, home heating and cooling systems, washer/dryer units, refrigerators, and similar.
  • Leaking plumbing lines in the home (common with fridge/freezer water/ice lines, older service lines, etc.).
  • Overflowing or leaking toilets, sinks, washer/dryers, showers, bathtubs, etc.
  • Catastrophic plumbing failures or other household incidents leading to large liquid releases.
  • Cracked foundation slabs allowing moisture in from below the floor or all around from natural rainfall and runoff activity.
  • Minor spills in the home, depending on the type of flooring, quantity of liquid spilled, and how long it goes unaddressed. 
  • Overflowing gutters, a leaky roof, damaged seals on windows, and so on, allowing in rain/snow/ice or just excessive moisture and humidity.

It’s important to stress that water damage can be severe, even without a massive leak or overtly obvious event that triggers the damage.  A slow leak from a refrigerator water line, for example, would not typically be accompanied by any visible flood in the home.  Yet, as drops of water seep into and under the floor, little by little, the damage will be done.  This is a contrast from the more obvious water damage events, such as flooding from a hurricane or other natural disaster.  Both extremes can be the cause of water damage to wood flooring. 

Categories of Water Damage

Often, the severity and hazards present with any kind of water damage to flooring (or other parts of the home) will depend on the source of the water or liquid that has infiltrated, and what it has come into contact with.  These are formally broken into three distinct categories, and further into classes based on the extent or degree of saturation of the water damage.  These categories and classes are standardized by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification, or IICRC, and are widely used by inspectors, restoration professionals, insurers and agents, and other related personnel.

Category 1

Category 1 water is water that starts out as clean and potable – normal, clear water suitable for drinking for all intents and purposes.  This can include water from the water mains coming into the home or supply lines running to fixtures and appliances, rainfall and other precipitation, and some types of slab leaks (provided mud and other contaminants aren’t present).  If a water faucet breaks and starts spraying fresh, clear water all over the room, that would be considered Category 1 water.

Category 2

Category 2 water is what is known as “grey water.”  That doesn’t mean it has to be grey in color, but rather refers to the level of contamination and suitability for drinking.  Grey water would include bath water, overflowing toilets (without feces present), dishwasher leaks, washing machine overflows, and so on.  It’s not potable to start, but not highly contaminated necessarily either. 

Category 3

Category 3 water is highly unsanitary and contaminated.  The most often-cited examples include toilet overflows with feces present, water from broken sewer or drain lines, surface water flowing into the home from events like floods or hurricanes, and so on.  It can also include water that picks up dangerous contaminants and toxic chemicals which may not be obvious at-a-glance.  Contact with Category 3 water should be avoided, and is the typical “end state” for leaks and water flows from Category 1 and Category 2 sources after they sit for prolonged periods of time, contact contaminants during their flow, or grow mold, bacteria, and other nasty pathogens.

Water in one category can move to another, depending on the path it takes from its source.  For example, Category 1 water that came from a leaking supply pipe in the home can turn into Category 2 or Category 3 water if it flows through walls, flooring, insulation, and other materials that may contaminate it.  In general, damage tends to be less severe if it originates from lower categories, and more severe from higher categories.

Very briefly, it’s also worth discussing the class of water damage, which is a measure of absorption and penetration.  Classes range from 1 to 4, with 1 representing the least amount of absorption, and 4 the most. 

  • Class 1 water damage is relatively minor, with little to no absorption into floors or drywall, and confined to a small portion of the home. 
  • Class 2 water damage is a bit more serious, encompassing a whole room for example.  Carpet, wood floors, and drywall exhibit damage and may need to be removed, restored, or replaced.
  • Class 3 water damage is fairly severe, and is generally the highest class of ordinary water damage that can occur.  A significant portion of a home is involved, with heavy saturation, absorption, and evaporation.  Drywall and flooring is usually damaged significantly, and must be removed.  Often, insulation and even some structural elements may require remediation.
  • Class 4 is a special designator for water damage that is difficult to dry or otherwise remediate.  Concrete, stone, and other porous solids are the most common examples of household materials that may sustain this class of water damage, and require special techniques and equipment to dry and restore.   

The Effects of Water Damage on Wood Floors

Wood floors are, not surprisingly, made from wood.  Wood is made up of cellulose, which is highly porous and absorbs water very easily.  If you think about it, wood is made from trees, which are plants, and all plants are basically giant systems of tubes for moving water and nutrients around throughout the tree, a lot like veins and arteries in the body.  So, it stands to reason that when wood encounters water, it absorbs the water, and like most absorbent materials, wet wood swells and bulges, increasing in size, and warping out of shape.

