ICS Magazine

Weighing Risk vs. Reward

March 8, 2005

Q:I have a customer with a water damage that has a pre-existing mold problem. The insurance company will not pay for mold remediation and they want us to dry out the building. How do I do that without getting into trouble?

A: The answer to your question is rather broad. There are a number of options, ranging from walking away from the job to making sure that you document and disclose as many conversations and discussions as possible, to having well-written disclosures and releases, to modifying your drying procedures.

First of all, if you are not comfortable with your procedures and the client relationship, you need to make a risk management decision. How much risk do you want to accept in order to take on the project? Even with the best-written contract, work-process documentation and state-of-the-art procedures, you are always accepting a certain amount of risk every time you begin a job. The amount of risk is going to vary from project to project. In this case, you may be accepting more risk than you are comfortable with. You may decide to pass on performing these services. The problem is, this scenario is becoming more and more common. If you decide to accept the risk, then there is the matter of managing the risk. I would recommend that if you have not already consulted an attorney about your work authorization and other documents that you do so as soon as possible.

Even though you will not be performing mold remediation, you could still consider following the advice offered by the IICRC S520 Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation chapter on "Communication, Limitations, Complications, Complexities and Constraints." If you approach the drying project as if it were a mold job, with the ultimate limitation that you are leaving the mold, you will have a better chance at successfully drying the building without spreading the mold spores.

Some of the more common problems we are seeing in court cases involving restorers is a lack of documentation about the building, requested services, instructions defining the scope of work, limitations defining the scope of work, relative humidity and moisture content readings, record of customer and adjuster communications, confirming letters of those discussions, and other similar documentation. The purpose of all of this is to maintain good communication, to substantiate what it was that you were asked to do, and to document the services that you did perform. This becomes most appropriate when you are instructed to perform services that may not completely solve the client's problems.

Drying contaminated buildings is different than drying uncontaminated buildings. When drying an area that is or may be contaminated, it is necessary to keep contaminants from escaping into areas that are known or presumed to be uncontaminated. The only effective way to accomplish this is to maintain the area under negative pressure relative to adjacent areas.

To deal appropriately with contaminated (or potentially contaminated) structures, several additional levels of inspection may be required:

  • A thorough building history is necessary to determine if past events are an indicator of possible moisture or microbial problems.
  • A comprehensive inspection for indicators of moisture intrusion or microbial contamination. This may need to extend well beyond the area affected by the water damage. The restorer must look not only for areas that are wet now, but also for areas that show indicators of possibly having been wet in the past.
  • The moisture intrusion inspection may show the need for a contamination inspection, which may be intrusive and involve opening walls, etc. In this case, monitoring of the drying activity must include temperature, relative humidity, moisture content of building materials and containment pressure differential.

    An infrared camera is an excellent tool for rapidly and efficiently locating possible areas of moisture intrusion or accumulation. These cameras record surface temperatures. However, temperature differentials cannot be considered definitive proof that materials are wet, as a number of other factors or conditions affect surface temperatures. Assumptions based on thermography should always be checked with moisture meters to confirm that they are accurate.

    One of the newest innovations in drying is the ability to remotely monitor your drying activity. A data logger can be placed on location to monitor not only relative humidity and temperature, but pressure differential and moisture content of building materials as well. The data logger can be set up to record the desired information at whatever intervals you require. The collected data are then transmitted, again at selected intervals, to your computer via phone line and plotted on a graph. This way, you can monitor the drying progress remotely. In the future you will be able to attach a cell phone module to the data logger, allowing you to dial your office phone without connecting to a land line. This is advantageous when it is inconvenient or impossible to connect otherwise.

    Both of these relatively new products aid in documenting the work product. By utilizing your attorney's skills to prepare the appropriate contracts, performing more-thorough inspections, modifying your drying process and developing a complete documentation program, you can be better prepared to make the appropriate risk-management decisions. There are no risk-free decisions.

    A final word about litigation. It is my opinion that firms that spend more time on thorough inspections and better documentation are the ones that don't see the inside of a courtroom as often. Remember, there is no guarantee. But being better prepared to address challenges is a deterrent to litigation. If someone chooses to sue your firm, you are in a better position to defend yourself against an adverse judgment.