How to Clean Up (and Forget the Nightmare) of Basement Flooding

You can cope with the soppy mess. Here’s how.

Image: Agencia/Stocksy United

Rain, rain, go away. And sewage backups. And burst pipes. All y’all can GO. AWAY. Especially if they turn your wet bar into a soaking wet bar and your ping-pong table into an island.

Every homeowner with a basement imagines that horror. If it should happen to you, don’t retreat into a fetal position on your couch and hope for a miracle, no matter how much you want to. You can deal with the soggy disaster. Here’s how.

4 Things to Do Right Away

Don’t wait until you’ve reached the fifth stage of grief before addressing a floodFast action can minimize a rising, rank situation — and the money it’ll cost to repair.

1. The first thing to do is really a “don’t,” says Glenn Gallas, vice president of operations at Mr. Rooter Plumbing. Don’t ever, everstep into standing basement water. “You could be shocked or electrocuted,” he says. Who wants to venture into that murky mess, anyway? Turn the power off or call an electrician to be safe.

2. Then stop the flow of water.How you do that depends on what the source is:

Water SourceWhat to Do
Broken or malfunctioning pipes Turn off your water’s shut-off valve. If you don’t know where that is, scope it out now — before the worst happens. Some valves are buried in the ground and require special tools to turn off.
Sewage backupStop flushing toilets and running faucets. Your local sewage authority may offer pumping services or let you submit a reimbursement claim. If you have a septic system, though, it’s on you. Call the septic company to have your tank pumped ASAP.
GroundwaterSorry, that’s bad news. You can’t turn off Mother Nature. The good news: Groundwater flooding might not stink as badly as sewage. Get references for a waterproofing pro or a structural engineer because you could have a foundation problem.

Groundwater was the culprit for Nancy Friedman and her husband when their St. Louis home flooded back in 2014. They knew they had a tiny wet spot in their basement, but “I didn’t think too much of it,” Nancy Friedman says. “Going downstairs is not an everyday occurrence for us,” she says, especially since they both travel a lot.

That tiny wet spot soon became a full-on flood in their basement, causing thousands of dollars in carpet damage – not to mention the cost to repair the structural issue that allowed water to seep in in the first place.

3. Find a plumber with a high-capacity pump. This is not a job for a DIYer. It needs to get done fast. You need a professional-grade pump. “The longer that water sits, and the longer your drywall spends under water, the more long-term damage,” Gallas says. The more damage, the more it costs to clean up.

4. Make your smartphone earn its keep. Take photos and video, then back them up in the cloud, so you’ll have them for insurance purposes.

DIY Some of the Cleanup to Save Money

Once the water is pumped out, the rest can be a DIY job. Just make sure to protect yourself with:

  • Gloves
  • Rubber boots
  • Eye protection
  • A mask (especially if you’re dealing with a sewage backup)
  • A nose plug if the smell is really bad

Then suck up the remaining muck with a wet-dry vac. You’ll also need an army’s worth of paper towels and plastic bags to dispose of the mess.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to say goodbye to all rugs, carpets, and upholstery, which will soak up floodwater contaminants and bacteria, regardless of the flood source. (Seriously sentimental items might be restorable by a professional, but don’t get your hopes too high.) That’s what happened to Friedman. “The first thing we had to do was pull up the carpet.”

Other restoration steps:

  • Open all windows and doors, and run large fans and dehumidifiers.
  • Scrub water-contaminated walls, floors, cabinetry, or hardware with a soapy solution. Ventilate again.
  • Make a bactericide by adding 1.5 cups of Bleach doesn't kill mold and mildew. It kills the bacteria that they feed on, but doesn't destroy the nasty fungi itself. Use soap to zap it. bleach and a few drops of liquid soap to a gallon of water. Spray on the walls; let air dry.

But Don't Feel Like a Wimp if You Want to Hire a Pro

In fact, both Gallas and Friedman recommend hiring a restoration service, as long as the company you hire is trustworthy and affordable. A small flood might cost as little as $500 to pump out and dry, but a large flood can cost up to $10,000.

“There’s a lot of companies out there that put a guy in a truck and think a high-powered fan is good enough to dry a basement,” Gallas says. Improper technique, like not allowing the home to dry for long enough or failing to properly treat drywall, puts your home at risk for mold or mildew in addition to the flooding damage.

So just be sure to do your homework on who you hire.

Don't Assume Insurance Will Cover Your Repairs

Friedman’s first call when her basement flooded was to her insurance company. “They told me, ‘You don’t have flood insurance,’” Friedman says. “I thought everybody had flood insurance!”

Standard home insurance often doesn’t cover all types of floods, especially groundwater.

“If I could do a speech on floods, it would be: Do you know this very moment, for sure, if you have flood insurance?” Friedman says. “Call your insurance agent right now and ask.”

But the best scenario is no flood at all.

Related: What Does Regular Home Insurance Cover?

5 Things To Do So You'll Never, Ever Flood Again

  1. Install a leak detector and high-water alarm. These small devices notify you before a small leak becomes a disaster, either via an audible alarm or a text message.
  2. Insulate your pipes. Thawing pipes are one of the leading causes of basement flooding.
  3. Maintain your backwater valve. It prevents sewage from seeping from the septic or sewer system to your home.
  4. Consider a sump pump. Every basement should have one of these flooding saviors. “I think sump pumps should be wedding gifts,” Friedman says.
  5. Flush and dump with caution.Dumping anything besides waste and toilet paper down your toilet or drains is a big no-no — from tampons to grease. These clog the system, causing backups.

Related:Home Maintenance for People With Better Things to Do

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