By Greg Neuman, CEI Senior Manager of Quality Control
With consumer watchdogs constantly warning about buying used cars that have flood damage, fleet managers may be justifiably skeptical about whether it’s worth repairing one of their own. At CEI, we’ve successfully managed hundreds of repairs of flood-damaged vehicles, but knowing when it’s possible to return one to completely safe usability is one of the most difficult tasks in the body repair business.
Vehicles are made to withstand a certain amount of exposure to water. In fact, some functioning parts, like brake pads and rotors, and even carpets and upholstery, are designed to withstand a limited amount of submersion. It’s deep and prolonged submersion, especially in certain kinds of water, that determines whether repairs are worth the money or you’re better off declaring the vehicle a total loss.
What makes today’s vehicles especially vulnerable to floodwaters are the extent to which they’ve become electronic. Cars and trucks have up to 100 computers all up and down their inner structure, dozens of sensors, and wiring connecting them all that can ruined by prolonged contact with water. Even in relatively shallow floodwater, the sensors that operate safety restraint systems – air bags and seat belts – can be damaged, and even if they appear to be in working order may not fail for weeks or months after the vehicle has been returned to the road.
The same can be true for carpeting and upholstery: if it’s not replaced or thoroughly dried, moisture and heat can cause dangerous bacteria – even E. coli – to grow that can affect the driver’s health and safety long after repairs are completed.
To better equip fleet managers to make that decision, here’s a summary of the factors expert estimators consider:
What’s been exposed? To a limited extent, vehicles are built to withstand some exposure to water. Interior and some mechanical parts, like brakes, fuel tanks, suspension components, and even some electronics can be repaired, depending on the nature of the exposure.
What kind of water? Some kinds of water are worse than others. The friendliest is clean fresh water, the kind often associated with flash floods, water main breaks or rain water. But when these are contaminated with mud, silt or sewage, commonly found in flood rivers and streams, it can cause more problems. Worst are saltwater and brackish water, the kind produced by hurricanes, because the salt is highly corrosive to paint and electronics.
How deep? Generally speaking, vehicles that have been flooded up to the instrument panel, regardless of the type of water, are usually best declared a total loss. But vehicles that have been exposed only up to a point just below the rocker panels are most likely to be repairable – especially if they are dissembled soon after exposure. If in driving through relatively shallow depths, however, flood water enters the engine through the air intake, in almost every case the engine will be damaged beyond repair and need to be replaced. Roughly speaking, replacing a sedan engine costs between $6,000 and $10,000, depending on whether it’s new or rebuilt, and compared to the market value of the vehicle can spell the difference between whether it should be repaired or totaled.
How long? The length of time a vehicle has been submerged is a factor in how much damage occurs. Short exposure, such as that from a flash flood, may offer more opportunities for repairs than vehicles that have been submerged for several days. Regardless of how long they’ve been sitting in water, the length of time they sit untouched after being removed from it is another factor. Vehicles that are not promptly and properly cleaned, dried and disinfected will experience some sort of bacterial growth that can cause drivers respiratory problems.
When it comes to deciding whether to repair flood damage, it takes special expertise to strike the right balance between financial value and safety. Declaring a vehicle a total loss when it’s more cost-effective to repair it is one kind of costly mistake, but so is putting a vehicle on the road with unseen damage. That’s why it pays to work with a partner with experience and knowledge to guide you.