PRACTICAL GUIDELINES WHEN FILING YOUR INSURANCE CLAIM
People watched in horror last summer as the rising waters of the Mississippi River flooded many areas throughout mid-America. Then devastating fires roared through the California coastline, wiping out scores of homes and businesses. More recently, tornadoes have carved wide paths of destruction through Texas and the Southeast. It’s every apartment complex owner’s nightmare-suffering a large property loss. Now is the time to ask yourself, “What do I do if a devastation occurs?”
If your apartment complex suffers a large property loss, do you know the proper steps to take to claim your loss? Considering the emotional state most disaster victims are in after their loss, it is vital to have an organized and detailed plan in place, in advance!
It has been proven that an organized and professionally submitted claim will insure higher recovery values, an expeditious settlement and eliminate the hassle normally associated with insurance claims. “The amount of recovery is dependent on the quality of claim you present,” says Art Jansen, Sr., President of Jansen & Company, a public adjusting firm based in Houston, Texas.
The first step to take after you’ve discovered a loss is to immediately notify your insurance company and insurance agent. According to Paul Nichols, president of the Sterling Companies, an asset property management firm, “Having dealt with everything from fires to hurricanes, I understand the importance in having your on-site personnel know the proper measures to take when emergencies occur.” In addition to notifying your insurance company by telephone, send them written notification to document the initial contact. (Documentation is a very vital part of the insurance claims process since detailed proof is required when submitting all losses). Two very valuable ways for gathering evidence of damage that are often overlooked are shooting photographs and videotaping. Pictures taken are not only worth a thousand words, but can also be worth thousands of dollars when you start receiving repair bills.
Also, request that a representative of your insurance company visit the site of the disaster to see the damage firsthand. Do not remove the damaged items or begin cleanup until the insurance company has been able to tour the site and inspect the damage. Hold off having a cleaning crew discard the rubbish from the disaster site until your insurance company or public adjuster gives you approval to do so.
Your insurance company will assign an insurance adjuster who is responsible for investigating the claim; determining how much of the claim is covered by your insurance policy; and recommending the amount of payment for the claim. The adjuster assigned to your claim will inspect the damage to your property, analyze evidence of loss and review all repair bills. If the adjuster gives you a settlement that is less than fair, refer to your insurance policy for your rights to go to arbitration. Also, call your insurance company’s home office if you feel your claim hasn’t been handled fairly.
After your property is damaged due to a fire, windstorm, water damage, burglary, etc., you must take control of the situation and avoid making costly mistakes. Unfortunately, because insurance policies typically contain highly technical information that is difficult to understand, policyholders are placed at an immediate and distinct disadvantage.
“When I tried to deal with the insurance agency directly, I didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously because they saw me as an inexperienced layperson,” says Joe Sharp, president of Sharp Network, an investment property management firm. “By hiring a public adjuster I was no longer perceived to be in a position of weakness.”
Some things to avoid after disaster strikes:
1. DO NOT solely rely on your insurance agent for help after you experience a loss. Your insurance agent’s role is completed when he sells you the policy. Selling and servicing your policy is the most you should expect from your agent. It isn’t your insurance agent’s job to assist with a settlement figure; it is solely up to you to prove your loss.
Insurance agents typically do not have the expertise needed to prepare a claim to recover your money after a loss. Insurance agents have little or no knowledge of the details associated with many policies and the stipulations and provisions they contain.
2. DO NOT wait until a disaster occurs to become familiar with your insurance policy. “You can never plan for Acts of God,” says Sharp. “Policyholders need to have an understanding of their rights and coverages to protect themselves if anything should ever happen.” Make sure your policy covers everything you own, insure these items at the replacement cost value and, if applicable, they meet the coinsurance requirements.
Also, policyholders should reevaluate the value of their property at least every two years. By reevaluating the value of your apartment complexes, you can avoid underinsuring the property. This precaution helps to avoid penalties and lawsuits.
3. When preparing your claim, DO NOT exaggerate and inflate numbers. If you have no proper documentation and no idea about replacement costs, avoid estimating the value on your own. An inflated insurance claim submitted to the insurance company will appear obvious and may result in a lower settlement than expected.
Also, avoid lumping everything together when you submit your claim. When estimating the cost of damage, detail every item in every room. Breaking down the value of items damaged is a very tedious task, but it increases your chances for getting a fair settlement.
