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The Science Of The City: Protecting your home from flooding and sewer backups

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Posted on: August 15, 2022

By Paul Ruffins

Last month, we talked about the City of Hyattsville’s efforts to control stormwater. This month, as we approach hurricane season, we offer practical ways to protect your home.

Make sure you have proper insurance

According to the Nationwide Insurance Company, Under most standard home insurance policies, if water damage occurs suddenly or accidentally from a source inside your home, such as a busted pipe, it will likely be covered by your homeowners insurance. If the water comes from outside your home, it will not be covered by your standard policy.” 

Insurance will generally not cover slow water damage due to deferred maintenance, such as water leaking through an old roof and eventually warping your floors. 

If a hurricane rips your roof off, however, and rain pours in, your homeowner’s policy probably covers it as wind damage.

Otherwise, weather-related flood damage is generally covered by flood insurance. 

After a major regional emergency, low-interest federal disaster loans would probably become available, but those have to be repaid. 

Flood Zones: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has mapped the entire nation to determine the relative risks for flooding based on history, elevation, proximity to waterways and other factors including protection from the local levees and pumping stations like those along the Northeast and Northwest branches of the Anacostia. If you live in a flood zone, your mortgage company will require you to carry flood insurance in addition to a standard homeowner’s policy. Search your address at msc.fema.gov/portal/home.

Private Flood Insurance: FEMA estimates that 40% of flood claims come from properties outside of flood zones. Fortunately, you don’t have to live in a flood zone to buy a flood policy. One private company quoted the Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T) $1,167 a year on a Madison Street home, offering $559,000 worth of coverage on the three-story wood frame house, which has a basement and no prior losses. That quote included personal property coverage of $100,000 and a deductible of $1,000.   

National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP): This federal program is particularly important in flood-prone areas where private flood insurance is unavailable or extremely expensive, such as New Orleans, or parts of Ellicott City. Maximum coverage is $250,000 for structures and $100,000 for personal property. With certain exceptions for new loans or refinancing, there is a 10- to 30-day waiting period so people don’t wait until a flood to buy coverage. A quote for $250,000 worth of NFIP coverage on the same Madison Street property was just $228.65 a year, but with only $2,000 in personal property coverage and a $5,000 deductible. 

The bottom line on basements

Both private and NFIP insurance cover structural damage and personal property losses on or above the first floor. But in basements, only structural damage (not remodeling) and fixtures like furnaces, hot water heaters, air conditioners and electrical panels are covered by NFIP. Private policies may cover personal property stored in basements, like clothes, furniture, tools and televisions — but at substantial extra cost. 

Understand, prevent and insure against sewer backups

Basement toilets or floor drains backing up can be disgusting and expensive. Every building has a main sewer line that connects to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s branch line under the street. 

The WSSC says property owners are responsible “for maintaining the sewer line between their home and the property line.” If your sewer line is clogged with grease or baby wipes underneath your yard, you or your insurance policy will have to pay for the repair.

In Maryland, insurance companies must state that standard homeowners policies do not cover sewer or drain backups, and offer optional extra coverage. Check your policy because it could cover as little as $5000, much less than your main homeowner policy. 

Federal flood insurance usually covers sewer and drain backups, but only those that directly result from an event defined as a “flood.” A heavy rain might not count. 

Several Hyattsville residents have contacted the HL&T in distress to report that heavy rains backed up sewage into their basements. These backups could result from stormwater infiltrating the WSSC’s aging infrastructure. The WSSC may be responsible for the cleanup and any damage to your home or possessions. 

Basement toilets or floor drains backing up can be disgusting and expensive.
Photo credit: Courtesy of a Hyattsville neighbor

According to a WSSC website, in case of a backup, homeowners should call WSSC Water’s 24-hour emergency numbers, 301.206.4002 or 1.800.634.8400. Take photos or videos of the backup and any resulting damage. Keep records of your correspondence, and consult a lawyer if your claim is denied.

The most common solution is for the WSSC or homeowner to install a backflow preventer valve that connects to the sewer line and lets the water flow out but closes if water backs up the other way. The valve usually requires an access panel and an enclosure deep enough to reach the drain line. 

One FEMA publication estimates the cost to be between $600 and $1400.

Other tips and technologies

Water alarms can alert you to a flood, an overflowing washing machine or a leaking water heater. They range from $15 battery-powered devices to sophisticated sensors that tie into an alarm system and can dial your cell phone.

Invest $60-$120 in a submersible pump that connects to a garden hose to pump out any water that does enter your home. They’re better than wet/dry vacuums because you don’t have to empty heavy tanks of water.

Photo credit: Courtesy of a Hyattsville neighbor

Buy quality steel-reinforced hoses for your washing machine.

Never install any type of wall-to-wall carpeting with a pad underneath in a basement that might get wet. You can’t get the water out from under the pad, so everything must be ripped out. Avoid natural fiber rugs such as wool or cotton. Stick to the tough nylon carpeting used in offices, and glue it to the bare concrete or tile floor. If it gets wet, it can easily be shampooed and dried with a fan or blower.

A comprehensive solution for a flooding basement would be proper insurance, a backflow valve, a water alarm and a French drain that uses a sump pump with battery backup power. 

Installing a French drain is a loud, messy multi-day job that costs $8,000-$16,000 or more, depending on the size of your house, and does not include the price of remodeling a finished basement. However, the peace of mind is priceless.

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