Hurricanes & appliances: how to lower the risk of damage
Updated: Oct 13
You know the storm is coming. You want to be a responsible homeowner, or at the very least stuff-owner, and take reasonable precautions to protect your belongings. A quick Google search will yield thousands of articles on protecting your laptops, televisions, and the new Xbox you stalked online for months to buy – but what about the most expensive items in your home? We depend on our refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers to last for years! But are we taking the proper steps to protect them?
In this article, we will explore how a hurricane may impact an appliance and what steps you can take to lower the risk of damage from an electrical power surge or wind-forced rainwater exposure.
The link between hurricanes and electrical power surge
Hurricanes, tropical cyclones, as well as named, and unnamed storms, often result in widespread power outages. High winds, heavy rains, and storm surges pose significant threats to the power grid. Downed power lines will cause outages to large swaths of a geographic region. The sudden absence of power in your home or commercial property will likely not cause damage to your electronics or appliances. When power is restored, your appliances are at risk of damage from the surge of electricity.
While most household appliances are equipped to handle small fluctuations in voltage, the spike of electricity from power restoration may result in damage to the internal electronics. A power outage from a storm may last for a few minutes, a few days, or even weeks depending on the extent of damage to the structure and surrounding region. No matter the duration of the power outage, the risk of damage from an electrical power surge remains when power is restored.
Hurricane Ida resulted in service outages for up to 1.2 million electricity customers across eight states, according to situation reports from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.
What does a power surge do to an appliance?
Depending upon the design of the appliance and the severity of the surge, an electrical power surge may impact an appliance, such as a refrigerator, wall oven, or clothes dryer, in a number of ways. Damages may be minimal, such as a singular fried circuit board in a range, or extensive, such as a grounded compressor in a built-in refrigerator.
When power is restored, suddenly, previously de-energized circuits are subjected to a rapid influx of voltage. Appliances that were powered on, or even powered off but connected to a live circuit, prior to the outage may spring back to life, presenting the risk of damage to sensitive internal electronic components, including circuit boards, thermostats, and motors. This surge of voltage causes damage by overloading the circuitry within an appliance. If the surge is severe enough, an appliance may be completely totaled. A thorough evaluation and investigation of the appliances and electronics subjected to the surge should be completed in order to assess the damage and determine repair or replacement options.
With appliances, like most things, you get what you pay for. Higher-end, more expensive appliances may be equipped with internal fail safes to help protect against a power surge. Lower-end appliances and small household items likely won't be able to withstand the impact.
An appliance may be more susceptible to a weather-related power surge if the unit utilizes multiple internal circuit boards or has 'smart' capabilities (main control board, Wi-Fi control board, etc.). While it is still possible, appliances that utilize electromechanical components, such as an older-style clothes dryer timer, are less likely to sustain extensive damage from an electrical power surge.
How to lower the risk of damage from an electrical power surge
While you cannot control the forces of nature, you can take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of hurricane-related power surge damage to your appliances. Follow these four steps to lower the risk of damage:
Power off larger appliances, like ranges and wall ovens.
Unplug washing machines, dryers, and smaller household appliances, like microwaves, toaster ovens, and ice makers.
If your home is prone to flooding, be sure to unplug appliances BEFORE heavy rains are expected. Do NOT unplug items that are submerged in water or the power source is submerged in water. Disconnecting the power in such conditions could result in electrocution.
Appliances exposed to rainwater should be dried as thoroughly as possible prior to connecting to power after the storm. The presence of water can exacerbate the damaging effects of a power surge.
What does rainwater do to an appliance?
You may be thinking, water damage is water damage! What is the difference between rainwater damage and other sources of water exposure, like a flooded basement from a water main backup or a burst pipe from freezing weather conditions? When it comes to water damage, all sources are not created equal. Wind-forced rainwater may cause more significant external and internal damage to an appliance than other sources of water exposure. This is due to the presence of contaminants and debris gathered from the storm.
Wind-forced rainwater from a hurricane may include a slurry of aggravating agents to appliance electronics, like sand, dirt, and organic matter. This type of water exposure can cause significant and unique physical damage to appliances, like corrosion, oxidation, and discoloration, as well as internal damage like shorted circuit boards and degraded internal mechanical components.
Determining whether an appliance can be restored to pre-loss condition following hurricane-related water exposure largely depends upon the extent of physical degradation present. Will a simple cleaning resolve the water damage? Or are there unseen internal damages lurking beneath the surface?
Often the extent of water damage cannot be determined by visual inspection only. Olfactory and tactile assessments (smell and touch) are needed to make the final repair or replacement determination. Are there musty odors present, indicating the presence of organic growth? Does the appliance housing feel brittle or spongy? Are the water stains on the surface or can corrosion be felt beneath the panel?
How to lower the risk of damage from rainwater exposure
Unfortunately, protecting your appliances from rainwater exposure from a hurricane can be tricky. If the roof of your home or business is ripped off by hurricane winds, or your home is flooded by rainwater, there really is nothing you can do.
Unlike protecting appliances from the threat of an electrical power surge, lowering the risk of damage to your appliances from rainwater exposure may occur AFTER the storm. These tips may help lower the risk of irreparable damage to your appliances from wind-forced rainwater.
Be sure to dry any appliances exposed to rainwater as thoroughly and QUICKLY as possible. The longer an appliance is wet from rainwater, the increased likelihood of irreparable external and internal damage.
Appliances should be stored in a dry, temperature-controlled area, if possible. This cannot always be accommodated; however, if you can, store your major appliances in a dry and stable environment. Open appliance doors to allow air to circulate freely to prevent organic growth from festering within the unit.
Appliances exposed to wind-forced rainwater should be assessed by a technician prior to using the unit normally. Internal water damages could pose a risk during attempted operation.
Insights from Ida
Sadly, we know devasting hurricanes will continue to impact vulnerable areas of the United States, as well as across the globe, leaving countless home and business owners with huge losses and destroyed properties. In 2021, Hurricane Ida resulted in an estimated $75 billion in damages, according to climate.gov.
It remains to be seen how Hurricane Ian, which made landfall on September 28th in Florida, will compare to Ida or the future storms to come; however, we can be sure electrical power surge and wind-forced rainwater exposure will be two of the top causes of damage to insureds' appliances and electronics. During this hurricane season, take steps to lower the risk of damage to the hardest working items in your home.