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Waterlogged: Submerged Vehicles

Repair of water-damaged vehicles is done daily across the United States, which makes it quite possible that your shop may someday be – if it hasn’t already been – involved in
estimating, and possibly the salvage and restoration, of a vehicle that’s been submerged in water.

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Very often, a single incident of a vehicle
rolling into a lake or stream will get a quick once-over and a
rejection by an insurance adjuster. On the other hand, if your
area has experienced a natural disaster – such as a flood or a
high-water incident that’s taken its toll on many vehicles and
on high-end machinery – this makes all the difference in the world,
at least to many insurance companies.

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Up and Out

The most successful recovery operations I’ve
encountered for a vehicle that’s rolled or been submerged in water
involve the use of air-support recovery gear and more than one
wrecker. One unit keeps the vehicle off the bottom of the body
of water and prevents the plowing of a trough, which fills the
car or truck with mud. A second wrecker is hooked up so that stress
exerted on the disabled car is minimized by distributing the load
through several hook-up points. Then, by winding in through a
block arrangement, recovery crews increase the winching capabilities.

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Until the vehicle is lowered to the ground,
an evaluation of body, structure, paint, electronic and mechanical
damage cannot be made. Or can it? Some shop owners with a few
successful “waterbabies” (a name given to water-rescued
vehicles) under their belts say that although some cleanup is
required to begin an estimate, it’s feasible to begin evaluating
the hard-core damage within three or four hours after rinse off.

The Estimate

Cardinal rules to follow when preparing an
estimate for a water-damaged vehicle:

  1. Take note of traditional damage to the structure and to the
    engine and powertrain items, such as the engine and the transaxle.
    It’s possible that draining fluids and flushing these components
    will not save them, making further repairs pointless.
  2. Take pains when looking over electronic components. Connector
    packs for most components are weather resistant – but not waterproof.
    Power control modules must be removed to dry and dehumid-ify,
    and other components – such as Map, Baro and MAF sensors – should
    also be removed and checked. Replacement of mechanical/electronic
    switches and hybrids – such as throttle-position sensors, switches,
    air-vane meters, stepper motors and idle mechanical units – is
    recommended.
  3. Airbags must be removed and, if not recertified by an airbag
    specialist, replaced. This would include sensors, modules, squib
    unit, derm assemblies and all harness and related hardware. Many
    insurance companies will require complete, itemized component
    replacement in this safety area anyway.
  4. Ditto for belts, retractors and safety restraints, including
    automatic seat-belt units and controllers.
  5. Salt-water-immersion clean-up has to be 100 percent.

A Step-by-Step Guide

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The principals of physics dictate that it’s unlikely for dirt
and water to occupy the same space at the same time. Silty mud,
however, will do exactly that by entering panels and components
as a semisolid. Sometimes it will revert back to a crust or a
solid that can fill voids designated for drain and ventilation
or for component cooling, as well as coat or displace delicate
components in mechanical, electrical and electronic-component
circuitry.

A fresh-water wash will do the trick if the vehicle has been immersed
in fresh or likely fresh water. If it’s a briny mixture, then
sodium and/or potassium (soft water) and/or chlorine-treated water
(from the area drinking-water supply) will likely combine to some
extent with the muddy-water residue and add to the corrosive nature
of the damage already present.

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With the exception of a quick dry-out, a painstaking piece-by-piece
disassembly, a clean-out and special anticorrosion treatment of
metals, “a salt-water dunking is most likely to result in
a rejection by the insurance company, creating a ‘totaled’ condition,”
says Cal Falmor, owner of Auto Body, Inc., a shop in North Mississippi
that sees a lot of water-damaged vehicles.

After flushing with fresh water or a soda-neutralized solution,
clean out nooks and crannies, including body and chassis drains.
C/V boots need to be repacked, inspected and, on occasion, replaced.
Seals and bearings that aren’t oil immersed or have been compromised
should be examined, serviced or replaced.

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The vehicle’s exhaust system may have been damaged during the
accident or the recovery, so carefully inspect hardware and blow
out pipes and converters with compressed air. Air-management devices
should be pulled off and air dried, checking function when possible
on the bench.

Ordinary areas of body shop expertise, such as touchup and scratch
repair, should be considered no different than any other vehicle.

Air-ride and/or active suspensions are a “red flag”
to many insurance companies because fixes aren’t reliable long
term. Running the self-check or scan-tool exercise routines may
prove beneficial, but it’s a critical judgment call that should
be approached early on before the estimate has reached the final
stages.

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If water has not gone over the hood, the insurance company might
balk at complete dashboard and associated-apparatus removal. If
a high-airflow drying unit is used, this may not be a problem,
though many still pull the dashboard for a detailed inspection.

Removing objectionable mildew and/or mold odor post facto is hardly
ever successful, so a thorough forced-air drying and ozone application
need to be done before the vehicle is returned to the customer.
To do this, consider using a unitized, computer-operated, drying
and deodorizing window-installed body-fault diagnostic system
– an upgrade of a tool used by many shops to locate and help repair
wind, water and dust leakage in automobiles. A one-size-fits-all
approach eliminates a lot of the hoopla associated with high-airflow
drying in the recent past. In addition, a three-dimensional microprocessor-directed
device uses ozone to penetrate unreachable seams and other areas
formerly considered troublemakers. It also prevents irreversible
damage to electrical and other sensitive areas due to moist corrosion
cells.

