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Flood and Water Damaged Vehicle Repairs

Flood and Water Damaged Vehicle Repairs

Your Vehicle has been damaged by flood or water, what should you do?

This is a guide to the type of repairs a flood affected vehicle is likely to require. It also outlines the possible longer term effects inundation can have on a motor vehicle.

It is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all vehicle components, rather it is intended to provide guidance about the most commonly affected parts.

Insured – If your vehicle is insured, we strongly recommend your first action should be contacting your insurer for specific advice about what you need to do next.

  • Do I have the right to select the auto body shop that will repair my car?
    Yes. The repair shop choice is always up to you!
  • What if the insurance company suggests a particular body shop or shops?
    The choice is still yours; do some research before accepting their suggestion.
  • What about the lifetime warranty from the insurance company?
    The warranty provided by the insurance company is nothing more than a case of the insurance company holding their network body shops accountable. One of the criteria for an auto body shop to be part of any insurance company network is that the shop provide a lifetime warranty.
  • Will I have to pay additional out-of-pocket costs if I have my repairs done outside the network?
    No. The majority of all body shops will do repairs for prevailing competitive rates.
  • So why do insurance companies have network auto body shops?
    One legitimate reason is that it could speed up the repair process. Certain insurance companies allow their network shops to begin repairs as soon as they receive an assignment. But most require approval from a file reviewer before the shop can begin repairs. In the first example the repair is expedited, in the second it is not. Secondly, most insurance companies have been able to reduce staff and claim handling costs by establishing a direct repair network.
  • Do I need to get more than one estimate?
    No. There are no requirements in Utah to get multiple estimates. Submit the estimate from the auto body repair shop of your choice. The shop will negotiate with the insurance company to achieve a quality repair at a fair price.
    What if the insurance estimate is lower than the shop I would like to use?
    It’s no problem. Provide your body shop with a copy of the insurance estimate and they will negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf.
  • Who pays the repair bill?
    You must arrange for payment. Ultimately the vehicle owner is responsible for the cost of all repairs they have authorized.
  • If not from the insurance, then how do I go about selecting a body shop?
    Family and friends are the number one source outside the insurance company. Another good choice is to ask your local car dealer or someone who works in the automotive industry such as a parts store or a paint supplier. All of these sources have one thing in common—Quality Repairs.
  • What if I don’t want aftermarket parts on my car?
    You will need to read your insurance policy. Many companies stipulate the use of such parts.
  • But what if they don’t fit or hold up properly?
    This is where your choice of an auto body shop becomes critical. They have the expertise to determine if a part is inferior. A close visual inspection should be done, followed by test fitting the part on your vehicle. If the part or parts don’t fit as well as you original parts then the repair shop will need to contact the insurance company. If requested, they will pay for parts that do fit properly. As far as warranty on aftermarket parts most insurance companies offer a lifetime warranty on these parts.
  • What about used parts?
    The majority of all insurance companies call for the use of used parts. Poor fit is rarely a problem with used parts because they are OEM parts that have been removed from a donor vehicle. The bigger concerns are excessive paint build, rust or previous poor quality repairs that may be hidden under a repaint. Once again, your body shop is the key player. They are the experts who need to make sure that all parts used in your repair are of equal quality to what was taken off of your car.
  • What if I am not satisfied with my repair job?
    You need to return it to your shop right away. Most quality shops want to get the repairs done right. Their reputation is on the line with every repair.
  • Can you save my deductible?
    An honest repair shop will always say no. If a shop conspires with you to “bury the deductible” this constitutes insurance fraud. Insurance companies are very experienced in estimating repair costs, they aren’t easily fooled by an inflated repair estimate. The only alternative left to reduce the cost is to “short-cut” the repair. This could leave you with a poorly repaired vehicle with a potential for diminished value or worse yet, an unsafe vehicle. Remember, a shop that will cheat the insurance company could also be inclined to cheat the consumer.
  • Am I entitled to a rental car?
    If the accident was not your fault and the responsible party has accepted liability then they are required to provide you with reasonable transportation while your car is being repaired. If you are going through your own insurance then you will need to verify if you have rental coverage on your policy in order to be entitled to a rental car.

Uninsured – If your vehicle is uninsured or not insured for this type of damage, you will need to decide on the best course of action for your particular circumstance. You may need professional advice / assistance.

Uneconomical repairs

It is important to note that many vehicles that have been substantially inundated will be uneconomical to repair. As a guide, vehicles that have been immersed to a point where water has entered the interior are likely to fall into this category, though each case needs to be judged on its own merits.

