Should I clean up a sewer backup in my home?

Do you have a sewer backup?  Are you looking for information on what it takes to properly clean it up?  If you answered yes to that, please look through this post before attempting any clean up on your own.  Sewer waters, even when they come up from a sink or a shower drain, contain contaminants.   The IICRC categorizes sewer water as Category 3 black water.

What type of flooring do you have?

This is an important consideration because of the porosity of different types of flooring.

Materials that float over the floor.

  • Carpet should be removed.  If sewer waters travel into hallways or bedrooms and come in contact with carpet, it should be removed and replaced.  The IICRC gives it a grade of D for restorability when hit with category 3 waters.  As a restoration professional, I would not recommend you clean carpet hit with category 3 waters.  Unless you get to the water immediately, it should be replaced.
  • Laminate Wood Floor should be removed if there is any swelling in the wood or you can see signs of water soaking into the mdf material that the laminate is made of.  In rare instances in which you catch the sewer backup immediately, you can detach the flooring after you clean the top surface completely with disinfectant.  You will then need to wipe down the edges of the material with disinfectant to make sure no harmful contaminants are trapped in between the boards.  When the sewer backup has reached beyond this, then most likely there will be swelling in the material signifying that the sewer water has soaked into the material and it should be disposed of.  If you have more of the material or know where to get more, then you can dispose of the damaged area and replace with new boards after cleaning and disinfecting the areas beneath the flooring.

Materials that are fastened to the floor.

  • Hardwood floor, glue down or nail down, will need to be removed and replaced.  You will not be able to remove the pieces and save them as they will not come up easily.  They cannot be left in place because you cannot clean the areas between the boards in which the sewer backup water has surely soaked into.  If left in place and you only clean the surface, you can have health hazards sitting in your flooring waiting to resurface the next time any moisture gets on the floor.
  • Tile, ceramic or porcelain, can be thoroughly cleaned as it is a hard surface.  However, if the sewer backup is able to soak into the grout lines, which is porous, then the tile may need to be removed also.  Sewer water can actually become trapped under the tile if the flood is major.  If you want to err on the side of caution, then tile should be pulled also.
  • Natural Stone floors are also porous and should be pulled and replaced.  Just as with the other porous materials, bacteria can be trapped in the material.

Materials that are waterproof.

  • Vinyl tiles must be removed as the sewer backup water will seep between the tiles and get under the tiles making it impossible to clean.  Trapped water is also very difficult to dry down.
  • Sheet vinyl can be cleaned as long as no water gets to any edge of the vinyl.  This includes the edges of the vinyl under the toilet.  It is rarely the case that the spillage stays in the middle of the vinyl.  If the water gets to the edges then the vinyl has to be pulled.

So, a common theme amongst all flooring types is that you have to be careful of any sewer water becoming trapped under of within the material.  There are very serious health concerns with category 3 waters that carry disease causing bacterias.

Has the sewer water reached the walls?

If the sewer water gets into the walls, then there are a lot of concerns.  Just as with flooring, you need to make sure that anywhere water can get, you get to also and clean it thoroughly with disinfectant.

  • Wet baseboards, toe kicks, door jambs, casing, and other soft materials it comes in contact with get removed.
  • Drywall gets removed if wet.
  • Insulation gets removed if wet.
  • Any water that gets under the mud sill of your framing needs to be pressure washed.  This will force the contaminants out from under the mud sill.  Then spray with disinfectant.  There are special cleaners that will draw the contaminants out of the framing materials.  You can find what you need at stores like Aramsco or Jon Don.
  • If water gets behind cabinetry and gets any of the materials wet, then the cabinets need to be pulled to access the area behind.

What do I use to clean up the sewer backup flood waters?

Without a professional extraction machine, most DIY’ers rely on a wetvac vacuum.  A wetvac can pull the water up off of the floor but does not nearly extract the amount of water that an extraction machine will.  This will mean that you have a lot more to dry down.  Heavy extraction will also prevent the water from spreading much better than a wetvac.  If you do use a wetvac, be sure to dispose of the water properly.  It is best to use a sewer line.  Then clean out the wetvac thoroughly and disinfect it before storage for the next use.  If you use any towels to sop up water, please dispose of them.  Inventory them, your insurance company will reimburse you for them if you decide to file a claim.

Should I file an insurance claim for a sewer backup?

I am a professional in the industry and perform clean up for many customers.  I can honestly tell you that sewer backups usually warrant filing a claim.  Clean waters can be cleaned up and materials dried in place as they do not carry diseases.  With clean water it may be worth while to pay out of pocket to avoid having a claim on your home.

Only in the case that the sewer backup was minor, you have flooring available to replace the flooring that is pulled, no cabinetry needs to be pulled, and the amount of water that reached the walls is minimal, only if all of those things line up would the cost of repairs and cleanup stay small enough to pay out of pocket.  You don’t have the flooring to match, then all of the flooring throughout your home that is continuous to the damaged flooring will be replaced.

How can we help you?

It is my first priority with all of my clients to help them determine whether or not they should file an insurance claim for their loss.  In the case of a sewer loss, it is most likely that a claim will suit you best as the procedures for clean up are to remove and replace all soft materials and disinfect everything else and that will be more costly than you want to pay out of pocket.

As always, if you have a loss and you are unsure what to do next, I offer FREE consultations for any losses relating to water damage, fire damage, smoke damage, and wind storm damage as well as problems in the home relating to mold.  My best advice in this matter is err on the side of caution.  The health and safety of your family and home is way more valuable than a few dollars saved.

I still want to handle this myself.

To tackle this project yourself, be sure to follow the guidelines contained in the S500 IICRC handbook.  Make sure you remove all materials in which bacteria can reach below the surface.  This would prevent you from being able to clean the area properly.  If you are not experienced with different building materials and how they are installed, make sure to consult a professional.

To start, contain the area that you are working in with 3 mil plastic minimum.  Seal the area off using tape, zip poles, staples, or other mechanical fasteners.  Rent an air cleaner to place in your containment area.  Buy personal protection equipment for you and anyone else helping you.  PPE needs to protect the skin, eyes, nose, mouth, and hands.  Be sure not to track contaminants from your containment area through your home.  Cross contamination is a very common mistake.  Cover your shoes on the inside of the containment, but remove the covers before walking through your home.