How to Respond to Water Damage: Understanding the Risks




We all know that there are a lot of possible causes of water damage in a building. Flooding. Incursion from heavy rain. Broken pipes or plumbing. Broken water lines.

But do you know about the three categories of water damage and their potential impact on employee and customer safety? The fact is that different events bring different kinds of water and potential safety hazards. Let’s look at why the distinctions are important along with considerations for cleanup with each type of water.

Category 1: Clean Water
The first consideration when evaluating any type of water is the source. And as you’d expect, clean water typically comes directly from a sanitary source, such as water pipes, steam lines or rainwater. For water to be considered category I, it should look and smell like tap water.

Typically, there aren’t any health risks associated with Category I water, unless you are in an old building and the water makes contact with contaminants, for example. While you should consider yourself lucky when only dealing with Category I water compared to the other categories, you need to respond quickly as microbial growth can begin in as little as 24 – 48 hours.

Category 2: Gray Water
The sources for gray water vary widely, as do the potential contaminants. That’s why it’s best to proceed with caution when the source isn’t sanitary, whether or not the water is clear or cloudy or whether or not it smells. Sources for gray water could include backed-up storm drains, treated cooling water, some surface water, water from fire suppression systems, or even discharges from equipment.

Gray water can be slightly to severely contaminated with microbial growth or other toxins, and direct or indirect exposure could potentially cause health issues.

Category 3: Black Water
Infectious viruses, bacteria, parasites, and toxic and allergenic materials can all lurk in black water, which could include water coming from sewers, rivers or the sea so always use caution around it. Black water typically smells bad and is often cloudy. Since it poses such a high health risk, it’s best to keep employees and customers well away and it’s likely that you will need to replace most materials that it comes into contact with.

Getting Back to Dry
While you may be able to easily address Category 1 water damage, depending on the level of saturation, Category 2 and 3 water cleanup is more involved. For example, biocides may be needed to sanitize materials and slow microbial growth during the drying process. And your state may have specific laws for how to dispose of contaminated floodwater, so the work is often best left to professionals.

The number one thing to remember when you’re dealing with water incursion is to keep people safe. That means sealing off affected areas and only working on cleanup when you either know that there are no health risks to employees, or you have taken the proper precautions for keeping the cleanup crew safe.

To learn more about recovering from water damage, check out A Quick Guide to Water Damage

And for more in-depth definitions of the water categories, visit: The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) website at