Everybody’s in a hurry to get things back to normal after a disaster, but when it comes to electrical safety, it pays to step back and carefully evaluate things before moving ahead with any work. If your house has been severely damaged by flood waters, here are some pointers to help keep you safe:
1. Never go into a flood-damaged basement or a basement filled with water until the utility company, fire department, or a licensed electrician has removed the home’s electrical meter from its socket.
Why: Removing the meter from the socket is the only way the house can be completely disconnected from the grid. Even if you’ve lost power, you can still be electrocuted in a flooded basement if someone is running a generator nearby and back-feeding electricity into a storm damaged grid. You can’t count on a storm-damaged circuit breaker or disconnect switch to protect you. The only safe way is to remove the meter.
2. Once the building is pumped out and you begin recovery efforts, keep in mind that all flooded electrical equipment is almost certainly ruined.
Why: Very few things in a house are rated to survive submersion, even briefly. The following will almost certainly need to be replaced:
- Plastic-sheathed building wire (often referred to by the trade name Romex)
- Armored cable (often referred to by the trade name BX)
- Circuit panels and circuit breakers
- Fuse boxes and fuses
- Sub panels
- Switched disconnect boxes
- Outlet receptacles
- Circuit boards
- Non-submersible pumps
- Blowers and fans
- Air conditioners
A licensed air conditioning or a heating/cooling contractor can advise you whether your heating or cooling equipment can be salvaged. It depends upon the type of equipment, the depth of the floodwaters, and the duration of submersion. Many people try to salvage appliances such as dehumidifiers, refrigerators, and freezers that have been in flooded basements. Some do go on to live a post-flood life, but it’s risky: They can be extremely dangerous to operate after they’ve been flooded.
3: Pay increased attention to grounding and bonding, and after the flood ask an electrician to conduct a thorough survey the system.
Why: There are two aspects to every home’s electrical system: the parts designed to carry electrical current during normal operation, and the parts designed to carry current safely to ground should something go wrong. The latter is known as the home’s grounding and bonding system and it can be severely damaged by floodwaters. Only a licensed electrician is equipped and trained to evaluate the damage.
All metal components of a home’s electrical system should be carefully and replaced if necessary. For example, metal electrical boxes that have been submerged may rust and the rust on the box prevents an adequate connection to the home’s grounding system.
4. Even after the building is fully disconnected from the grid, never go into a flooded building alone. Put on chest waders, and bring a bright flashlight that clips to your hat or your waders so you don’t have to carry it. But most importantly, have someone standing by in case you need help.
Why: Flooded buildings are dark, slippery, and disorienting. It’s easy to get hurt or even drown in one. Trust me. As a volunteer, I once went into a flood-damaged basement and stepped into an uncovered sump pit, finding myself in water up to my chin. I freed myself from that, only to step into a second uncovered pit.