Have you ever wondered what it takes to restore a major metropolitan area to normal after a disaster like Hurricane Andrew or the Chicago flood? In any major city or rural township the list of restoration tasks is endless.
These disasters caused water damage from heavy rainfall or flooding. But water damage can also occur from fires, broken sprinkler systems, and frozen pipes that burst, and the specialists that meet this challenge must work quickly and skillfully to prevent further water related damage. The dehumidification business, under normal circumstances, requires dedicated, knowledgeable personnel trained to use and maintain a variety of drying equipment to meet the 24 hour-a-day, 365 days-a-year demand and, of course, in the event of a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, these requirements are doubled.
Dehumidification of moist air is a somewhat new technology in the field of disaster recovery. In the past, most large-scale drying jobs were handled with open windows and blowers to dry out saturated areas. Tightly sealed buildings of today require a high tech approach to moisture removal. State of the art powerful commercial drying equipment can now convert a vapor (i. e. humidity) into a solid and remove as much as 200 gallons of water a day, saving a building and its contents with great success. Knowledgeable dehumidification specialists handle everything from modern high-rise commercial structures housing high-tech communications systems, computers and electronic storage media to historic mansions containing beautiful, old wooden floors and antiques, not to mention irreplaceable paintings, valuable documents and archives.
Let’s examine two extreme comparisons: an historic structure and a modern high-rise building. One might pose an argument that the methods for drying both are essentially the same. Not so. Although the equipment and instruments perform basically the same functions, the drying procedure is critical to the characteristics of the structure itself, and these characteristics warrant some discussion.
A good historical example is an antebellum church that suffered devastating water damage during Hurricane Hugo. Its architectural features—attics, crawl spaces, the areas beneath the altar and around the massive pipe organs became collecting pools for moisture and presented some particularly difficult dehumidification problems. Drying a modern building with synthetic carpeting, vinyl wall coverings, and sheetrock is one thing; it’s quite another to dry the framework around a stained glass window, ornate wood trimmings, and plaster that is more than a century old.
Each type of wood in the structure had its own unique density, grain, and porosity which affects the moisture content of the fibers. Aging and exposure to the elements also added to the difficulty of drying the wood in this beautiful old church. Therefore, special attention was given to restoring the wooden fibers to their own correct level of relative humidity, and this was done in precisely staged increments of time, which allowed the wood to shape itself “comfortably” and as naturally as possible in relation to its environment.1
Compounding the inherent material problems are aesthetic considerations and priceless historical value of the structure and its contents. Knowing what to do, and how, will determine the difference between restoration success and costly replacement. Therefore, it is imperative that dehumidification specialists be sensitive to the importance of preserving the original state of each item with which they are entrusted.
A modern structure, on the other hand, poses its own set of drying problems: steel instead of wood structural elements; floor and wall coverings of synthetic fibers and materials that may create toxic fumes when damp; and high-tech communications and electronic equipment which are often hidden in subfloors, walls and ceilings. Temperature and humidity as they relate to healthy indoor air quality and sick building syndrome is undoubtedly another major consideration.
The only constant in the dehumidification process is that moisture seeks, and will transfer to, a dry spot. This means, literally, that if there is any moisture at all in the environment, whatever is dry will attract moisture, (i.e. upholstery, carpets, walls, paper, etc.). The right dehumidification equipment, response speed, and constant monitoring, will insure the restoration success, and remove the threat of exorbitant replacement costs and an unhappy customer.
It is not surprising then that the demand for dehumidification services is rising. Here are some other important reasons why:
1) The cost of replacing building materials, furnishings, carpeting, wall coverings, and labor has increased dramatically, forcing builders and insurance carriers—particularly those who deal in large commercial structures—to consider other, less costly alternatives.
2) Dehumidification takes less time than replacement and frequently requires little, if any, disruption of the physical environment—a feature that is particularly attractive to businesses since lost wages are not covered by most insurance policies. Normal business activity can continue without interruption or can be resumed in a matter of a hours, not weeks.
3) Dehumidification reduces the risk of many of the health related problems associated with indoor air quality. Recent studies show that high humidity provides a favorable medium for the survival and rapid growth of such biological contaminants as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mites, and that excessive moisture can create certain chemical interactions with substances that are used in building and decorating materials. These scenarios are potential time bombs that insurance companies, property managers/owners and risk managers must eliminate.
Authorities are now exploring if, and how, the severity of natural disasters will intensify in the wake of such catastrophic events as the eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano. Recent studies suggest the effect on the United States of the volcanic ash cloud formed by Pinatubo’s volcanic debris can precipitate a cooler winter, resulting in frozen pipes, thereby producing water damage situations.
Weather related disasters, the daily mix of broken sprinklers, fires, and floods, the increasing focus on sick building syndrome2 and the importance of clean, healthy air present many possibilities for the application of dehumidification services. Each and every person must take an active part in learning what constitutes a healthy environment for ourselves and those who follow. Awareness to the benefits of dehumidification services clearly defines the difference between a planned program of preparedness and an unhealthy disaster.
These observations lend significant weight to the claim that there is more to the business of drying than meets the eye. In this business there is no template; the conditions dictate the approach, and the conditions are like the New England weather: wait five minutes and things may change.
Thomas Zoll is founder and President World Wide Drying, Inc., a Massachusetts-based corporation providing dehumidification and restoration services. He has over 25 years of experience in dehumidification, disaster recovery and business continuity planning. His current specialization includes the complete dry-down of electronics, telecommunications systems, computer systems, books and documents.
This article adapted from Vol. 5 #4.