April 11, 2008

Recent flooding has left many Kentuckians wondering what to do about their waterlogged furniture, clothes and appliances. Some items may be salvageable; others may need to be thrown away. Cleaning up these items can seem like a daunting task, but it does not have to be overwhelming.

Flood water can contain harmful bacteria, like sewage waste. Cleaning damaged clothes with normal laundry detergent and water will not kill bacteria from flood water, which can live in fabrics for a long time.

“It is very important that you disinfect and clean your flood-soiled clothing,” said Marjorie Baker, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture extension associate for clothing and textiles. “When handling flood-soiled clothing, wear rubber gloves and protective clothing.”

Proper sorting of clothes reduces the number of harmful bacteria and prevents contamination of clean clothes. Baker said not to sort and mix flood-soiled clothes with uncontaminated clothes and not to stack flood-soiled clothes around surfaces that will later be used to fold clothes.

When cleaning contaminated clothes, be sure to check the label to determine if they are washable or dry-clean only.

“As soon as you can, you need to get your clothes in a washing machine so mildew will not set up,” she said. “If this cannot be done, shake out or brush off excess soil outdoors and rinse items several times in cool water; then air dry.”

Baker emphasized that using a disinfectant and hot water in the washing machine can effectively kill bacteria.

She said the cheapest, easiest, and most accessible disinfectant to use is liquid chlorine bleach. The fiber content and color of the clothing determine if bleach can be used and the amount. To sanitize clothing, 2 tablespoons of liquid chlorine bleach per washer load effectively kills bacteria without substantially damaging clothes even if chlorine bleach is not recommended

for that particular clothing fiber. Clothing that requires dry-cleaning should be taken to a professional dry cleaner. Steam pressing at 325 degrees Fahrenheit will kill bacteria.

After the clothes are thoroughly washed and rinsed, the next step is to dry them. More bacteria is killed by drying clothes in a dryer than hanging them out on a clothes line. After you have dried the clothes make sure the storage area where you plan to put them has been disinfected, so bacteria will not get on your clean clothes.

Kentuckians may be able to salvage many household furnishings but they will need to thoroughly disinfect all fabrics and surfaces and protect against mildew. Carefully consider the condition of each piece, it’s sentimental or monetary value, and whether it can be safely disinfected without further damage.

“Upholstered furniture that has been in flood water may be impossible to save if it has been soaked,” said Linda Adler, UK extension specialist for home furnishings. “If you decide to try to salvage an upholstered piece, strip the fabric, padding, and springs from the frame. Disinfect the wood frame using one of the following three techniques: Wash it with a solution of 3/4 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water; spray it with a phenol product (such as Lysol) following directions on the label; or brush it with an undiluted pine oil disinfectant. Then place the frame in a well-ventilated location so that it can dry out slowly. Don’t put it out in the sun. It will dry out too quickly, and the wood will warp and twist.”

Adler said mildew may grow on the wood frame until the moisture content of the wood drops to 20 percent or less. She recommends periodically cleaning off the mildew, using one of the disinfectants mentioned above. After the frame dries out, owners can make any needed repairs and re-glue any loose joints.

Springs may or may not be salvageable depending upon the type and how they are attached to the frame. Adler said to consult an upholsterer to determine replacement cost versus restoring of springs. Fabrics and padding should be replaced.

“Draperies and curtains may have problems due to floodwaters,” Adler continued. “Problems with color change, bleeding of dyes, shrinkage, and permanent watermarks are common. Mildew will be a problem if window treatments were in the water or in the damp environment for a few days. Disinfectants used to kill the mildew may also affect fabric color and finish.”

Adler said shades, aluminum, vinyl or wood blinds, and vinyl or wood shutters may not be salvageable. Metals and metal parts corrode, wood may swell and warp, and owners may not be able to clean and sanitize the cloth tapes and cords without further damage.

“It’s best to throw out any innerspring mattress or box spring that was partially or totally submerged in floodwater contaminated with sewage, pesticides, and industrial chemicals, etc.,” she said. “You may need to throw out mattresses even if the floodwater was not contaminated because it is almost impossible to dry mattresses thoroughly before mold begins to grow.”

Throw out pillows that came in contact with contaminated floodwater since it is difficult to remove all the dirt and silt from the fabric and filling, and it’s almost impossible to thoroughly disinfect them.

Specialists agree that with a little effort, flood victims can save many clothes and furnishings, but in most cases, appliances can’t be salvaged after being covered in polluted flood water.

UK Extension Specialist for Family Resource Management Sue Badenhop said one problem is that appliances have many hidden wires and parts located inside the outer covering. She said to take extreme care when removing these items from a flooded home since there is still a risk of electrical shock. Many appliances like television sets and radios contain internal parts that store electricity even when the item is unplugged.

“It is almost impossible to decontaminate the appliance and clean it up,” she said. “Another problem is that appliances have metal wires that can get corroded when they get wet and stand in water. The electrical connections might be corroded or even come loose.”

These conditions can render appliances useless or dangerous to operate.

“It just really isn’t safe to reuse an appliance after it has been standing in flood water,” Badenhop emphasized. “If you have a question, ask a licensed or certified appliance repair professional to inspect the appliance before using it. Most of the time, It is better to discard them and purchase new appliances.”

Another thing Badenhop stressed is that many appliances, especially older freezers and refrigerators, have fiberglass insulation. Once the insulation is waterlogged, it is useless.

In many cases, insurance settlements include the purchase of new appliances to replace those damaged by flooding.

“If you are relying on insurance, talk to your insurance adjuster and make sure the purchase will be covered before you buy new appliances,” Badenhop said.