4. DO NOT overlook the importance of keeping proper records. Keep organized receipts: records that support earnings loss and keep records of purchases to help estimate replacement costs.
5. DO NOT submit an unorganized or incomplete claim. The quality of your claim is directly related to how much you will recover from the insurance company. If your adjuster cannot read or comprehend your claim, don’t expect him to read between the lines. Fill in the missing pieces to give a proper itemization to your claim.
6. DO NOT be naive to think the insurance company will hand over the money to you just because you had a loss! Consider hiring an expert to help you, especially if you don’t even know the proper questions to ask. If your loss involves liability, workmen’s compensation or bodily injury, you should consider contacting a lawyer. If your loss is a property insurance claim above $10,000.00 and falls into the category of structures, contents, business interruption and other time related losses, you should consider contacting a public adjuster.
According to Nichols, the last large insurance claim he handled on his own was extremely tedious, aggravating and time consuming. “In a 4 1/2 month period, I met 7 times with the adjuster on property, had 4-5 meetings with him in the office, exchanged 6-7 letters and had a countless number of phone calls. I needed to hire a true professional who dealt with insurance adjusters on a daily basis,” says Nichols. “Even though you may have a well-rounded business background, I think it’s almost a requirement (with larger claims) to hire a public adjuster.”
Most people are only familiar with the adjusters that work on behalf of the insurance company. But, the role these adjusters play is to diligently represent the insurance company’s best interests. Public adjusters are experts, employed by you, who are trained to understand how insurance companies deal with the complex policy requirements. One way to assure that you receive all that is rightfully and legally yours if a disaster occurs, is to hire a public insurance adjuster.
“Seventy-five percent of our clients hire us within 10 days of their loss,” says Jansen, “and another 25% first make an attempt on their own to negotiate with the insurance company and then contact us for assistance either out of frustration or a need to get back to day-to-day business.” Although it’s recommended to contact a public adjuster immediately after your property is damaged, according to Jansen, it’s never too late to ask for help with your claim. “We’ve taken on claims that were 2-3 years old and still have been effective for our clients.” It is best, if you do choose to hire a public adjuster, to contact one immediately after contacting your insurance company.
A public adjuster is an individual with expertise in the area of insurance adjusting. Many people see the word “public” and automatically associate public adjusters with the government. The title “public adjuster” is used to distinguish them from the insurance adjusters and because they represent you, the public.“When one of my properties experienced a large loss due to a fire, I immediately knew I was in over my head when I began dealing with the insurance company,” says Dave Buchanan, president of Buchanan Management company, a property management company. “I realized I wasn’t qualified for the job,” says Buchanan, “and I needed to be represented by experts.”
“My initial opinion of public adjusters was that they were ambulance chasers that preyed on people who were not familiar with insurance policies,” says Sharp. “But, after one of our properties had an extensive fire and I hired a public adjuster, I found my opinion to be totally unfounded.”
“I hire a public adjuster to handle my larger insurance claims,” says Sharp, “this allows time to get back to what really matters--business operations! As far as I’m concerned, time spent dealing with the insurance company is not as productive and time is too valuable to waste, especially after a large property loss,” says Sharp.
“Public adjusters are hired because their expertise normally assures a higher amount of recovery, a more expeditious settlement, and eliminates the hassles associated with dealing with insurance companies,” says Jansen. The typical length of time for a commercial claim under $100,000 (without complications) is between 30-60 days. But, an $8-10 million commercial loss could take several months. Public adjusters know just how very important it is for you to get back in business as quickly as possible.
Another service some public adjusters provide is assisting clients before a disaster to ensure that they are properly prepared. Many property owners mistakenly insure their property according to current market value. This is incorrect since you must factor in the value of the land. A public adjusting company’s expert staff can estimate replacement costs and advise you on the proper policy and the amount of insurance you should have.
Public adjusters have a surprisingly positive relationship with insurance companies, considering one is taking money away from the other. Sometimes insurance adjusters recommend hiring public adjusters because they realize this will expedite the entire claims process. According to Jansen, “If it is the common goal of all parties involved to settle the loss quickly and at a reasonable dollar amount, the process should go smoothly. And if the insurance company and/or the insurance adjuster wants more evidence, we are on the policyholder’s team to provide it in a concise, professional manner.”