If water has reached or covered the dash, the vehicle will almost certainly be beyond economical repair. Be aware though that the full extent of damage and required repairs may only become evident over time.

Salt water is very aggressive and causes much greater damage, has more long term implications than fresh water and is very much harder to deal with. However silt, mud and other material carried by fresh water can be difficult to remove and will increase repair difficulty and costs.

If your car has been flooded

Never attempt to start or drive a flooded vehicle until a thorough inspection and cleaning has been performed and any necessary repairs have been carried out.

Before attempting to start or drive a flooded vehicle:

  • Always check for debris in the engine compartment and under body, even if the water doesn’t appear to have been very high.
  • Also be aware that animals, reptiles and insects may have taken refuge in vehicles.
  • Silt and mud can also carry contaminants that can cause infection.

Many of the checks listed below require an advanced level of mechanical understanding and may well be beyond the scope of a motorist’s DIY skills. As with any maintenance work on a vehicle, it’s important for your safety to only undertake work within your capabilities.

  • Determining if a vehicle can be salvaged
  • Electrical components
  • Batteries
  • Engines, transmissions and final drives
  • Manual transmissions
  • Automatic transmissions
  • Clutches
  • Final drives
  • Wheel bearings
  • Steering systems
  • Fuel systems
  • Brake systems
  • Body structure
  • Interior fittings and trims
  • Safety systems
  • Lighting systems



Determining if a vehicle can be salvaged

Any vehicle can be repaired if enough time and money is spent on it. However for the average car there are some definite limitations on the extent of repairs that can be carried out before the task becomes uneconomical.

  • A realistic assessment of the vehicle’s value, condition and the likely cost of repairs therefore needs to be carried out.
  • In most cases, if the water level has exceeded the lower edges of the doors and has made its way into the interior, it’s questionable if the vehicle will be economical to repair.
  • If the inundation is due to salt water, and it’s reached any more than about floor height, it will almost certainly be unviable to repair.

However for many people, in the short term at least, a wet car that runs and is safe to drive will be better than no car at all.

  1. Start by checking oils for contamination
    If you find that the levels appear very high i.e. engines, transmissions and diffs appear to be over-full, there is a fair chance that water has entered. This is because oil floats on water. Note also that there may be no obvious sign of water in the oils.
  2. Check for debris and in the vehicle compartments
    If there is nothing to suggest that water has entered mechanical components, have a general look around for debris that may have become trapped in the engine compartment and under body, and remove it as required. Watch also for wildlife that may have taken refuge in the vehicle, particularly in the cam belt area, and remove as necessary.
  3. Test the engine and brakes
    If the engine can safely be started, try a short drive, test the brakes (at low speed first) and look and listen for any abnormalities. If nothing is evident, it’s probably okay to drive, however we recommend that you have it checked over by a mechanic.

If there is evidence that water has entered any of the vehicle’s components, the following information will guide you through the steps necessary to resolve the problem.

Electrical components

Immediate issues

Starters, alternators, wiper, window and other motors will rarely work immediately after being submerged. Sometimes they will begin working after they have dried out, however dismantling and cleaning or replacement may be necessary.

Electronic units and computers may be damaged by fresh water immersion however in some cases the components will operate satisfactorily after drying. Engine and power train control computers located in engine compartments are usually sealed and are therefore less likely to be damaged than those located in the passenger compartment. Salt water affected components are likely to be unrecoverable.

Long term issues

Electrical connections are prone to corrosion after immersion. This may not produce immediate problems however longer term reliability issues may develop. If possible separate electrical connectors and spray with a good quality water dispersant to provide protection against corrosion.

Repair of electrical equipment immersed in salt water may be impractical.


Unless the battery is sealed it’s unlikely to survive being immersed. A replacement battery will most probably be required.

Engines, transmissions and final drives

The likelihood of damage to mechanical components depends on the type of water involved, the length of time submerged and how quickly the components were treated afterwards.

Engines that have been immersed in fresh water and treated quickly afterwards are likely to survive fairly well.

  • Drain contaminated oil and replace.
  • It’s probably also worth replacing the oil filter at this point.
  • Remove spark plugs and turn engine by hand to remove any water from cylinders. For diesel engines, please refer to a mechanic.
  • Check manifolds, air cleaners and ducting for water and drain if necessary before attempting to start the engine.
  • For engines with timing belts check to ensure silt, debris and animals / reptiles haven’t found their way inside timing belt covers. This could derail a timing belt and cause extensive engine damage.
  • Reassemble, start and run the engine as soon as possible to assist in the drying out process. Warning: Attend to the transmission before starting the engine.
  • Clean mud and silt from mechanical components by hosing. High pressure water blasters are effective for this purpose however they should not be used to clean radiators, air conditioning condensers or other fragile components.

