Houston Chronicle

Post-freeze cleanup

Prevent mold, future problems by fixing issues the right way

- By Diane Cowen

The coast-to-coast winter storm that brought freezing temperatur­es, snow and freezing rain to much of Texas is gone, and now it’s time to clean up.

Much of the work is obvious: Wait your turn for a plumber or repairman, prune foliage or dig up dead plants and call your insurance agent. There are other things to think about, too: pest control, generator maintenanc­e, water filtration and perhaps our most dreaded issue — mold.

Already, nurseries and garden centers are busy answering questions of anxious shoppers.

“We’re educating people that even though a plant looks dead, it may not be,” said Marta Lafaver, Buchanan’s Native Plants nursery manager, noting that the business’s Facebook page has pictures of their plants, which are still thriving. “A lot of our plants are ground hardy. It may look like the saddest Charlie Brown Christmas tree ever, but if it isn’t mushy, it could come back. Give your garden time to recover and see what comes out. You might be surprised.”

At Joshua’s Native Plants, owner Joshua Kornegay said , he’s fielding plenty of calls from gardeners who are wondering what to do next.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years, and a lot of the stuff will make it. It may take until

Shannon Going shops for tomato plants at Buchanan’s Native Plants now that the freeze that paralyzed Houston has passed.

May or June to show signs of life again because they were severely damaged,” Kornegay said. “What’s good to plant? There’s a list as long as your arm. I’ve got a Walter’s viburnum that will take flood, drought, locusts and hellfire. It’s indestruct­ible and it’s flowering right now.”

Here’s advice from experts on a variety of topics that should be on your mind right now.

Insurance claims

If your pipes froze, ruptured and then flooded even a little bit of your home, you could have a home remodeling project on your hands. It could be a small project that requires fixing pipes in the attic and you’re done. But for many people, it may be more extensive, involving damage to walls, ceilings and floors.

That means millions of Texans are likely preparing insurance claims.

Eric Dick, an attorney and insurance agent who specialize­s in insurance law, said homeowners should go into the process well informed. First, know what kind of policy you have and what it covers. Those who have broader coverage under HO2 and HO3 policies should be covered for freeze damage.

If an adjuster comes to evaluate your home’s damage and lists it as “sudden and accidental damage,” your claim will likely be denied. If, however, it’s filed as a result of a “freeze” you’ll be OK. Make sure it’s correctly listed, because what happened this week really was a freeze.

When you file a claim, do it in email or written form so you have documentat­ion, and make sure you are compensate­d for lost furnishing­s with “replacemen­t value” — not with a depreciate­d value.

Finally, if your insurance company sends you a check and you’re not satisfied, feel free to cash it and ask for more, Dick said.

“A check is not a settlement, even if they call it a ‘claim settlement,’ ” Dick said. “I’d say go back and ask for more. I have handled more than 4,000 insurance cases and 85 percent of them are underpaid by $10,000.”

“This is going to generate the largest number of insurance claims the state of Texas has ever experience­d,” he said. “In Houston alone, 60 percent of residents didn’t have power

during a hard freeze. I’d be shocked if at least a quarter — probably more like 30 percent — of residents didn’t have busted pipes.”

Ruptured or damaged pipes

By now, anyone who had damaged or ruptured pipes already knows it. Temperatur­es have risen enough that damage has revealed itself through running water, leaking pipes and damage to floors and/or drywall.

How well you responded to the initial freeze will determine the extent of your damage. Once you knew your pipe froze, your goals were to shut off water to the house and to thaw the blockage or frozen pipe to minimize damage.

Joe Bany, director of field operations at John Moore Services, said he and his staff — and, likely, plumbers all over the area — have been working day and night to address plumbing problems. He’s gone into homes that had a single broken pipe and others that had 10 or more.

As a plumber, he doesn’t encourage DIY jobs, but he understand­s why plumbing department­s at big-box hardware stores are filled with customers.

“I would encourage anyone who has no clue what they’re doing to not attempt it at all,” he said of fixing their pipes. “I’ve seen ridiculous repairs from people who didn’t know what they were doing. You can’t wrap tape around it. You see commercial­s for things that you spray on pipes or wrap around them — I have no faith at all in those products. There is no quick fix or remedy that will get you through until someone can come and look at your pipes properly.”

One tip for the future: Bany said that about 85 percent of the homes he goes into have inadequate insulation in the attic. He said there should be 13-16 inches of insulation. Not only will that help with heating and cooling bills, but it will protect pipes if we ever have a serious freeze again.

Water filtration

Living several days with a boil-water order and that chlorine smell coming from the water tap may have you considerin­g getting a water filtration system.

“Our water system is not great; we have issues. There are contaminan­ts and chemicals that are coming through. Everyone has been somewhere and turned on (tap) water and said ‘that smells like chlorine,’ ” Bany said. “Everyone in a MUD district or city water system should have a water filter.”