How do you contact a reputable public adjuster? Contact the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters (NAPIA) at 703-438-8254. “Make sure your public adjuster doesn’t make unrealistic promises, up-front, concerning how much money to expect. It is also helpful to use a public adjuster who has a background as an insurance adjuster,” remarks Jansen.
Susan Plizga is a free-lance writer in Houston, Texas. She writes articles for business, general consumer and specialty magazines.
David Darrah gasped quietly when he saw workers remove the melted hulk of what used to be a bulldozer. The equipment had been consumed by a massive fire in an underground storage complex in Kansas City, Mo.
The same complex housed Darrah’s microfilm backup records.
Darrah, director of Ameritas Life Insurance Corporation’s facilities/record center, traveled to the storage complex from the company’s Lincoln, NE, headquarters to learn the fate of the company’s records. The fire, which started in mid-December 1991, in the food storage area of the 70-acre complex, raged for five months. Three additional months were required to allow the complex to cool.
Ameritas had 19,400 rolls of microfilm in the storage facility--all of the company’s backup records.
For Nancy Sanford, Ameritas’ records center supervisor, waiting eight months was a nightmare.
"It was nerve-wracking," she says. "When I heard what had happened, it was just total disbelief. They kept saying they didn’t know the condition of our records because they couldn’t get in there."
The film is used as backup for the company’s main microfilm library, which include records of all policy holders, group administration files, human resource files, credit union files, accounting--everything that makes up the company. If a microfilm roll or jacket is lost or accidentally destroyed, a replacement roll is made from the backup.
In mid-August 1992, the microfilm records were brought out of the cave. Even though the film had been in a separate and sealed vault, intense heat from the fire had penetrated to singe the boxes.
Heat and water damage were the two main concerns.
"There weren’t many water stains on the blackened boxes," Darrah recalls. "Most of the water came from the humidity brought on by dousing the fire. The high humidity retained by the cave filtrated underneath the doors."
Six months prior to the start of the fire, Sanford learned of Kodak’s disaster recovery service when two Kodak officials inspected Ameritas’ in-house microfilming lab. Since the lab met the standards, the film was eligible for the service.
"We were told everything would be done to restore the film no matter what happened to it," Sanford recalls. "I thought it sounded great, but that we probably wouldn’t ever need it. And I honestly didn’t think we ever would. It’s one of those things you don’t think will ever happen to you."
When the storage complex was opened after the fire, Ameritas called Kodak, who inspected a few rolls to get a preliminary determination of the extent of the damage. The film was beginning to stick together. To prevent further coagulation, every box was shrink-wrapped to keep it moist. The entire load was transported by refrigerated truck to a recovery lab.
Darrah was given a 50-50 chance of recovery. Each roll was washed and cleaned separately, then inspected to determine what other treatments could be taken.
A little more than three months after the film was trucked to the recovery lab, it arrived at Ameritas’ headquarters.
Operators examined the front, middle and end of each of the more than 19,000 rolls of restored film to ensure all of the information was intact and legible.
Viewing each roll was a lengthy process, but one Ameritas was glad to be doing. The alternative was much worse.
If the film had been lost, the company had only two choices. The first was to continue as if nothing had happened, and hope a backup copy would never be needed. Ameritas would never do business that way. Furthermore, that strategy was dangerous, because it presumed that the remaining records would be safe from disaster. The backup files had proved no site is totally safe.
The other plan was to painstakingly make duplicate backup files which would prove timely and very costly.
All microfilm on-site prior to 1989 is in jackets. In 1989, a CAR (computer assisted retrieval) system was installed, which uses cartridge-encased film. Because of this switch, Ameritas could make duplicate rolls.
However, documents contained in microfilm jackets could not be designed to make microfilm duplicates. If the backup film was not recoverable, paper copies of each jacket would have to be made and then refilmed.
“The idea of losing our backup would have put us in a poor situation,” Sanford said.
"Ameritas has been microfilming in-house since 1977. A film-based records system has proven invaluable to the smooth operation of the company," Sanford says.
When the company switched to in-house microfilming, paper documents packed the building with floor-to-ceiling open shelving. The company spent three years converting paper documents to microfilm.
“What that did for space and security reasons was tremendous,” she says. “And we’ve grown so much since then. We need all the space we can muster.”
Ameritas is now expanding its document management to include electronic imaging, which will allow employees even faster access to records.