When checking oil levels and contamination with the engine’s dipstick be aware that oil floats on water. Very over-full readings indicate the possibility of water contamination, even if there is no evidence of water on the dip stick.

Salt water affected engines are unlikely to be salvageable.

Manual transmissions

  • Drain contaminated oil and refill as soon as possible. Manual gearboxes immersed in salt water may not be salvageable.

Warning: Do not start the engine before attending to the transmission.

Automatic transmissions

Water causes de-lamination of clutch plates and bands. This may not be evident immediately, however flooded automatic transmissions are likely to require overhaul. The timeframe will depend on the amount of water, the extent of the exposure and the type of water involved.

When checking oil levels and contamination with the transmission’s dipstick be aware that oil floats on water. Very over-full readings can indicate the possibility of water contamination, even if there is no evidence of water on the dip stick.

Note that some automatic transmissions have a filler plug in the side of the transmission rather than a dip stick. It could be very much harder to check these for water contamination.

Warning: Do not start the engine before attending to the transmission.


Clutches can become rusted onto flywheels after being wet. The clutch pedal operation will feel normal but you will not be able to select or change gears with the engine running.

Bringing the engine to full operating temperature will sometimes free the clutch. However if it refuses to release you should seek professional assistance.

Final drives

Remove filler plugs and check for the presence of water. An overfull diff could be an indication of water contamination. Drain and refill with correct oil. Differentials immersed in salt water may not be salvageable.

Wheel bearings

Water entry into wheel bearings will severely shorten their lives. Some wheel bearings are sealed and therefore cannot be cleaned and dried. Serviceable wheel bearings should be cleaned, inspected and repacked with appropriate grease. Replace hub seals as well as these are probably the cause of water entry.

Steering systems

Drain and refill power steering systems if contaminated.

Fuel systems

Water in fuel will damage in-tank pumps so no attempt should be made to start a vehicle until you can verify that there is no water in the tank.

  • If water is present, drain and replace the fuel. Avoid ethanol fuels where water may be present as only a small amount of water is needed to cause the ethanol to drop out of suspension.
  • Diesel fuel systems are very sensitive to water contamination so extra care is needed to ensure there is no water in the system. Check water traps (if fitted) regularly.
  • It would be wise to replace fuel filters in both petrol and diesel powered vehicles.
  • Check air cleaners, duct work and manifolds for water and drain if necessary. Dry air cleaner elements or replace if contaminated with mud or silt.

Brake systems

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs moisture. Water contaminated brake fluid has a low boiling point which can cause rapid and unexpected loss of brakes under normal operating conditions.

  • Water contaminated brake fluid will also increase the risk of internal corrosion. Brake fluid must be flushed and replaced after any level of immersion.
  • Surface rust may form on brake discs and drums. However this is not generally a serious problem and will be worn off during the first few applications of the brakes.
  • Brake linings / pads may rust onto drums / discs if the hand brake was applied during the immersion. This will feel like the hand brake is jammed on, though in most cases it will free itself once the vehicle is driven. If it will not free itself, dismantling will be required.

Body structure

Clean mud and silt from the body as far as possible. Ensure body drain holes are clear to allow any water trapped inside panels to escape. Be aware that water immersion may result in long term rust problems.

Interior fittings and trims

It may be necessary to remove seats, carpets and trims to facilitate proper cleaning and drying. Dry the interior by opening doors and allowing air circulation to evaporate the water.

Note that many pressed metal components used inside vehicle cabins are not painted or have only thin protective coatings. This is particularly true of seat and under dash components. These may begin to rust after exposure to water. A protective spray of water dispersant may help, though many of these components will be difficult to access.

The wet smell may be almost impossible to totally remove from the vehicle’s interior, even after cleaning.

Safety systems

Safety systems such as airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners may be adversely affected by water immersion.

  • Before the vehicle is put back into service it is strongly recommended that such systems be checked and tested by a mechanic with the right test equipment.
  • This will usually mean a visit to the dealer for the make involved.

Seat belt latches and retractors may not operate after immersion.

  • Seat belts will need to be replaced as they are not repairable.
  • Also be aware that dirt in the webbing of seatbelts can eventually weaken the webbing.
  • These comments apply equally to child restraints.

Lighting systems

Check operation of all lights before using the vehicle. It may be necessary to clean water, dirt and mud from inside light assemblies.

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