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Restoration specialists go unnoticed until needed
By Arlene Miles | Daily Herald Correspondent

A failed sump pump during heavy rains soaked the carpeting, drywall and insulation within the basement walls of this home.


Courtesy of First Priority

Mike Koutny replaces wood in the basement of a Countryside home for First Priority of South Elgin, a disaster remediation and restoration company.



First Priority repairs flood damage in Lisa Callahan's Countryside home. Marian Hupka cuts fiberglass insulation to be installed in the walls.



After wet building materials are removed from a flooded basement, it is time to begin repairs.


Courtesy of First Priority

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Published: 10/2/2010 11:18 PM

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The general thinking about household disasters is they always happen to someone else that is until an unforeseen catastrophe finally strikes you.

What's next after the fire engines leave, or water from a flood recedes from the basement?

While the average homeowner may have trouble thinking straight after a catastrophe hits, the people who put homes back together do. They're called disaster remediation and restoration specialists. They're one-stop shops that help put households in order, from clean up to reconstruction and even dealing with insurance companies.

"A lot of people have no idea that we as an industry exist until they have a need for us," said Andy Beumel, co-owner of First Priority DKI in South Elgin.

Fire and water clean up are the two disasters that come to mind as needing extensive remediation. Most companies of this type, however, also handle mold removal and remediation, while some even deal with hazardous waste.

The most involved process is fire restoration because so many different scenarios and factors may occur. Once a home is secured after a fire, cause and origin must be determined by fire investigators, and arson may need to be ruled out. Sometimes insurance companies get involved at this stage if there is an issue of possible subjugation, meaning there could be a question of liability if say, an electrician had performed work recently in the house and did wiring incorrectly, causing the fire.

"There's a lot of administrative red tape up front," Beumel said. "You don't see a lot of work being done in the first month after a fire."

Once the work has been approved, the disaster restoration company assesses what can be salvaged. The homes contents are inventoried and photographed with items to be saved often moved to the company's warehouse while the home is readied for restoration. Water and damage from the firefighting efforts are removed and demolition of badly burned parts of the structure occurs before rebuilding begins.

"What a lot of people don't realize when they have fire damage is that they will have (building) code upgrade issues when they rebuild," Beumel said.

Times and costs vary for fire restoration based on the extent of damage, but for extensive cases it can take six to eight months to complete with cost running upward of $200,000.

Much more common than fire disasters are the sudden flash floods that occur in basements the result of a malfunctioning sump pump, sewer back up or other damaging events involving water. This is also a situation where people think they can clean up on their own, but they often make mistakes. The rule of thumb is to call an expert as soon as you can, within 24 hours if possible.

"Sometimes people put a fan down in the basement after it floods," said Tom Athey, owner of A-Brite Cleaning and Restorations Inc. in Mundelein. "A fan can blow humidity around and cause secondary damage.

"Also, you should never use a furnace to dry out your house because that's one of the worst things you can do."

Running a furnace in these situations invites trouble because mold is often present in a home's ductwork. When the furnace blower runs, it spreads the spores throughout the house, thus inviting mold problems throughout the entire structure.

In addition, home furnaces aren't efficient at drying a water disaster. Remediation companies have specialized equipment to remove moisture quickly. In essence, dehumidification must exceed the rate of natural evaporation.

"Most jobs take an average of three days, sometimes two (to dry out the area)," Athey said.

Larger jobs take longer, as was the case with a split-level house owned by Ron Barnec of Algonquin in which a faucet leaked for several days. Water spread into a number of rooms and stood long enough so there was potential for mold formation.

"We called as soon as we found the problem," Barnec said. "We couldn't have A-Brite start the process right away, but they worked for about a half-hour to begin to mitigate the problem. It took about 4 to 6 days to dry out all of the areas."

Drying the area is just the first stage of remediation. Structures such as drywall, woodwork, etc., may not be usable after drying and need to be replaced, and sometimes just as with a fire remediation, that can take time. Pat and Lisa Callahan of Countryside had a flooded basement because of a sump pump failure during heavy rains at the end of July.

"We had 3 to 4 inches of water in our basement and contacted First Priority right away," Pat said. "We wanted to make sure that we didn't end up with a mold problem, and we didn't."

Callahan noted that the process was slowed because of what he called "playing phone tag" with insurance adjusters to approve reconstruction work. Because of that, reconstruction on the affected areas didn't begin in earnest until the middle of September.

Remediating a water disaster as soon as possible has other benefits, too. For one, less odor will be involved. But the benefits of using professionals for the job go beyond that.

"We have a system that takes the moisture out of hardwood floors and takes the buckling out," said Athey, noting that some structures can be saved with the proper procedures.

In addition, most water disasters are composed of gray water, which contains bacteria, or black water, which comes from sewage backups or toilet backflow. Black water can be extremely toxic.

"There are a lot of diseases in black water, including Legionnaire's disease, as well as mold which can contaminate your carpets, drywall, lumber, everything," Athey said.

Part of the cleanup process includes using antibacterial agents on anything that may be salvaged to ensure their safety. Traditionally that has involved using harsh chemicals, but some companies offer a green alternative.

"The green chemicals have come a long way over the years," Beumel said. "It's about a 50/50 switch as to what customers want."

DKI Services Corp., headquartered in Addison, is the only certified green services restoration organization in the United States. All of its franchise members, of which First Priority is one, are trained to provide remediation services that will satisfy insurance requirements using the most efficient green products in the marketplace. The program was developed by Vale Training Solutions of Arlington, Texas.

"All of our franchisees were trained in it," said Michele Donahue, DKI marketing communications director. "This training allows them to analyze the makeup of a green building, to look at different products that could be used in remediation, interpret the different green rating systems used in the U.S. and interpret insurance coverage as related to it."

One of the most hazardous remediation situations involves mold. Testing is virtually always done before a mold job, often by an industrial hygienist, to determine where mold may exist and what type it may be.

"Those tests are important because you can't tell by touching something whether it has mold in it," Athey said.

If mold has been verified as present, the industrial hygienist will draft a protocol for its removal. In a typical situation, the area is cordoned off with plastic and the removal occurs with workers wearing respirators and protective clothing. HEPA air scrubbers are used to trap as many airborne particles as possible. The remediation is done under negative pressure so that no mold spores escape to the outside. Mold that is removed is sealed in plastic bags before it is taken from the property.

Mold typically occurs in basements and bathrooms as well as in between walls of very old homes, but attics are also major culprits.

"Poorly ventilated attics also retain mold," Beumel said. "You'd be surprised at how many times we've seen bathrooms ventilated into the attic instead of to the outside. Condensation occurs in the attic, then mold begins to grow."

Bear in mind, however, that mold will never be fully remediated as it is a naturally occurring substance. Even the cleanest basement will retain some. The goal here is to bring mold down to acceptable levels.

Rectifying these problems is not cheap, but neither will remediation break the bank. Typical water disaster jobs range from $2,000 to $5,000 while mold runs from about $1,500 to $7,500. The good news is that most insurance policies will cover a significant portion of the cost.

The bad news is you shouldn't expect everything to be covered. Beumel said most insurance companies are trying to limit payouts on mold remediation. At the same time, the age of contents affected, such as carpeting, can affect how much an insurance company will pay. In other words, the older the item, the less likely you'll get replacement value.