For Sanford, the fire has reinforced the need for backup. And it has confirmed the importance of good document management practices.
“Most people in our building don’t even know there was a disaster,” she says. “As long as they can get their records here, they don’t care. But for us, who are responsible for the records, it really was a frightening experience.”
Robert Salmon is a public relations representative for the Eastman Kodak Company.
Except in the case of hurricanes, disasters are usually a complete surprise. Most of us have auto insurance, wear seat belts and (always) drive defensively, but we don't really believe we're going to have an accident. The same mind set exists in most of us when it comes to being in a disaster. We have never had a fire before so why do I need to worry now. The snow storms of early 1993 along the Tennessee Valley were the worst in decades. The roofs on some carpet mills in northern Georgia could not hold the weight of the snow - so they fell down, then the snow melted and the carpet rolls became water damaged - then the construction people came in to remove the fallen roof and with their cutting torches, set fire to the rest of the facility and any part of the office that was not damaged before now is either burned or covered with soot. The people in this area will long remember the disasters of 1993. The thing to remember is that they had never had a snowfall disaster before.
Fires don’t have to be big to cause considerable damage. A trash can fire in a US Military War College library did very little direct damage to the collection but the soot that covered everything shut the library down for weeks. A fire in a facility at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC was contained to the ninth floor but while the firemen were putting the fire down, the stand pipe (a pipe built into most buildings and used to deliver water to the fire hoses on the floors) broke on the 5th floor, flooding the remainder of the building. At another loss a chilled water pipe for air conditioning a computer room broke and flooded the area below the raised floor and the 65,000 magnetic tape library on the next floor down.
In todays tight budget and stretch the dollar economy we feel obligated to maximize the space we have. In a hospital or medical clinic the medical records, of which there is only one copy, are nearly always on the first floor or basement and the old inactive files are kept in the subbasement - but they’re in good company because that's where insurance files are kept along with library special collections and the major computer equipment and probably the telephone switch gear. The space needs to be used by items that don’t have a lot of human traffic. Putting these valuable things in this location seems reasonable but remember that water used to fight the fire runs down hill while soot is usually hot and it rises with the heat of the fire.
A very well maintained high rise building in San Francisco, on Sunday morning, with very few people inside and almost no air-conditioning systems running, did not have a fire or flood. When the electrical power to the building was interrupted the emergency generators immediately took charge, keeping the building operating properly. A smoke detector in the make up air plenum smelled smoke and told the computer that controls the indoor environment of the building to get the smoke out of the facility. All the air movers became energized and started moving air, trying to purge the building of any smoke that might be present. The procedures to remove the smoke from a building is to bring in outside air and push the smoke out. This building computer did exactly what it was designed to do except the fire was outside in a sidewalk transformer vault. All the proper procedures resulted in drawing the smoke from an exterior fire into and throughout the building.
A levee next to a county court house in South Alabama broke and flooded the town for 48 hours. The information in some of the ledgers dated back to before the Civil War and the damage was considerable. Paper for the most part is made of wood pulp and wood floats in water. Some of the books floated out of their shelves, some of the shelves floated up and turned over dumping the contents out only to have the shelf settle back down on the books. Some of the books swelled so large that they could not be removed from the shelves once the recovery effort was begun. The questions, priorities, inventories and the system to deal with most eventualities need to be addressed (if possible) while developing your disaster plan. Open ledgers laying face down in the mud with their shelves on top of them often can be recovered, cost effectively.
Decisions need to be made to save the 100 year old brass rollered shelves or the ledgers (one was going to be destroyed in the recovery effort). A document or ledger that has been microfilmed may not need to be saved but if the item has historical worth, the intrinsic value may justify the expense of recovery. When the entire county is shut down because the court house information is unavailable, the people making decisions have the problems of keeping the county going and making expensive recovery decisions. If a disaster plan has been written and practiced the trauma of the disaster and unnecessary expense will be greatly reduced and the goals of the recovery plan can be reached in a reasonable time frame.
All is not always lost--Documents and books that are covered with mud, debris and soot that are so misshapen that they look lost may be recoverable. Computers and magnetic media in the same general condition may not be lost. A damage assessment, triage team that knows what you are looking for in your recovery effort can greatly assist in determining the direction of the job flow and the extent of the scope of work to help accomplish the goals of your restoration project. Many times when a disaster occurs a lot of people want to “help” by becoming involved with the clean up - but - it normally takes just a few days of soot, debris and mud for this not to be fun any more and everyone just wants to get back to normal.
