You’ve seen stories of people affected by hurricanes, with their homes and belongings waterlogged. But what do you do when it’s your car that’s flooded? You have inches of mud in the floorboard and trunk, and a water line that reaches your windshield. The smell is awful, getting worse, and your insurance adjuster says it’ll be a week before he can assess your claim.
Mold and corrosion start to set in quickly, and it only takes a few hours for muddy water to infiltrate your engine, leaving you no time to wait for your adjuster. You need to start removing the water and mud immediately. Take plenty of photographs as you go to document the damage for the insurance company.
Do NOT start the car. Doing so with water in the engine, transmission, or fuel line will only make the damage worse.
First, disconnect the battery ground strap. You could destroy something, or injure yourself.
Assess how much of your car was affected. For muddy water, this will be easy. Clean water may be more difficult. Look inside doors, headlights, and taillights, and check for damp carpets and trim. This will help you determine what areas or systems really need to be cleaned.
If the water reached the dash or if in the event of saltwater flood damage, you should probably have the car totaled. The interior can be cleaned and mechanical systems can be dried, but electrical systems can be much more complicated and sensitive to corrosion.
Check your oil and transmission fluid. If you see water drops on your oil dipstick you MUST change your oil and filter before trying your engine. In the case of dirty water, consider removing and cleaning your oil pan as well. Change your oil and filter again in a few hundred miles.
Most late-model vehicles have closed fuel systems and are unlikely to have water in them, but older cars may get water in the fuel system. Siphon some fuel and check for water. If you did get water in your fuel system, you’ll need to have it cleaned professionally. Blow out your fuel line and check the carburetor float bowls. If you vehicle is fuel injected, you’ll need to replace your fuel filter.
Don’t forget components such as wheel bearing and constant velocity joints, which should be cleaned and repacked. If you have a front-wheel drive vehicle with sealed front axle bearings, they cannot be cleaned and re-lubed, and will eventually fail.
If there is any evidence of muddy water, be sure to change your oil, transmission fluid, and other fluids in about a thousand miles.
A note on salvage titles
In most states, a car that has been totaled is issued a salvage title. However, there are states that will issue a new, clean title that doesn’t reflect the damage. If you’re buying a used vehicle, look carefully for signs of previous flooding. Check for mud in the trunk and other odd places, watermarks, warped panels, and an owner’s manual that has been wet.