Often, when contents in a home sustain damage by a covered loss, homeowners, and the adjusters assigned to handle their claim, maybe under the impression that most damaged items need to be replaced. But with today’s new cleaning technology, many items can now be restored to pre-loss condition or better, a benefit to carriers looking for ways to elevate customer service while still reducing claim costs.
According to Amanda Hosey’s “How I Got Into Contents Cleaning,” more than 70% of claim value comes from contents, but only 60% of restoration companies offer contents cleaning.
As the vast majority of losses are damage from fire and water, the critical first step should be to select a restoration company that is an expert in contents restoration, to assess and determine what items can be restored and what items need to be replaced.
Factors affecting restoration in water losses
Looking specifically at soft contents, things like clothing or household linens, damage caused by water losses can vary. There are three categories of water losses that we see on a regular basis:
Category 1: Known as “clean water,” is water damage that originated from a supply line, such as a refrigerator’s ice maker, or a washing machine intake line. Clean water can also be from an overflow of a tub or sink. Clean water is not considered a health hazard, and damage is usually limited to wet clothing and linens on the floor, as well as possible damage to the structure of a home, like carpet and wooden flooring.
Category 2: Otherwise known as “grey” or “dirty water,” this can come from toilet bowls, sump pumps or discharge from the drain line of washing machines or dishwashers. Greywater can be a health hazard because it might contain chemical, biological or physical contaminants. Damage from greywater can be more significant, especially over time, and more extensive.
Category 3: Known as “black water,” this could be due to a sewage backup, floodwater, or, category 2 greywater that has not been properly and immediately mitigated. Blackwater contains high levels of unsanitary agents, harmful bacteria and fungi, and poses a significant health hazard. Restoration from black water is required for both structure and contents.
For soft contents, proprietary wash technology using hydraulic cleaning action makes it possible to restore category 2 and 3 water damage, safely removing bacteria and mold and verified by independent 3rd party lab testing. This type of advanced cleaning, advocated by my ECONA restoration partners, coupled with field testing items contaminated with bacteria and mold before and after cleaning, provide peace of mind to homeowners by proving contents have been fully cleaned and are safe to wear. More about this later!
Fires pose various damage possibilities
Fire losses cause different damage and pose different challenges than water. While water damage is more contained, fire damage like smoke, soot and odor affect more contents. Obviously, items that are physically burned and structurally damaged must be replaced. In fire losses, the more severe damage typically occurs near the source of the fire, with smoke and soot likely spreading throughout a home. Soft contents away from the fire source, yet affected by smoke, soot and odor damage have a high rate of restoration with today’s cleaning technology.
Other factors affecting restoration rates do come into play, and a professional contents expert knows what to look for. Sometimes, a fire generating more heat, due to the type of fire or the construction of the structure, results in oxidation. Structurally, oxidation can be seen in the walls of a home where sheetrock was nailed to the wall and black nail-heads are now visible. Inside a closet, oxidation is evidenced by hanger marks — long stripes down the shoulder of clothing from metal hangers.
While it’s a rare occurrence, damage due to oxidation is considered structural damage, though not physically burned, it has been altered beyond repair. Items with an extra layer of protection, like Tupperware containers, shoe boxes, and even poly-bags from a local dry cleaner, can make the difference between restoration and replacement.
Other factors affecting restoration
There are many factors that determine whether damaged contents can be restored. Decisions are made based on the category and degree of loss, and the loss site conditions. Other factors include the type of item, its location at the time of loss, and even if closet doors were open or closed.
Another important factor is when the loss occurred. With furniture or soft goods, damage can accrue over time. For example, if the legs of a piece of furniture are wet for a short period of time, it is easily restored. On the other hand, over several days, the furniture sustains damage that can’t be reversed. This is why we use coasters on the dining room table! For soft contents, water can be especially damaging due to the potential for dye transfer and relaxation or shrinkage.
Sometimes it’s not a question of whether you can clean it, but whether it’s an item the homeowner would rather see restored than replaced. While homeowners may not be attached to some damaged items, there are many items that hold a considerable amount of sentimental value, such as a child’s favorite stuffed animal, a high school player’s football jersey, or a designer purse received on Mother’s Day. As contents experts, we must always be careful about making “value judgements” for homeowner’s contents.
Though fire and water make up the majority of losses, there are other unique causes of content damage, such as break-ins and vandalism. Animal losses and damage, especially skunk damage, we recognize the odor on a handful of items may not respond because of weave and thickness or discoloration from direct skunk spray. With unusual causes of losses, just as with water and fire, contents experts take things one loss at a time.
In severe losses, when there is the possibility a significant number of items may not fully respond to the restoration process, test processing a cross-section of items can be beneficial.
A cross-section of contents taken from a home are processed and restoration results measured to quantify how well they responded. It’s a smaller sample of items that give us an indicator of the potential restoration success rate. With most restoration companies, individual item testing is traditionally done by sending items to a lab and waiting weeks for the results. But, with today’s technology, we can get immediate results.
My partners in the ECONA network use ATP field testing, a process that measures microbial bacteria via RLU, or relative light units, to detect and measure levels of adenosine triphosphate or ATP. Items contaminated by cat 2 or 3 water damage can have ATP readings in the thousands, yet, after processing, the vast majority of soft contents have ATP readings in the single digits, which is “food grade” clean. ATP field testing, with immediate results, allows losses to be mitigated faster and gives the homeowner “peace of mind” early in the process.
In conclusion, an analogy I like to use is that you can’t call a doctor, explain your symptoms over the phone, and receive a diagnosis or prescription. You certainly should never treat yourself. Rather, you make an appointment to see the doctor in person. In this way, it’s important that a qualified restoration expert, using advanced technology, be given the opportunity to inspect the loss site before items are deemed non-salvageable. In the insurance industry, proper diagnosis and treatment of contents elevate customer service and reduces overall claim costs.
Russell Jacobs is the quality assurance manager for ECONA Network, North America’s largest full contents restoration network with over 276 certified service locations. A third-generation dry cleaner who grew up in the family business in Memphis, Jacobs has 25 years of experience in contents restoration. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.