Provenance the Web Magazine
ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.2 No.2 Spring 1997

Come Hell or High Water: Dealing with Office Floods

- By Guy Robertson - disaster planning consultant and archivist

reprinted with permission from Canadian Insurance a Stone & Cox publication © 1997 -- photos courtesy of Munter's Moisture Control and Provenance

buildings in flood waters fr. Munter's Floods wreak havoc. Big floods destroy communities and displace populations. The headlines expand as the waters rise. Small floods and leaks get little media attention, but even a few drops of water can cause substantial damage in an office. Sophisticated information systems are particularly vulnerable to moisture, and damp wiring poses a risk to personnel. How can you protect yourself and your office from leaks and floods?

The first step is a risk analysis for your facilities. It is reasonable to assume that almost every office in North America is exposed to flooding and moisture damage. Many offices have a history of floods. The most common sources are leaky structural components and plumbing. As buildings age, their roofs, eaves, insulation and pipes wear out. Sinks and toilets crack. Drains clog or fall apart from heavy water flows. When damage occurs to any building component designed to conduct or deflect water, there is an increased risk of flooding.

Another common cause of water damage is human carelessness. People leave windows open during rain storms, forget to turn off faucets, and accidently activate sprinkler systems. In work areas containing indoor plants, an office gardener will inadvertently water the hard drive or fax machine resting beside a potted fern.

People will also ignore the warning signs of floods and moisture damage. The spreading stains on the wall or ceiling, the condensation in a stairwell, the nasty odour from a closet or vent: these are classic signs of water in the wrong place. But many office workers assume that the problem is not their concern or already looked after by the building superintendent. Hence what begins as a small, easily remedied leak leads to costly structural deterioration.

"In too many cases, moisture specialists are called in after a lot of preventable damage has occurred," says Alan Reyno, a project manager at On Side Restoration Services in Burnaby, B.C. "A minor trickle turns into a rush of water. Rot sets in, and the structure may become unsafe. Then the lawyers get involved. If somebody had fixed the leak when it first became obvious, the inconvenience and cost of repairs would be much less."

Less common but often very destructive are environmental disasters such as the floods that annually submerge hundreds of square miles of the Prairies, and the recent massive flooding in Quebec. Climatologists and other environmental scientists note that such events are becoming more frequent across Canada. Office and property managers should determine whether their facilities are at risk from any body of water including rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Does the river that flows past your building swell during spring or summer? How old is the dam or dyke in your area? Does your area have a history of floods from a particular body of water? If so, the risk to your office could be considerable.

Flooding is also a consequence of other disasters. For example, earthquakes cause pipes to burst and tanks to rupture. High winds force water through broken windows. Ironically, a fire can lead to more damage caused by the firefighters' hoses than smoke and flames.

fire engine & crew "Firefighters work with water under high pressure," says Michael McGee, a U.S. Navy- trained security consultant in Vancouver. "A firefighter's job is to douse a blaze. You can't expect the character with the hose to avoid soaking your servers and terminals when a fire endangers human life or threatens to destroy an entire office. Nor can you expect a sprinkler system to discriminate between in-force policy files and scrap paper. Water damage is almost inevitable during and after an office fire."

The next step is to establish a preventative maintenance program (PMP) based on the findings of your risk analysis. PMPs include regular inspections of office plumbing and wiring, windows, skylights, doors, and roofing. Standard wear and tear to such fixtures can create tiny openings for water to enter. Occasionally repairs or replacement of fixtures are necessary, but the cost of a new seal for window frame is much less expensive than clean-up and restoration after a flood.

Office workers should be encouraged to report any pooling of water, especially in washrooms, cafeterias, and parking lots. Any suspected water damage on walls and ceilings should be carefully noted.

"Wall and ceiling stains can be deceptive," says Alan Reyno. "At first they're small. Nobody pays them much attention. Then they start to grow, very slowly. What office managers should remember is that what happens on the visible surface of a wall is not necessarily an indication of what's going on inside the wall cavity. A small amount of moisture in a confined, dark space is a perfect breeding ground for various kinds of micro-organisms that can thrive on a diet of wet dust and drywall. Wall cavities can quickly become small ecosystems. The moisture damage in the cavity eventually causes deterioration of the visible surface, and suddenly you see large-scale bloating of paint. Occasionally the surface simply disintegrates."

Reyno notes that the age of a building is not always a causitive factor in moisture damage.

"If a new building has been constructed during a rainy period," he says, "and the construction crew hasn't protected the building material and partially-built structure and from the damp weather, you will sometimes see interior and exterior damage in less than a year. Unfortunately the colonies of micro-organisms can move in at the same time as the human tenants."

