Flooded cars are a potential time bomb!

garyGary Wray 17/02/09


Cleaning up a flooded car is not as straight-forward as you may think. But on the other hand, there is no reason for a vehicle to be written off just because it has had a few inches of water in it… in short, we think that the general public underestimates the job of cleaning up a flooded vehicle, and vehicles which are written off that need not be as insurance companies are now finding out -- there is sometimes a middle ground depending on the value of the car.

The General Public

We are often contacted by people who's cars have had just a few inches of water in the foot wells, they often think that we can just dry the car out for them and then they can drive it away. What they don't realize is that many of the electrical safety systems that are now built into cars can be affected. Furthermore, the water that gets into cars is usually dirty water – it can be a health risk.
So cleaning up a flood damaged car is something that needs to be taken seriously, and done properly. You will almost certainly need to make an insurance claim.

The Insurance Companies

Insurance companies usually deal with all cars using a system, which makes everything as quick and simple as possible. Any damaged car is sent to a body shop which replaces parts, and charges using a matrix based on time taken to carry out any given task. While body shops are very well equipped to carry out repairs on bodywork, if an insurance company asks them to do anything else, they will generally just replace affected parts… they don't do repairs or clean-ups, and they certainly aren't equipped to deal with decontamination and odours. Furthermore, flooded cars need to be sent to dealership for mechanical repairs, for computers to be reset, and for safety checks. All this means is that sometimes the insurance company will write-off the car and instead try to get back some money selling it for salvage…

…which takes us back to the 'general public again'. It seems that many of these cars are offered to sale back to the general public. Of all the enquiries we get about flooded vehicles, the most numerous are from people who have seen a Category 'C' or 'D' write-off for sale, and they want to know if we can 'clean' it up for them. We can, but we won't cut any corners, so the question is will it be economically viable?

What do I do if my car is flooded?

Assuming you have already established that there are no mechanical problems with the car, we suggest you contact us as soon as possible. We will be able to give you a good idea as to the viability of restoring your car. If the water level was only low then it is possible that your car can be restored minimum fuss, but it is very likely that you will need to claim on your insurance.

Call your insurance company and ask them if the car can be brought to us. We deal with all the major insurance companies and are happy to deal with them on your behalf. If your insurance company is happy, we can collect the car from anywhere in the country.

It's all about the numbers!

There is no getting away from it, cleaning up a flood damaged car can be expensive. And unfortunately, until you start working on a car and finding the problems, it's very difficult to estimate how much it will cost, you never know quite what you'll find. Furthermore, it's difficult to estimate timescale… there will be parts that need to be replaced, and if they need to be shipped in from Germany, Italy, Spain or Japan, then this can hold things up for days or weeks.

So before it's decided whether a car should be decontaminated or not, some calculations and estimates need to be made.

How much does it cost?

It very much depends on the car, the extent of the flooding, and the kind of water to contaminate it. Driving through a ford too fast will lead to a different kind of contamination from a car caught on a flooded road. A river that bursts its banks will cause huge amounts of silt, a burst water-main will not.
On occasions when the water level has little more than wetted the carpets, and there are no electrical components affected, it can cost as little as a few hundred pounds. But it's often the case that the work will involve stripping the car out, replacing parts, having computers reset by dealerships, in which case it can cost between £2,000 for older cars, vans and cars without lots of electrics, and £10,000 for new, high-end cars that require gearbox, new engine/rebuilds on top of our part in the decontamination.

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The Process

First an assessment needs to be made of the vehicle in regards to what damage has been done to the engine and running gear. It is possible for water getting into an engine to destroy it completely, meaning a replacement engine is required.

Replacing engines and gear boxes can be very expensive, so as a general rule, if a car requires both engine and interior then it's going to work out too expensive… with two exceptions, one being new, high-value vehicles which are usually viable and we do many of these for insurance companies. The other being commercial vehicles, especially if they are purpose built or specially kited out -- despite being expensive for a fleet to buy, they are often fairy basic -- we have been involved in doing vehicles from large fleets where we have carried out the decontamination, and then forwarded the vehicle on to the fleet's workshop so that they can switch parts with donor vehicles.

If the engine or running gear is damaged, then the first top is to the garage to have these fixed. If the car can be driven, then it needs to come to us. However, just because a car can be driven, doesn't mean that it should be driven! It could be a health hazard and will probably need to be put on a car transporter. As we get cars from as far away as Scotland, we often find that transporter costs take up a significant part of the budget and this needs to be taken into consideration at the beginning. Once the car is finished it can be driven back to where it came from. But it's likely that the car will need to be transported to-and-from the dealership before it gets to this stage of completion, which may mean more time on a car transporter.

Once we have the car at our premises, we begin by treating the car with disinfectant and/or enzymes to make it safe to work on. With the exception of the dashboard and headlining, the interior is then stripped out, on most cars this can take a day, but on some models of executive cars with complex electrical systems this can take twice as long.

All components are examined for evidence that they have become submerged or water damaged, and at this point, the car is usually sent to the dealership for these items to be replaced and the computers reset and tested.
Obviously, it's more usual for us to work on higher value cars, but they do contain complex systems which are usually connected to central processing units… in other words the everything is wired into one big computer and diagnostic system, which can only be worked on by the dealership.

Meanwhile we will be decontaminating, cleaning and drying the interior parts of the vehicle. When the vehicle comes back to us with the computers reset, we put it back together, it then gets another clean from front to back, inside and out so that it looks as close to new as we can get it. It's then given a final safety check so that it is ready for return.

If you would like to see an example of a car we have restored, you can find a photographic record here.

When is a car viable? General rules of thumb

Any car that has been contaminated with salt water is usually not viable, as salt water causes corrosion which is an extra complication you can do without.
There is a difference in the water between urban areas and rural areas, but we are equipped to deal with both and this does not make a great deal of difference, although it will affect the order in which we do things and the timescale.

Time is of the essence, from the moment the car is flooded, the clock is ticking. The water in the car, if left will cause corrosion and odours. If work can begin within a few days, the problem is addressed before this becomes an issue.

An older, or lower value car or van can be viable if it is 'basic'. If there are no electrics, airbags, heated seats, and if the construction is fairly simple, such as vans that don't have carpets, restoring them can be quick and relatively inexpensive.

Buying Flood Damaged Vehicles

We are often asked if it is worth buying flood damaged vehicles as category 'C' or 'D' write-offs. It can be if you know what you are getting yourself into. The salvage value of vehicles has been rather high in recent years so it hasn't been possible to buy flood damaged vehicles 'very' cheaply. But basically, if you buy a vehicle, restore it, then you will end up with a nice car that was cheaper to acquire than you might otherwise have been able to afford. This is fine if you want to keep the vehicle and use it yourself for a number of years. But you have to remember that if you are going to sell the car, it will have 'write-off' on it's history, so will not command a high price. Therefore it's unlikely that there is much profit in restoring flood damaged cars to resell.

If you are thinking of buying and restoring cars for profit, you have to be aware that your name will be on it and you will be can responsible if safety features of the car fail later. This is why we refuse to take short-cuts and replace any item affected by water. After all something like a seat-belt tensioner might look fine and work fine, fail years later because of corrosion that began when it flooded.

This page was last updated on Wed, 25 September, 2013
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