It was just three nights before we were headed to NJ for our week-long Christmas vacation. As my daughter crept across the floor to her bed in darkness, she cried out: “Oh, no! I stepped in that wet spot again!” (“What wet spot? What does she mean, again?”) Maybe she’d spilled something? A roof leak from all that wet snow, perhaps? When I ran into investigate, my feet sunk into the sodden carpet, water squishing between my toes. This was no toppled-over Hydroflask. We had a Big Problem, and if we didn’t fix it before we left, we’d surely find a caved-in ceiling upon our return.
I threw down some old towels and stamped hard, hoping for a quick fix. Moments later, when I removed them to see if they did the trick, my forearms ached from lifting the dank-smelling, dripping mess. Towels were clearly no match for this fast-spreading swamp. After a fitful sleep, I called Gary, our long-time plumber and neighbor, who responded quickly to my call. But he was as stumped as I was, given that the floor and two walls surrounding the hot water baseboard heating were perfectly dry, as were the ceilings above and below.
So I called a few engineer friends for their ideas, all of whom were equally mystified. One such engineer, another friend and neighbor, offered to keep watch while we were away, using a Shop-vac and dehumidifier to try to ward away the wetness. Meanwhile, I turned to a local parents’ FaceBook group to crowdsource my dilemma. “It has to be an ice dam!” most advised, with many generously offering tools and labor. But since the gutters were clear, and all snow and from the roof had melted away days before, we were pretty sure this well-meaning advice was off the mark.
We cut our vacation short to take advantage of the first possible appointment with the insurance adjustor. Surely he would find the source of water! After a cursory look around with his nifty moisture meter, he admitted to being baffled. I would have to find the source of the water myself, he said, before they could do any kind of remediation. That meant removing the soaked carpet and pad, which their contractor would not do unless we found the source of the water. Wait, what????
The owner of our local carpet center kindly agreed to stop to have a look. As my daughter and I pushed a heavy bureau aside to make accessing the carpet easier, I knelt down to run my fingers under the newly-exposed pipes, and voila! We had our answer: A tiny pinhole leak had been slowly but steadily streaming water, inexplicably leaving the carpet around it bone-dry.
We still don’t know the true extent of the damage caused by the water that sat for two weeks, or what the insurance company will agree to pay for. But at least we’ve discovered the source of the problem that was occupying way too much space in my head for weeks. As I reflect on this saga that put a real damper (pun intended) on our holidays, I learned many lessons along the way that I can use to help diagnose and solve other conundrums in the future. I hope you can, too.
- Love thy neighbors. And if you don’t know them quite well enough to actually love them, show them how much you appreciate their good deeds when they spring into action on your behalf. Send a thank-you card, bring over a cake or cookies, invite them to dinner, send them a gift card, or offer to do in return something that you know they will appreciate. The latter can be tricky, as neighbors will often insist that no quid pro quo is needed. The more specific your offer, the more likely they will take you up on it. Examples: Pet sitting, babysitting, providing needed rides, shoveling, raking, etc. And of course, you don’t have to wait until someone does a good deed for you to make any of these neighborly gestures.
- Learn to ask for, and accept, help. In my case, I first had to appeal to our plumber’s office manager to have him make an emergency call on a nonworking weekend. Then, once the plumber came up empty, I wasn’t sure who to ask for help. I thought that asking for guidance from people who tend to think logically and clearly (e.g. engineers and designers), might help me eliminate certain variables and lead me down the right path. When our friend and neighbor Bill offered to check in every day we were away, my first impulse was to resist the ridiculously generous offer, until I realized that he earnestly wanted to help, and that I had little choice if I wanted to see our ceiling intact when we returned. (I am still pondering what appropriate expression gratitude would be for his largesse.)
- Don’t give into magical thinking if you want to solve a problem. When we ruled out heating pipes and ice dams, I talked myself into believing that whatever was causing the water would go away on its own if we just kept vacuuming. Had I thought about it more clearly, I would have made more of an effort to feel all of the pipes around the room rather than erroneously concluding that dry carpet meant the absence of dripping. It hadn’t occurred to me that a stream of water could divert itself from the area of rug closest to it, leaving it dry, while making a mess farther away. (And I do admit to giving a tiny bit of credence to those who suggested ghosts, since nothing else was making any sense!) I wish I had been more persistent in validating assumptions with evidence that would have clearly supported or refuted my hypothesis, rather than throwing up my hands and hoping it would all somehow turn out okay.
- Do your due diligence. Learn how the whole process works (in this case, reporting my first insurance claim in 36 years). I’m fortunate that I sold property and casualty insurance for one company and then acted as a claims handler for another one early in my career, so I have a pretty good idea how insurance companies work. Research your policy or contract and conduct external searches as needed to make sure you understand the laws and your rights, which vary by state. Understanding the Ts and Cs related to any contract, such as a non-disclosure agreement, can save you much hassle (and money) later on. If needed, have a knowledgeable colleague or attorney do a quick review to make sure you’re protected. This is one case where “assuming good intentions” may not be the best advice.
- Develop relationships with everyone in your supply chain, know their roles and find out how, exactly, they all connect. I spoke first with the insurance adjustor who would be initiating my claim, and made sure I had a way to reach her directly. Then I dealt with a cast of characters whose connection to each other should have been clearer to me, had I taken the time to ask the right questions at the outset. (There was the assigned contractor, who hired the remediation company, whose project manager assigned a crew to start removing the sodden carpet, the asbestos monitoring company, the floor refinishing place, the carpet supplier, etc. It was never entirely clear who was “masterminding” the project, other than me.) Don’t be reluctant to check in when you’re unsure who’s doing what next, and when. Had I not done so at various junctures, the process would have taken far longer. Having existing relationships with my plumber, local carpet guy and neighbor made all the difference in solving the initial problem as quickly as possible.
- Perform routine maintenance. Pinhole leaks announce their presence with the spraying of water, so detecting them before they become a problem is almost impossible. But performing routine maintenance elsewhere can reap big dividends later. One activity that I routinely set aside time for: Client check-ins, whether via phone, email or in-person. This might be to see how a recent consulting or training intervention is (or is not) working, to explore their anticipated needs, or more typically, it’s simply to catch up and see how they’re doing. If, during the course of conversation, I detect client disengagement or disinterest, I try to discover what might be wrong so we can make the necessary remediation before it’s too late.
In time, my kids and I will look back on this waterlogged episode as a mere hiccup in what otherwise was a truly joyous holiday season. We maintained perspective by reflecting on the growing number of people in our own country without a roof over their heads, no money to pay for the needed repairs or the required deductibles, and no family or neighbors to turn to in times of need. Even though I didn’t feel very lucky at the time, looking back, I realize how much I learned and how incredibly rich I feel as a result.
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