Damage Assessment--Objective damage assessment, when dealing with a disaster in your facility, is a difficult task. This is your facility that has been damaged. When determining what to do, it is easy to become nostalgic about almost everything you see. The ashes in the charred box may be the company’s artificial Christmas tree that you bought on sale five years ago. First it probably is not cost effective to clean the tree even if it wasn't heavily damaged, and secondly - items that are moisture/time sensitive are continuing to deteriorate while time is being wasted thinking about last years holiday party. The damage assessment process needs to be quick. Some things will be missed on the first walk-through but a determination can be made about the classification of the loss and where the various ER-Teams should start. If the basement is still full of water (that is where the really good stuff is) - it's OK to get mobilized on the other floors and then change direction as more of the loss is revealed by the receding water or access is allowed by the fire department.
Damage Assessment, especially on large losses is a continuing process and new problems are discovered on a daily basis. Damage assessment may be new to your Disaster Response Director but it is not a complicated procedure. It will be necessary to know as much as possible about the disaster recovery plan goals for the damaged part of your facility. What the condition of and where the important items such as vital records, magnetic media, micrographics and items of high intrinsic value are.
Classification of the Loss--Category “I” - is a loss where the personnel on site are able to handle the loss initially or in total.
Disasters come in all sizes. If you are part of a small staff or an organization that employs a large number of people the probability is that some disasters are dealt with regularly. If one or a few boxes of files gets damaged, that problem can be dealt with and managed by the in-house staff. A loss may require the services of a magnetic media recovery specialist, an art curator, a book and paper mass freeze dry and cleaning team but the size is small enough for the staff to box, handle and ship to an organization that specializes in the type of services needed. It is prudent to remember that in an area wide disaster such as a hurricane, many of the staff have personal losses and they may not be available on a 24 hour emergency basis. Additionally, travel may be restricted and supplies limited or unavailable. With a limited work force, the continuing damage to moisture-time sensitive items becomes an important factor in classifying the disaster. A prolonged delay could cause unnecessary severe damage. Also consider the time required for completion of the recovery effort. Your staff may not be able to dedicate the time for dealing with this project before they are required to resume their normal business activities.
Category “II” - is a loss where the services of a company specializing in disaster recovery are needed.
Disasters come in all sizes. When initial damage assessment reveals conditions that appear beyond your staff's ability to meet the disaster recovery plan goals, it is time to use the resources of a qualified restoration company. Calling in another company does not relinquish or relieve the management of the recovery project from your staff. The addition of an objective, disaster recovery work force that is sensitive to your needs but not emotionally involved in your organization will mitigate the loss and speed up the work flow. A restoration company's experience, creativity and manpower to deal with the surprises that develop in a major disaster and your staff’s knowledge of the facility and the disaster plan goals combine to make an efficient recovery team.
** Note: Determining the classification of a loss can be difficult under normal conditions. With the electricity off and the strong smell of smoke in the air, the situation may not look too bad, maybe grim, but manageable. On the next walk through with the lights on the look changes, - a small, hard to extinguish fire in a single room may have put thousands of gallons of water on the floors below. The loss has gone from a manageable “Cat. I” to a definite “Cat. II.” Restoration companies welcome your initial questions because they are alerted to the possible need to mobilize and they can help you with things to look for. It is better to alert them and not need them than to wait and lose reaction time.
Larry Wood is a founder of Disaster Recovery Services, Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas.
Despite all reasonable precautions, a disaster has occurred. It could be a flood, lightning strike, fire or act of sabotage such as orange juice in the computer. The actions you and your insured take in the following 24 hours are critical in preventing irreparable damage, so that the affected equipment may be restored to pre-incident conditions. This degree of restoration is possible far more often than one may expect and in situations that, at first glance, appear hopeless.
Corrosion processes begin immediately following a disaster, but corrosion does not proceed at a uniform rate over time. The rate is greatest at or about the time when the fire is extinguished or the flood water has drained. Thereafter, the corrosion rate decreases gradually over time but never reaches zero.