The first sign of water damage to wood floors is often cupping, a term for when the individual slats or planks absorb water and start to swell into one another, forcing the edges up and making each slat “cupped” in appearance.  More severe, longer-term, or widespread water damage will often cause pieces of the flooring to bulge or buckle, rising up like a hump or bump.  Both of these are physical changes to wood flooring that indicate water damage, but are by far not the only effects or symptoms.

Wood flooring that has sustained water damage will often start to discolor.  Black or dark stains may appear at the edges of the planks or slats, or general darkening or discoloration may appear across numerous slats in their entirety.  This can be the result of chemical reactions between the natural materials in the wood (such as tannins) and the water, the leeching and development of rust from the nails or fasteners used on the flooring, or from the growth of mold and mildew.  It can also be a combination of processes that causes these changes, but all indicate the presence of water damage, and often a consistent, ongoing leak or other source of water that is causing the problem.

Different Types of Wood Floors Handle Water Damage Differently

Depending on the exact materials used in a particular wood floor, the flooring may respond differently to water damage.  Various types of woods have different absorption profiles, and will handle water infiltration differently.  The infiltration points of the water, the category of water that did the infiltrating, temperature and humidity, how long a leak has been ongoing – all of these factors can impact how a particular wood floor material may respond and exhibit water damage.  Often, it also plays a large role in what kinds of repairs or restorations may be possible – whether some planks can be pulled out and replaced, or if the whole floor may need to be ripped up.

Many wood floors have some kind of polymer or other protective coating, often polyurethane, to help with water-proofing.  However, no wood flooring is impervious to water, unless it’s not made of wood – composite and synthetics that are plastic based, but still look like wood, will not exhibit the same cupping, warping, and buckling that real wood flooring will.  That doesn’t mean, however, that mold, mildew, and other nasty microorganisms can’t develop, even with faux wood flooring.  Therefore, it’s important to spot any potential water damage or leaks, and deal with them as soon as possible.  Never allow water damage to go unchecked, even if it seems an unlikely possibility – better to have the floors inspected by a professional than let a veritable witches’ brew of toxic sludge develop in your floors! 

Hazard Concerns – Mold, Mildew, Bacteria, and Fungi

Obviously, water damage can cause physical, structural damage to your wood flooring, and other parts of your home.  Warped, bent, cupped, and discolored floors will often need to be repaired, restored, or outright replaced.  Water damage can cause rot to the subflooring and underlying floor boards, as well as seep into drywall, insulation, and spread throughout the home.  But the biggest concern is the health hazards that can develop, in the form of mold, mildew, bacteria, and fungi. 

Not only can these microorganisms create further discoloration of your floors and a nasty, musty smell, they can be downright hazardous to your health.  Many molds and some fungi are toxic, and can cause breathing problems, allergic reactions, and a host of other health problems.  This is especially common in those with compromised immune systems or existing health problems, including children, the elderly, and those suffering from asthma. 

Proper Remediation Requires Inspection and Testing of Wood Flooring

Remediation and restoration experts can often help to treat water damage, and remove, repair, restore, and/or replace damaged wood floors, and any other parts of your home such as drywall, carpeting, subflooring, and similar.  This is vital after water damage, not only for removing bumps and broken or damaged slats from the floor, but for preventing or treating the growth of toxic mold and other hazardous organisms.  The longer you wait to have water damage treated, the worse it can get, as more microorganisms grow.

In order to determine what kind of remediation is required, and the true scope of the damage, the first step is to get an inspection of the damage by a professional.  FunGuy Inspections is one of the leading inspection companies in the greater Los Angeles area, and is fully trained, equipped, and experienced to help you analyze water damage as a precursor to forming a treatment plan. 

By using moisture meters, visual inspection, and other tools, FunGuy Inspections can help determine the extent of the damage, including category and class, and provide recommendations for what kind of remediation actions need to be undertaken.  In the case of serious damage, some flooring may need to be removed to discover the true scope of the problem, and to help ensure you have nothing nasty or toxic growing under foot.  Either way, the first step is to contact FunGuy Inspections and find out the extent and seriousness of your problem.  Only then can you make meaningful recovery plans to get things back to normal. 

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