As the floodwaters recede across the Gulf Coast followingHurricane Harvey, the arduous process of claimsinvestigation begins to unfold. CAT adjusters from across thecountry are travelling to the impacted areas to assess propertylosses and assist insurance carriers in reaching accurate settlements.

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For many adjusters, one of the most difficult propertycomponents to assess is the HVAC system. HVAC equipment is simplytoo expensive to indiscriminately write replacement estimates, andaccurate pricing and availability is also difficult for adjustersto access. Moreover, determining if the equipment is damaged isitself a difficult task – it's not always a matter of just turningon the system to determine whether or not it works. Many of theproperties are still without power, and once restored, diagnosismay prove difficult without first determining the full extent ofpotential damages.

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The first step in this evaluation process is to perform a visualinspection to determine how high the water rose and what componentsmay be affected.

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Related: HVAC compressor damage: Lightning or wear &tear?

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air conditioning condensing unit

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This illustration depicts the amount of water that canaccumulate before affecting a ground-mounted condensing unit.(Photo: HVACi)

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Outdoor equipment inspection

The first component to be assessed for damage is the outdoorcondensing unit, typically located on the ground or on the roof ofthe property. If the unit is located on the roof, it is unlikelythat it suffered any damage from floodwaters, although it shouldstill be checked for any additional storm damage.

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Condensing units are designed to withstand the elements, butmuddy, rushing floodwaters can impact ground-mounted systems andlead to repair actions ranging from a simple coil cleaning to afull system replacement. The water can typically rise to thecompressor terminals before causing significant damage, as seen inthe illustration here.

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When assessing the outdoor condensing unit, here are a fewthings to look for:

  1. Check for dirt and debris stuck in the condenser coil fins.Where the debris ends typically indicates how high the floodwatersrose on the unit.
  2. Water lines on the system's back panel, its electricalcompartment, or an adjacent building wall also provide clues as tohow much of the condensing unit was exposed.
  3. Based on how high the water rose, determine which componentsthe water may have compromised, such as the compressor, electricalcompartment and fan motor.
  4. Look to see if the condensing unit shifted on the pad. Ifshifting did occur, check the copper lineset for any breaks orkinks. A breached lineset may have allowed contaminates to enterthe refrigerant loop, which could damage the compressor and othercomponents.

Related: Know these covered losses and exclusions after acollapse

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Water line on an air conditioning condensing systemWater line on condensing unit indicating how high thefloodwaters rose. (Photo: HVACi)

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Indoor equipment inspection

Depending on the type of HVAC system, an indoor furnace or airhandler may also be present. The location and orientation of theindoor equipment will influence the amount of damage the unitsustained. A horizontal furnace mounted in the crawlspace istypically more vulnerable to water damage than a vertical furnacein a lower floor utility closet or basement (unless the basementwas completely flooded). Furnaces or air handlers mounted in theattic or on a second floor, on the other hand, may have no damagewhatsoever.

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Horizontal furnace systemHow various waterlevels can impact a horizontally-mounted furnace in a crawlspace.(Photo: HVACi)

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Water levels in horizontal systems

A horizontal furnace or air handler in a crawlspace isparticularly susceptible to water damage. The amount of water thatcan inundate the crawlspace before impacting the equipment dependson how high the system is mounted (sometimes dictated by buildingcode) above the ground. Once the water reaches the system, however,it will likely suffer significant damage, as seen in theillustration here.

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Related: Texas' No. 1 homeowners' insurer responds toHarvey, offers tips

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Vertical furnace system

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How a vertically-mounted furnace can be affected byfloodwaters. (Photo: HVACi)

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Vertically mounted units

A vertically mounted furnace may be more protected from waterdamage. This orientation will not typically sustain significantdamage until the water reaches the burner compartment (found in themiddle of the unit, several inches above ground level), as seen inthe illustration here.

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Here are a few things to look for when assessing the indoorequipment for floodwater damage:

  1. Look for a water line on the outside of the furnace/airhandler, on rigid ductwork or on an adjacent wall.
  2. Check the control board for water damage. Often (depending onwhen it was printed), the board's writing will “bleed” when exposedto water, providing a useful clue in estimating the water'sreach.
  3. Examine any sheet metal ductwork for premature rusting orcorrosion.
  4. Flex ductwork will sag and duct board will swell after gettingwet, indicating floodwater contact.
  5. The insulation on the inside of the blower compartment willoften be damaged by the water.

Related: Keys to identifying hail damage to HVAC condensercoils

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Water line on furnace shows water levels from Hurricane HarveyWater line on furnace indicating how high thefloodwaters rose. (Photo: HVACi)

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Once you have determined (both indoor and outdoor) how muchwater damage an HVAC system sustained, you can begin the process ofestablishing a proper scope of repairs. It is important to keep inmind that even in severe flood scenarios it is rare that a fullsystem replacement is necessary. In many cases, individualcomponents can be replaced and systems can be cleaned to achievepre-loss condition. Remember, a portion of the system (or in thecase of packaged units, the full system) may be located high enoughon the property to avoid the floodwaters, and could thussignificantly influence the required scope of repairs.

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For information on wind and lightning damage accompanyinghurricane claims, you can access our adjuster toolkit for hurricane claims. You canalso review a labeled split system diagram and a labeled packaged unit diagram, to assist inidentifying components and their susceptibility to floodwaterdamage.

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Matt Livingston is the director of customer education forHVAC Investigators ([email protected]), a leaderin independent assessments of HVAC and refrigeration claims forinsurance carriers. He is responsible for providing continuingeducation to insurance professionals on various heating and airconditioning topics and is also responsible for development offield diagnosis best practices. He is a frequent author andspeaker on this topic, and holds an EPA 608 UniversalCertification.

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