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A follow-up visit to evaluate affected system performance and
to check for air and insulation leaks might dictate that a mild
bioagent deodorizer be introduced into the air-conditioning airflow
network to eradicate any remaining dampness-induced smell.

Interior items, such as seating, rugs, headliners and foam backing,
as well as other insulating materials, are normally considered
a loss when dealing with water-immersed vehicles. Keeping the
total job cost down may dictate some reservation in these areas,
but customer satisfaction is always the final guideline. Stereos,
CD players, equalizers, speaker systems and special noise-suppression
insulating materials all must be considered in the final estimate.
Survival rate of these items, according to shop owners, is mediocre.

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A Flood of Business

Advising a shop owner to repair a water-immersed vehicle is like
telling your best friend to “go ahead and kiss your sister.”
The event could go great, making everyone happy; or it could be
a disaster, making you wish you’d kept your mouth shut.

Shop owners who report good results with the restoration of waterbabies
say their first incidents were simple or partial immersions. By
working closely with insurance companies, these shop owners saw
somewhat sparse profits initially, but they garnished future referrals
and have since made good money on subsequent jobs, including some
total immersions.

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If you’re interested in working with water-damaged vehicles, contact
insurance company adjusters and ask to be placed on lists of qualified
repair shops. Next, contact equipment specialists and experienced
shop owners to get a better handle on the “dos and don’ts”
of estimating this kind of repair. If – after doing your homework
– you decide to take on this profit center, you may just find
yourself swimming in extra work.

Writer Bob Leone is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Who Does It?

Autobody shops, mechanical shops and car dealerships all relate
to incidents of water-damaged vehicle repair. At Autoworks, in
Eastern Taney County, Mo., Larry Moehl and his father, Daron,
have seen a few “run into the lake” incidents. Any special
procedure that cannot be done in-house is taken care of in nearby
Springfield, which, according to Moehl, has shops equipped to
handle flood-damaged vehicles in various states of distress.

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Steve Schroeder, from Clements Auto Body in Branson, Mo., also
restores water-damaged vehicles – sometimes. Schroeder says he
won’t consider repair if the water has gone over the hood, the
dash and instrument cluster.

Schroeder uses traditional drying techniques, including fresh-water
rinse and high-airflow drying, but he depends on upholstery and
rug replacement instead of attempting any salvage.

“Insurance companies shy away from deep-water-immersion cases,”
says Schroeder, adding that two of the three restorations he’s
been involved with occurred in shallow water with very little
mud. In a separate case, Schroeder says that although an insurance
company refused to fix a vehicle that had been partially immersed
in a lake, the customer himself paid to have the vehicle totally
restored.

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Repair Checklist

The next time a water-damaged vehicle floats into your shop, remember
to:

  • Check the dipstick for water. High oil levels on the dipstick
    and water bubbles in the engine oil or red ATF fluid that has
    turned pink mean water has entered the system.
  • Pull the passenger floor and trunk plugs if applicable. Wash
    all the mud and silt out of the passenger and trunk compartments.
  • Remove carpets, seats and interior trim panels. Dry or replace
    them (foam types usually don’t dry). Drying can be done by using
    a heated spraybooth for one to two nights.
  • Remove the spare-wheel jack and handle. Clean and use WD-40
    on the screws.
  • Remove the door-trim panels and check the window motors. Use
    WD-40 on them. Grease the regulator pivots and check the door
    speakers.
  • Grease the door hinges.
  • Check the battery and terminals. Clean the terminals and grease
    them. Clean under the battery, especially if it’s located in the
    trunk or under the seat.
  • Look for computers, equalizers, alarms (lo-jack) or other
    “black boxes” under the seats.
  • Check the airbag sensors and the seat-belt retractors. Dry
    them. When reinstalling seats, grease the tracks and use WD-40
    on the seat motors and the belt
  • retractors.
  • Clean debris off the radiator, A/C condenser and auxiliary
    fan/motor assembly.
  • Blow out the starter motor and the alternator with air.
  • Pull the plug-in differential. Check for water.
  • Check the muffler for water.
  • Repack the wheel bearings. Grease the suspension and the steering
    when applicable.
  • Shampoo the carpets, seats and interior.
  • Reconnect and reset the ABS and the main computers. Run a
    diagnostic on the airbag computer.
  • Reset the radio codes.
  • Detail the exterior and the engine compartment.
  • Spray all the metal panels and the upholstery with disinfectant
    to kill the bacteria and the odor. Do this if the vehicle has
    been kept closed for more than a day.

Note: Volvo warns that if a car has been in a flood, an attempt
to start it could inadvertently deploy the airbag. Other airbag-equipped
vehicles could also be affected. Check with the dealer.

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For higher water levels:

  • Change the oil, oil filter and air filter.
  • Check the relays and the sensors.
  • Pull the spark plugs and crank the engine.
  • Oil the spark-plug treads and cylinders prior to starting
    the engine.
  • Check the spark-plug wires for arcing.
  • Check the power-steering and brake fluids.

Source: Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS).

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