Among the nightmares that give insurance adjusters sleepless nights is the selection of a restoration company that can perform contents cleaning and repair.

“Contents pros,” as they are often called today, are a relatively new phenomenon historically speaking. In days gone by, it was tacitly agreed that after a fire or flood, water-drenched or smoke-impregnated items were simply loaded onto a truck and taken to a waste disposal site.

But with the coming of the contents pros, whose motto is “restore not replace,” insurance companies discovered that they were saving massive amounts of capital by having these specialists intervene before many items were discarded.

Using everything from cotton swabs and toothbrushes, to ultrasonics and hydroxyl generators, well-trained teams repeatedly proved their worth. The problem came when untrained, ill-equipped workers claimed to have the same skill sets and expertise. Adjusters simply could not tell the difference until it was too late.

For example, if the average onlooker saw restoration staff members shrink-wrapping an antique wooden table before transporting it to a storage facility, he might think nothing of it. But a trained professional would point out that shrink-wrap does what it is created to do — it shrinks, and as it shrinks, it tightens. Eventually, it can actually pull the joints of the furniture apart, thereby causing more repairs, not less.

When frontline personnel are seen carefully stacking bottles of wine in the driveway of the home, then placing them in boxes tightly enough so there is no danger of a bottle falling over, it may look pretty good to the casual observer until someone who has received a little training reminds the “rookies” that even if the wine inside the bottles is totally intact, if the label on the bottle is damaged, it can reduce the value of the wine by half! Just the label! Direct sunlight and heat (as found on a driveway) can also turn fine wine into a $1000-bottle of vinegar.

So, how can an adjuster know when a contents crew knows what it is doing? No individual contents professional knows everything, but those who are trained have a pretty good idea of where to find the answers.

Typical questions to ask might be, “What sort of storage facility do you have?” That is a simple one.

If the answer is, “We use onsite storage pods in order to keep everything near the site,” that may sound pretty good — until one realizes that wet contents, stored in a hot, humid, metal storage unit will create mold in a phenomenally short amount of time.

In the case of the wine, an adjuster might ask, “At what temperature will you store the bottles at your facility?”

Before asking the question, it is important to ask the owner of the wine collection for the optimal storage temperature. If the contents manager says, “Well, we’ll keep them at room temperature in the warehouse,” there may be a serious problem (even though it may not sound all that bad).

A recent response was, “In such cases we create a small chamber that is temperature controlled, but we always ask the insured about the proper storage…” The manager showed a glimmer of competence and a willingness to find answers from a knowledgeable source. That is the kind of answer that can give an adjuster some peace of mind.

Once an adjuster finds one of these teams, they hold on to them and use them to save money for the insurance company job after job. There was a time when many believed that the time taken to restore damaged items far exceeded the replacement costs, but for more than a decade this myth has been replaced by solid facts.

When an antique Persian rug, valued at $10,000 can be restored at 10 to 20 percent of the replacement cost, it is something an insurance adjuster does not soon forget. When dozens of boxes of smoke and fire-damaged figurines are cleaned and restored in a week instead of a month, at a significant savings to the carrier, it is worth taking a second look at what this new breed of restoration professional can do.

How about fine art? Obviously, fine masterpieces valued in the five- or six-figure level will require special handling by experts, but many contents companies have created relationships with some of the finest art conservation facilities in North America.

One story that has been retold in the industry occurred when an adjuster saw a contents professional picking up flakes of paint from the carpet in front of a painting that had been charred and heated so badly the paint had bubbled and some had broken off, falling to the floor. The contents team member explained that the art conservation center his company worked with had asked that even the flakes be gathered in such situations and placed in a small bag.

Then the pro took pictures of the damaged art with the camera in a cell phone, sent them to the preservation experts and got an estimate for the adjuster. For decades, the contents pros were thought of as “cleaning ladies” who were a necessary evil and slowed the entire restoration process down — now they are considered one of the insurance carriers’ most valued tools.

When knowledgeable contents restoration professionals are on the job, insurance companies almost without exception save money on the job.

Restoration doesn’t stop with melted artworks, antiques, silver collections and fine wine. Hundreds of contents restoration companies have now figured out how to restore electronics (televisions, computers, fax machines, copiers, etc.) Wet electronics used to be considered a total loss — especially when ash, smoke and soot had penetrated the machines.

Today, contents pros are routinely claiming to restore between 80 and 85 percent of water-damaged electronics at between 10 and 30 percent of the cost of replacement. Some business owners and adjusters are skeptical of the results (who wouldn’t be when water is dripping out the bottom of a desktop computer’s tower?)

But for those carriers who want a quick test to see if there is even a modicum of hope in such situations, ask the restoration company owner, “How do you restore a wet computer hard drive that has been exposed to soot and smoke?”

Some answers have ranged from “WD40®” to “baking soda” or “lemon juice,” (none of which have proven effective). But the most successful companies (including one that restored an estimated $4 million last year at a university in Louisiana) use de-ionized water, high pressure spray devices (to flush out impurities) and drying chambers.

In one situation, the contents company owner simply said, “Look, you have 34 water-damaged computers. Give me two of them and I’ll return them in working order within one day. If I can’t, you owe me nothing. If I succeed, then let me have a chance with the rest.”

Perhaps it all boils down to their “track record.” If a company can show that they have repeatedly succeeded, the odds are good that they can succeed for an insurer as well. The old adage, “Trust but verify,” may work for insurance carriers the same way it works for most things in life.

10 Questions to Ask a Contents Restoration Company

So how does an adjuster determine if a contents professional really is an expert? Here are a few key questions to ask:

  1. How long have you been in business?

  2. Is contents restoration your main business?

  3. How many jobs like ours have you done in the past year?

  4. Are you a local business?

  5. Does your company do the work or is it subcontracted?

  6. What kinds of cleaning methods do you use?

  7. What kind of training or certifications does your staff have?

  8. Who is your specialty service provider?

  9. Do you store my contents in a secure, climate controlled location?

  10. What kind of inventory system do you use for contents?

Sources: Chicago Conservation Center, Certified Restoration Dry Cleaners Network, Midwest Restoration Services