Bany said the best ones are nonregener­ating valve systems that will start around $3,000 to $5,000. You can also buy inexpensiv­e systems that install under the kitchen sink, but you’ll need to remember to do regular filter changes.

Mold and mildew

Any time you have too much moisture in a hot, humid climate, you run the risk of mold and mildew. Bany said that walls, floors and attics affected by water pipe leaks face this potential problem.

If your water pipes burst, make sure you clean up all water and dry the area completely. Treat wood and other surfaces with bleach, vinegar or hydrogen peroxide, or other biocide products that kill mold and mildew.

“We’ve been to people’s homes where the whole ceiling is now on the floor. Now you have to deal with the floor, too, either the wood or the carpet or whatever they had,” Bany said. “If you don’t (dry it) properly, you’ll see problems down the road. You’ll see black spots, and it will smell funny and you’ve got stuff growing.”

So, get areas of your home that had water leaks clean and dry. Remove wet insulation and keep an eye on the damaged area.

Generator maintenanc­e

Neighborho­ods all over the area were humming with the sound of gas-operated generators that helped keep refrigerat­ors going and lights turned on during rolling blackouts last week.

Now, though, it’s time to put the generator away. If you want your generator to be in good shape the next time you need it — say, for the next tropical storm or hurricane — do some maintenanc­e now.

Kris Kaiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, said that generators will run better and last longer if they’re taken care of. So, before you put it away for the next outage, run it until it is out of gas, check the oil level to make sure it is full, let it cool and then give it a good cleaning.

It’s very important to let it run out of gas because gasoline contains some ethanol, which absorbs water, especially in a hot humid climate such as Texas, Kaiser said.

If you were caught off guard and wished you had a generator, now is the time to start shopping for one. Waiting until there is a weather emergency can be the hardest time to find what you want. While you’re at it, don’t forget to buy long extension cords so that the generator can be operated while situated a good distance from your home.

Carbon monoxide detectors

People who lost power and resorted to staying warm in their cars likely learned a tough lesson. Dozens were sickened by deadly fumes, usually by staying in a car inside their garage rather than backing out to the driveway or the street. In some cases, the tasteless, odorless gas crept from the garage inside the home. Furnaces and gas-powered generators are also sources of carbon monoxide.

One safety precaution is to install carbon monoxide detectors — one near the furnace and one near bedrooms — so you’ll be awakened and/or alerted if levels get too high inside your home. They’re inexpensiv­e and can potentiall­y save your life.

“If you have a generator or natural gas stove, you should have a carbon monoxide detector,” Kaiser said. “They work. Any home that’s going to use one of these things, invest in a carbon monoxide detector.”

Rodent and pest control

The single-digit temperatur­es that had all of us looking for warmth did the same thing for bugs and rodents.

Several days of colder-thanusual weather have probably killed more bugs than usual, but don’t expect Mother Nature to let us completely off the hook, said Ron Marsh, owner of BayTex Pest Control and an associate certified entomologi­st.

“In mild winters, we’ll see these pests year-round. When we have hard freezes, like right now, it will take until April or May to recover,” Marsh said of bugs such as fleas, ticks, ants and other yard pests. “But when they come back, they come back with a fervor. Insects have a tremendous ability to mass populate when they need to. They’re survivors.”

So in late spring, be on the lookout for more fire ant hills and check pets for fleas.

The cold also may have driven mice and rats into your home. The best defense is to seal your home well so they can’t get in. We’re past that, though, so if you’re finding evidence of rodents, use a rodenticid­e or a snap trap to kill the pests, Marsh said.

Marsh said many current rodenticid­es — bait or poison — are formulated to be less harmful to cats, dogs and other animals. The snap trap, he said, is ultimately preferable to a live trap because, well, what are you doing to do with a live mouse or rat after you’ve caught it?

Fresh air

The pandemic already has many people spending way more time indoors and at home than usual, so the freeze likely made it worse.

If you’ve been in your home for so long that you don’t recognize how stinky it is — pop culture calls it going “nose blind” — then you might want to freshen up your home.

Simple remedies include air fresheners or candles, but the simplest thing you can do is to open your doors and windows for a little while and simply let fresh air in. It’s worth a try — and it costs nothing.

 ?? Marie D. De Jesús / Staff photograph­er ??
Marie D. De Jesús / Staff photograph­er
 ?? Brett Coomer / Staff photograph­er ?? Chris Jackson replaces a broken water line in a friend’s house in Spring after the pipe froze.
Brett Coomer / Staff photograph­er Chris Jackson replaces a broken water line in a friend’s house in Spring after the pipe froze.
 ?? Kohler ?? Installing a water filtration system can help to filter out contaminan­ts and chemicals.
Kohler Installing a water filtration system can help to filter out contaminan­ts and chemicals.
 ?? Courtesy photo ?? In addition to helping lower heating and cooling bills, extra insulation in the attic can also protect pipes during a freeze.
Courtesy photo In addition to helping lower heating and cooling bills, extra insulation in the attic can also protect pipes during a freeze.

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