Fire and Halogens
When dealing with fire aftermath, one must consider the effect of chloride ion in ferrous metal corrosion. This ion is almost always present because of the near universal presence of Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) electrical insulation, water piping and other articles. PVC is the most commonly used plastic in the world. However, when heated to over 200 degree Celsius, it decomposes with release of hydrogen chloride gas (HCI). Combined with the water that is either produced by combustion or otherwise present, hydrochloric acid (also known industrially as muriatic acid—one of the most corrosive chemicals known) is formed.
Another point to be considered is the usage of halocarbons in fire-extinguishing systems-known commercially as Halons (trademark of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.) The two Halons used for this purpose are CF3, Br, Halon 1301 or BTM and CF2, CI Br, Halon 1211 or BCF. These materials are highly effective in halting combustion, even at low, nontoxic concentrations. For environmental reasons, the use of Halons is being discouraged, and fewer new systems are being installed, despite the fact that there are no good alternatives to them. Of course, we must deal with the thousands of Halon systems presently installed and in service. Halon 1211 will produce HCI. Both Halons will produce HBr and Br2, (hydrobromic acid and elemental Bromine), upon contact with flame or hot metal. These bromine-containing species are even more active than HCI in promoting the corrosion of ferrous metal. They also will attack copper, brass, zinc, aluminum and even the noble (gold, platinum, etc.) metals.
At the conclusion of the fire-fighting effort, conditions are optimum for rapid corrosion: hot, wet, acidic and highly halogenated. It is not entirely surprising to see moist brown rust appearing on steel surfaces even before the firemen have left the building. Fortunately, this rapid corrosion rate is not maintained for long. The temperature will drop, and ventilation will produce airflow that removes humidity and most of the acidic halogen gases. Within a few hours of the fire, it would be difficult to detect any HCI or HBr in the air. On surfaces inside the building, however, they remain easy to detect in puddles of water on the floor, inside equipment, in brick, concrete, fabric, dust, soot and other materials.
The corrosion processes are slow but continuous and progressive. Hydrochloric acid, which has been trapped in the above reservoirs, will gradually move back into the atmosphere. Being gaseous, it moves with the air currents and condenses on cold and moist surfaces. Equipment not initially affected by the fire will show signs of corrosive attack, even in distant areas of the plant building.
The initial attack of HCI or HBr upon a metal produces the metal halide salts. However, these are not stable when in contact with moisture, They will hydrolyze, or react with water in air of greater than around 50 percent relative humidity.
The Vicious Cycle
The hydrolysis products are basic salts, oxides and hydroxides of the metal. Further reaction may occur with oxygen from the air to produce rust (FeO.OH) on iron or steel. These processes may be written:
Fe + 2HCI > FeCI2, + H2, (gas) (1)
Fe CI2, + 2H2O > Fe(OH)2, + 2HCI (2)
4Fe(OH)2 + 02 > 4FeO.OH + 2H2O (3)
Note that the first two steps constitute a catalytic cycle, with the HCI being re-released, so as to cause rusting of more metal. This attack may occur all at a given place, or the HCI may be carried by air transport to other locations.
It may be worse if the attack proceeds in one spot, because this leads to pitting. When a slight surface depression forms, the oxides or hydroxides produced at the top of the depression are somewhat protective against further attack by HCI, so that the bottom of the depression corrodes more rapidly than the top. Because tiny oxidation-type concentration cells are set up, dissolution of iron is more rapid in regions of lower oxygen concentration than in higher ones. Reaction (3) is favored in the oxygen-rich upper areas that become cathodic with respect to the oxygen-poor lower areas where anodic dissolution, represented by equation (1), occurs.
Iron dissolves at the bottom of a pit and deposits as rust at the top. This process does not require the presence of chloride ion and would continue even if natural diffusion/ventilation processes removed all chloride contamination. Of course, total removal would require infinite time.
In the days following a disaster, corrosion produces its most damaging effects. Sliding surfaces become roughened and bearings lose essential smoothness. Chloride ion migrates to areas previously uncontaminated.
Bacteria and fungi will produce corrosion even on stainless steels and copper/nickel alloys, as well as cast iron, aluminum, and concrete. The sulfate reducing bacteria, such as Desulfovibrio, are supported by sulfate ion, which is produced in fires involving coal, paper, wood or heating oil. Furthermore, electrolytic corrosion occurs whenever two dissimilar metals are in contact with an external electrically conductive liquid. This can cause rapid failure of soldered, brazed or welded joints.
