Treading Water

Spring is in the your car in the water?

Overflowing waterways and torrential rains are once again threatening spring floods in several regions of the country. Before you try to drive through deep water, beware - It's not only dangerous, but it can cause costly, sometimes irreparable damage to your car. If the water is any deeper than the ground clearance of your car, don't try it. Worse yet, if your car does get submerged more than a few inches deep in a flood, you need to get it thoroughly inspected immediately. Unless it's addressed right away, flood or water damage is insidious and will greatly reduce the life of your car.

If you do suspect that your vehicle has been submerged by more than a few inches of water, don't try to start the engine. Have the car towed to an auto repair shop to be inspected. A waterlogged engine that's cranked can sometimes be ruined, even if it doesn't start.

Now here are some tips on how to determine the extent of the damage, and how to get the car safely back on the road:

Wading or swimming?

Determine, using evidence from water lines, dirt and debris, and damp components, how deep the vehicle was immersed.

Look for telltale signs of severe water damage.

Standing water inside the car or soaked upholstery indicate that critical mechanical components probably have considerable water damage.

Get the vehicle inspected.

Have a mechanic first do a quick inspection of all of the components of your vehicle that might have been submerged. Pay special attention to wiring harnesses and costly electrical components. Double-check by looking for warning lights, dimming interior lights, malfunctioning gauges, and other signs of mechanical doom.

Have your mechanic assess the mechanical damage from the flooding.

Many components of the vehicle will have to be disassembled, cleaned, and dried, else they will probably fail in the near future. And if the damage is ignored, the car could be dangerous.

Get an estimate, and decide if it's worth fixing.

Total all of these expenses and contact your insurance company if you have coverage for flood damage. These expenses often rank in the thousands of dollars, and it's not uncommon for flood-damaged vehicles more than a few years old to be written off and issued flood titles by insurance companies. If this is the case, get rid of the car and consider the check in the mail to be a blessing.

If you're going to have the water damage fixed:


Have the wheel bearings on all four wheels cleaned and repacked, if your mechanic deems it necessary. This is a costly, labor-intensive repair, but one you're probably going to have to do.

Drive joints: Remove the rubber drive boots, inspect and dry them, then lubricate the CV joints underneath and install new boots.

Brakes: Inspect all brake hardware. Replace all hydraulic components that were submerged, and disassemble and dry out calipers, shoes, the parking-brake cable, and other components. Have the brake fluid flushed.

Engine: If water reached only the bottom of the engine, the oil pan should probably be removed and cleaned. Install a new oil pan gasket to reduce the chances of contamination, and then change the oil. Extreme cases, where there's the possibility of water in the intake, might require disassembly of the engine. Prolonged submersion might also require transmission disassembly and/or rebuilding.

Fuel system: Consider possible contamination from water and debris. The fuel tank and fuel lines might need to be drained and cleaned or replaced.

Electrical: This can be the most difficult-to-diagnose and costly aspect of flood damage. Wiring harnesses and sensors are located throughout newer cars, and switches and regulators might be inside the door panels. Engine computers can be especially expensive to replace.

Body: Inspect door drains and frame holes for blockage, and lubricate door hinges.

Interior: Dry and clean the carpet and upholstery. Apply a disinfectant spray to prevent mold and mildew.

Be wary about fixing a flood-damaged car - it can really break the bank. Never try to ford water of unknown depth, and avoid the onslaught of water in the first place by parking your vehicle on high ground if there's a flood warning.

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