Janitors and property managers are usually responsible for an office PMP. They should arrange for the services of a plumber, elecrician or other contractor if they notice any sign of moisture damage. Better sooner than later: the longer it takes to solve the problem, the greater the damage and expenses.

A PMP cannot necessarily protect your office from an environmental disaster such as a regional flood, but your risk analysis will make you aware of the potential for it. If you cannot protect your office building from rising floodwaters, at least you can protect one of your most valuable assets: your information.

Water has been the most serious threat to information media since the invention of writing. Nowadays pipes burst and moisture seeps through walls, soaking shelves full of valuable files and documents. Or the "foolproof" sprinkler system activates without warning or due cause, drenching an entire collection of claims files. Or the roof leaks above an archive. Or a courier forgets to close the outside door to the file room just before the worst rain storm of the year. With their large records centres and massive collections of paper, insurers are badly exposed. Despite the insurance industry's attempts to decrease the use of paper, it remains the most common medium for business operations.

"Many firms store their archives and semi-active paper off-site in a safe warehouse," says Shawn Clarkin, president of Archibald Moving and Storage in Burnaby, B.C. " An insurer needs document storage space that is secure and regularly inspected for moisture."

Clarkin's warehouses are inspected daily for leaks, condensation and airflow problems.

"There's always moisture in the air," he says, "but with good air flow, it won't collect on any surface. The ventilation and general maintenance of a warehouse may be good, but I think that the daily inspection of storage space is necessary. When you store hundreds of tons of vital records, you can't be too careful."

Electronic media such as computer tapes and disks are even more fragile than paper, and require special facilities for long-term storage. Ideally electronic media should be stored in a space with fully controlled and monitored heat, dust and humidity levels, and a minimal moisture risk.

"You can partially restore tapes and disks that have been under water," says Ken Nagel of Proact Systems in Vancouver, "but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to recover all of your data. To make sure that data is recoverable, you should produce back-ups and store them in a secure location off-site. Too often IS managers keep their back-ups on site, in the same room--and sometimes in the same rack-- that they store their current operations media. A flood or fire hits that room, and the back-ups are destroyed at the same time as the current media. The loss of data is often irrevocable and always expensive. Secure off-site storage of regularly produced back-ups is the best way to reduce the risk."

Nagel believes that back-up production and storage procedures should be routine in every IS department, and clearly outlined in systems documentation.

"You can't assume that IS staff will automatically back up even the most vital data unless it's a regular and fully documented procedure," he says. "Even then you should check to make sure that the IS staff are taking the task seriously. It's hard to stay excited about a regular back-up process. But a fire or flood is very exciting, and the result is often major data loss."

It is also important to protect IS documentation itself from flooding. Many IS departments contain small libraries of manuals and other documents that describe the configuration and operations of the company's computer systems. It is not easy to replace this documentation, and inconvenient to produce back-up paper copies. The solution for many IS departments is to produce and update their documentation on disk, and store a back-up disk off-site.

No preventative program is perfect. Sometimes an office flood is unavoidable. Fast treatment of wet fixtures and equipment is necessary to avert further damage and the growth of mould. To facilitate the quick response of a clean-up crew, it is advisable to establish a strategic alliance with a moisture control vendor. In many cases, basic janitorial service is not sufficient to dry out wall cavities and sub-floors. Nor do janitors have the pumps and dehumidifiers necessary to remove moisture. Vendors such as On Side Restoration Services and Munters Moisture Control have the equipment and experience to deal with leaks and floods of all kinds.

Your strategic alliance with a vendor should involve a written agreement that states that a clean-up crew will arrive as soon as possible at your office to deal with any moisture problem. The agreement should include the vendor's fee schedule. You can provide the vendor with a description of your office and its contents, and mention any past leaks or floods. You can also invite the vendor to inspect your office in order to discover any potential trouble spots. Most vendors are willing to set up an alliance at no cost; payment is due only in the event that your office needs a clean-up.

In every office the risk of flooding remains constant. If predictions of global warming are true, and changes in weather patterns result in higher temperatures and more precipitation, then it is likely that water damage in offices will become even more common. You can prepare yourself with an effective an risk analysis, PMP, and strategic alliance, or you can ignore the risk and hope that your office stays dry. Just remember that you can't rescue data with a mop.

- By Guy Robertson - disaster planning consultant and archivist

reprinted with permission from Canadian Insurance a Stone and Cox publication © 1997

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