Liability Nags Restorers Of Wet Houses
Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 24, 2004; Page B1
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. -- Chuck Dewald stood at the front of
the classroom and soon lost his temper. He had just given 14
water-damage restoration professionals a tour of a flooded house and
asked them how they would dry it out.
His students couldn't reach a consensus, and in this
business, a lack of standard operating procedures hurts restorers'
credibility with insurers, argues Mr. Dewald. "Guys, the insurance
industry has no respect for us whatsoever," said Mr. Dewald, who also
runs a small water-damage restoration company himself. "I'm here to tell
you how stupid you are."
This was day one of Mr. Dewald's Vortex Drying School
-- boot camp for water-damage restorers. A day earlier, Mr. Dewald and
his son, also named Chuck, had walked through a 900-square-foot house
and aimed the stream from a garden hose at everything in sight,
drenching carpets, furniture and walls. The mock house, which features a
furnished den, kitchen, bathroom, exercise room and bedroom, sits inside
a warehouse Mr. Dewald built in 1998 a few steps from his own home here
to test his theories about drying. His mission: to get more restorers to
follow his science-based drying method -- which he says can cut drying
times in half.
Mr. Dewald's own timing couldn't be better. A job that
once involved little more than placing fans and humidifiers inside a
building and waiting for it to dry has grown more complex and fraught
with risk, since water damage has increasingly been linked to mold
U.S. insurers paid out a record $3 billion in
mold-related claims in 2002, up from $1.3 billion the previous year,
according to the Insurance Information Institute. Many of those claims
originated with water damage caused by problems such as an overflowing
washing machine or burst pipe. Skyrocketing mold claims have shaken up
both insurers and restoration experts -- who can end up liable
themselves if homeowners claim they botched a cleanup job.
As a result, many of the estimated 16,000
water-damage-restoration companies in the U.S. have faced sharply rising
insurance premiums, making for a tougher business environment. Yet
people continue to open such companies because they are relatively
inexpensive to start, and there are no licensing requirements. Many are
small, independent franchisees of ServiceMaster Co. and Servpro
Industries Inc.. Many carpet-cleaning companies also frequently venture
into drying and other remediation services. Most drying companies have
fewer than 10 employees. Water-restoration technicians earn $25,000 to
$80,000 a year, depending on their experience and training.
To keep their careers afloat, more restoration
professionals recognize that they need training -- to help them
communicate with anxious homeowners and wary insurance adjusters, and to
avoid mistakes that can lead to costly litigation. "The standard of
professional practice is being raised quite rapidly," said Ron Reese, a
Hailey, Idaho-based partner with Certified Restorers Consulting Group
LLC, which provides damage-assessment and litigation support to
restoration companies, insurers and law firms.
Even insurers are sending employees to drying school
because they hope to trim payouts based on the advances they see in such
programs. Rich mold payouts "made all of us rethink how we were handling
these claims," said Peter Day, assistant director of personal market
claims education for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. the big
Boston-based insurer. Up to 30% of claims it receives stem from water
damage. So far, Liberty Mutual has sent 120 adjusters, or 60% of its
adjuster staff, to the three-day course at Mr. Dewald's school, which
costs $1,195 per person.
Mr. Dewald's drying school is widely credited as the
first one to flood a house to teach drying theory and hands-on
techniques, and so far about 2,500 students have attended. The Institute
of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, an industry group
in Vancouver, Wash., teaches a course modeled on Mr. Dewald's, and the
Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration, based in
Millersville, Md., also soaks a house while teaching industry
Dri-Eaz Products Inc., a Burlington, Wash.,
manufacturer of dehumidifiers, fans and other drying equipment, also
runs schools. It says that business at its three schools (where they
flood a house for hands-on training) in the U.S. and one in Canada is so
good that it is opening a fourth in Milton Keynes, England, in October.
The company says 70% of people who take a drying course pass through its
schools, which dwarfs Mr. Dewald's operation.
The industry agrees on this point: "If you can dry
something reasonably rapidly you won't have any mold problems," said
Martin L. King, technical adviser to the Association of Specialists in
Cleaning and Restoration. Yet it's rife with disagreement about the best
way to go about it.
On the first day of Mr. Dewald's course this became
clear. Suggestions for drying his mock house included drilling holes in
the walls to let in air, removing carpeting, and "burping" the house by
opening windows to let out moisture already in the air -- all of which
would work, but not efficiently, Mr. Dewald said. Estimates for the job
ranged from $5,500 to $9,000.
During the course, students used extraction equipment
that vacuums up water from carpets, positioned a dozen high-powered fans
to put moisture into the air and two dehumidifiers to dry the air. More
important, they learned to approach drying more scientifically, such as
measuring the vapor pressure and relative humidity inside and outside
the house to determine if the house was drying at an optimum rate, and
to add or remove certain equipment if it wasn't.
With better drying practices, Mr. Dewald said that in
most cases he can cut drying times as well as avoid costly restoration
work, such as ripping out carpets or plasterboard.
Mr. Dewald's approach to the students -- which included
industry veterans and budding professionals -- focused on being tough.
"Guys, your business will start growing when you start knowing what
you're talking about. Listen to an old hillbilly from Tennessee," said
Mr. Dewald, who is 50.
Students like Woody Dunwoody were won over. Mr.
Dunwoody, who owns First Response Cleaning and Restoration in Columbia,
S.C., said he hadn't previously grasped many points, including how air
temperature affects the efficiency of dehumidifiers. "I should have come
to this course four years ago," Mr. Dunwoody said.
Before students finished the course they got another
surprise. Most said they would have expected the structure to dry in a
week, but on the third day the house -- which has been flooded nearly
200 times and is mold-free -- was dry.