Compromised, Contaminated Flood Cars Pose Risks To Motorists, Technicians
Author James E. Guyette, a contributing editor to Aftermarket Business World, ABRN and Motor Age magazines points out what to watch for and preventative measures a buyer should make if purchasing a used vehicle that could of potentially been exposed to flood waters.
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If a car deal smells too good to be true, it probably is. An excess dousing of air-freshener in a bargain-priced vehicle with a for-sale sign tucked in the window could be masking telltale mold and mildew, signaling that a supposed creampuff is actually a dangerous “flood car” shipped from the Harvey and Irma hurricane zones to be sold to unsuspecting buyers.
Nearly one million vehicles sat soaking in polluted high water when a year’s worth of rain fell on Houston within four days and record-setting saltwater storm surges engulfed Jacksonville, Fla., Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. A saltwater bath has more of a bite to it as it can eat through numerous metals, but freshwater is equally troublesome.
A car could have been dried out, minimally fixed and able to fire right up, yet gremlins can lurk within the tiniest corroded electrical contact – causing key components to suddenly fail without warning. A dysfunction afflicting safety features such airbags and anti-lock brakes can render a deadly outcome.
According to the Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair (CCAR), “There is no recommended method or procedure to restore submerged vehicles from flooded-affected areas to pre-accident condition.”
“Our data shows there’s still much work to be done in helping consumers avoid buying flood-damaged cars,” says Carfax President Dick Raines. “They can, and do, show up all over the country, whether it be a few miles or hundreds of miles from where the flooding occurred. With two devastating storms already this year, it’s vital for used-car buyers everywhere to protect themselves from flooded cars that may wind up for sale.”
Historically about half of the vehicles damaged in a given flood eventually end up in the used-car marketplace, Raines reports.
Under appropriate circumstances, a car’s flooded status is duly documented on the title via insurers, state DMV officials and other authorities, and then typically designated for the crusher. Or a scrap yard if undamaged parts are present. In certain situations, a flooded car can be legitimately re-sold when its wet history is properly noted on the title and the buyer is fully informed.
With flood cars, unscrupulous fraudsters engage in “title washing” that falsifies a vehicle’s provenance to claim that it originates from a different state, thus disguising the fact that it was swamped by a flood.
As these flawed vehicles inundate the nation from New England to the Northwest you could be coming across them during pre-purchase inspections conducted for your customers or seeing them in your shop when they have experienced a breakdown. Arid climates with few floods are frequent destinations because motorists accustomed to sunny conditions are unlikely to look for this type of damage.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau has prepared a list of tips to help detect water damage:
- Inspect the vehicle for water stains, mildew, sand or silt under the carpets, floor mats, headliner cloth and behind the dashboard.
- Check for recently shampooed carpet.
- Inspect the interior upholstery and door panels for fading.
- Check for rust on screws in the console or areas where water normally doesn’t reach.
- Check for mud or grit in the spare tire compartment, alternator crevices, behind wiring harnesses, around the small recesses of starter motors, power steering pumps and relays.
- Check inside the seatbelt retractors by pulling the seatbelt all the way out and inspect for moisture, mildew or grime.
- Check door speakers as they will often be damaged due to flooding.
- Ask about the vehicle’s history. Ask whether it was in any accidents or floods.
- Inspect the title and ownership papers for any potential or questionable salvage fraud.
- Conduct a title search of the vehicle.
- Look under the hood for signs of oxidation. Pull back rubber boots around electrical and mechanical connections for these indicators:
- Ferrous materials will show signs of rust
- Copper will show a green patina
- Aluminum and alloys will have a white powder and pitting
- Trust your instincts: If you don’t like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away.
Be additionally advised also that caution and suitable personal protective gear are a must for your staff during repairs to a contaminated vehicle that has been immersed in a toxic stew of hazardous chemicals and illness-inducing biological waste. Tow truck drivers and technicians run the risk of being exposed to caustic poisons and infectious diseases such as sepsis, skin disorders and respiratory illnesses.
These warnings and preventive measures are provided by CCAR:
• Avoid skin contact with any water or fluids that may be left in the vehicle. Use gloves appropriate for touching anything that has come in contact with waste matter. Nitrile membrane type gloves are especially effective and may be used under work gloves. Dispose of nitrile gloves after each use. Do not reuse.
If working in the flooded area, boots and hip waders will protect feet and legs but should be washed with soap and water and a mixture of bleach and water after each use. Upon completion of work, these should be discarded due to the incidence of E. coli.
If flood water, residue or sludge comes in contact with the skin, wash area immediately with hot water and soap and, in the case of cuts, use a disinfectant.
• When in proximity of or contact with flood water, residue or sludge, avoid wiping hands to mouth, nose or eyes. These areas are primary receptors for bacterial infection. Appropriate eye protection is recommended, as is ongoing appropriate sterilization of eye protection if contact with contaminant is repeated.
• Atomization and inhalation: Past practices have been to use high-pressure air to blow water from recesses and hard-to-get-to spots in attempts to dry out flood vehicles. If the vehicle is suspected to have come from flooded areas, workers should wear full protective clothing and eye protection, and they should be fully informed as to how to wash off afterwards and how to clean and dispose of the clothing (if not reusable).
Use a NIOSH-approved respirator when working with vehicles or parts that may contain water, sludge or residue. Clean and decontaminate respirator filters per manufacturers’ recommendations.
• The most likely places in a flood vehicle for water to stand and blood borne pathogens to exist are: All interior pieces including trim, carpets, jute pads and anything that can harbor bacteria.
There are no known, readily available processes that can return interior “soft” parts back to a clean, hygienic and sanitary condition. Look for water residue and/or leftover sludge, which may remain for long periods of time in enclosed places such as doors, frame rails, rocker panels, gas tanks and quarter panel/trunk floor low areas.
• Workers exposed to flooded vehicles should watch for symptoms of illness (nausea, diarrhea, etc.) and seek medical care as needed.