Electrical and Electronic Equipment
Special problems arise in regard to electrical and electronic equipment. Corrosion may attack the copper or solder tracks on printed circuit boards. Even gold-plated contacts are attacked. The usual thickness of gold plating is about six microinches (0.14 micron). Although large compared to the diameter of a gold atom, this thickness is not sufficient to provide 100 percent surface coverage. There are many holes in the plating. Electron microscopy shows that substrate corrosion product erupts like mushrooms through these holes. This product can interfere with electrical contact as soon as the components are moved, especially in low-voltage circuits such as those in computers or telephone exchanges.
When electrical machinery is allowed to continue operating subsequent to a contamination event, the large voltages involved produce major electrochemical attack on metal surfaces. In addition, the electrolytic conduction process will cause chloride ion to migrate into crevices and regions to which it otherwise would not penetrate.
Clearly, corrosive damage as described above can reduce any equipment to a condition beyond economical repair. However, there is no need to allow this damage to occur!
When an observer arrives at the scene of devastation and sees the red-brown flash-rust coating that arises during the first few hours, he or she may feel that the only option is to replace the equipment. This is a costly option. It involves the direct replacement cost plus the delivery time of new equipment. However, the flash-rust is essentially superficial. The underlying metal is still smooth because pitting has hardly begun.
If the equipment is sprayed promptly with a water-displacing protective oil, the corrosion may be effectively halted for a period of about a week in outdoor storage or two weeks indoors. During this period, a decision may be reached as to whether to restore the equipment.
Full restoration will involve disassembly as needed, removal of contamination, rust removal, re-oiling, reassembly and testing. Competent restoration companies can perform these procedures, in this country and abroad.
For best results, your chosen restoration company should be contacted and asked to perform the initial inspection and protective spraying within the 24 to 48 hours following a disaster. The cost is small and it buys valuable time. When this procedure is not followed, the results may be distressing..
Tales From The Crypt
A One-Month Delay. An electrical fire occurred in a basement area of an office building, exposing graphic arts printing equipment to smoke and corrosive vapors. Four weeks later, our engineers were called and performed an initial inspection. High chloride levels were found on metal surfaces, accompanied by much visible rusting. Chloride levels were lower on nonmetallic surfaces, due to natural processes of dissipation. While some of the affected equipment was restorable, other items were beyond economical repair. Had we been called earlier, all of this costly equipment could have been cleaned and returned to service. Instead, the operator was obliged to use the services of other printers in order to satisfy the needs of his clients.
Another One-Month Procrastination. Optical equipment was exposed to rainwater during transport on a flatbed trailer. The equipment was delivered in a wet and already corroding condition. The purchaser had reason to believe that the equipment was unusable. When our engineers performed an inspection five weeks later, they found that the damage was mostly cosmetic in nature, with some pitting in noncritical areas. The equipment was found to be readily restorable. If it had been dried and oiled when first received, virtually all the corrosion could have been prevented.
A One-Year Hesitation. An Automated Teller Machine (ATM) was dropped from the back of a truck, falling a distance of approximately 30 inches. Subsequently, it was allowed to sit outside the purchaser’s facility, exposed to the elements. Almost a year later, we were asked to send our engineers to perform a survey and inspection. Despite the severe initial damage, the machine had considerable salvage value—at the time of the accident. As a result of a year’s corrosion, that value was reduced to nil.
A Costly Mistake
During a school holiday period, a steam pipe ruptured in a local high school. This filled the music room with a high-temperature fog which condensed on and within the electronic equipment housed therein. Although no chlorides were involved, pipe scale and water additives (corrosion inhibitors and anti flocculants) contacted the affected equipment.
About one month later, our office was contacted, and a consultant was dispatched. At that time, he observed a good deal of corrosion on unprotected metal surfaces. Most of this appeared to be flash-rust, with little pitting. Corrosion on printed circuit boards was, in some cases, fairly extensive.
As might be expected, the higher-valued pieces of equipment were damaged to a greater extent than the cheaper ones. Thus, although complete restoration was entirely possible, it was not considered to be cost-effective.
Had the equipment been dried and oiled (where appropriate) immediately following the incident, there would have been virtually no lasting damage. As it was, a loss of over $20,000 was taken.
Roger P. Gordon is the Manager of Research and Development for RELECTRONIC Service Corporation in Totowa, N.J.