Heavy rain and rising water can lead to vehicle flood damage, which often results in difficult and expensive repairs. To avoid causing additional problems, AAA cautions motorists that a flood-damaged car should not be started until a thorough inspection and cleaning have been performed.
"In addition to the obvious damage done to upholstery and carpeting, floodwater is a corrosive and abrasive mixture of water and dirt that works its way into every seam and crevice of a vehicle," said John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair, buying services and consumer information.
Before attempting to start a flood-damaged car, a qualified technician should:
• Inspect all readily accessible mechanical and electrical components, and systems that contain fluids, for water contamination.
• Drain floodwater from contaminated components and systems, flush with clean water or an appropriate solvent, and refill with new clean fluids of the proper type.
• Inspect, clean and dry electrical system components and connections.
If a car has been completely or partly submerged, extensive disassembly may be needed for a thorough cleaning. Depending on the vehicle make, model and age, the cost of such an effort may exceed the car's value. AAA encourages motorists to contact their insurance companies first for help in determining the best action when dealing with a flood-damaged vehicle.
"The car's electrical system also is subject to floodwater damage," Nielsen said. "Engine computers, sensors, sound systems and other electronic devices can sometimes be salvaged, but unless they are thoroughly cleaned and dried, inside and out, problems caused by corrosion and oxidation may occur weeks or even months after the flooding."
Many parts of a car are difficult to clean and dry because they are hard to access. Door locks, window regulators, wiring harnesses, heating and air-conditioning components and many other small devices are tucked away in hidden spaces. These items may work okay initially following a flood, only to fail at a later date because of contamination by dirty water.
In many cases, insurance companies "total" flood-damaged vehicles, which are then sold to salvage companies. But rather than being disassembled for parts, some of these vehicles end up being purchased by people who restore them to operating condition — with varying levels of expertise. AAA warns car buyers in all parts of the United States that flood-damaged vehicles can be shipped anywhere for resale, and they often continue to appear in the marketplace for many months following a major flood.
The best protection against buying a flood-damaged vehicle is a thorough pre-purchase inspection by a qualified shop such as a AAA-approved auto repair facility. Nearby shops that meet this criteria can be found at AAA.com/Repair.
As part of its inspection, a shop will look for common indicators of flood damage, such as dried mud under the hood or in body cavities inside the trunk. A damp or musty odor in the vehicle is another frequent warning sign, and new carpeting and upholstery in an older car can be a red flag calling for closer inspection.
Another good practice is the purchase of a vehicle history report. While such reports don't always catch everything, more often than not they will indicate when a vehicle has been in a flood or been issued a salvage title, indicating a major problem in its past.