There's a lot of interest and even some romanticism in preparing for an "end of the world as we know it" scenario. Doing so tends to give us purpose and motivation, as those are much more interesting than the day-to-day problems we all face. But in reality, the disasters that we are most likely to encounter in our lives are natural disasters. So those should be out highest priority. Beside the normal problems of supply and infrastructure that we need to prepare to meet natural disasters, we should also be prepared to perform emergency repairs to our homes.
If there is one thing that natural disasters are known for, it's causing damage to people's homes. Every time a hurricane or tornado hits, the news media provides us with countless images of homes that have been destroyed. But not all those homes are destroyed, many are only damaged. Of course, the news photographers avoid those, as they don't make for such "good" news pictures.
But what if one of those homes is yours? Do you have to abandon your home, leaving it for the looters? Or could it be that there's a way that you could do enough repairs to your home, in order to make it possible to stay? Obviously, if you can repair your home, even if you have to abandon a room or two, that's going to be better for your family, as well as make it possible for you to protect what you have left.
Emergency home repairs aren't the same as the home repairs that you might pay a carpenter to perform. When you're trying to make it possible to occupy your home, you don't have to worry about things being pretty and the finish being perfect; you just need it to keep the weather out.
That's the key to all emergency home repairs. The idea is to "dry in" your home, so that the weather is kept out and you are kept warm. That's it. The pretty stuff can come later. Time is of the essence. You need to get the repair done, so that you and your family can keep warm and dry.
What You Need
Obviously, if you're going to do emergency repairs on your home, you're going to need something to work with. Plastic trash bags and masking tape aren't going to be enough to make your home livable after a storm. Fortunately, the list of supplies we need really isn't all that long, as most of these supplies can be used for multiple types of repairs.
- 2"x 4" Studs - Two-by-fours, as they are popularly known, are the basic structural building material of a home. While they aren't really strong enough to build the substructure of a floor, they are strong enough to repair it. For that matter, they're strong enough to make just about any temporary structural repair to your home.
- Plywood - Plywood is used anywhere you need to cover a large hole and give it structural strength. While floors are normally covered in 3/4" thick plywood, you can get by with 1/2" for a temporary repair. For that matter, you can use 1/2" plywood just about anywhere you need to fill or cover a hole.
- Woven Plastic Tarps - Roofing companies regularly use these tarps to cover roofs after a hail storm. They are ideal for creating a quick weather seal, whether due to window glass breaking, roof shingles being damaged or someone driving their truck through the wall. Stock a variety of sizes. The cheap (blue) ones are good enough.
- Drywall Shims - These are simply strips of 1/8" thick cardboard, about 1-1/2" wide and 4' long. Not corrugated cardboard, but solid cardboard. If you try to nail or staple the tarps in place, the wind will pull the nail heads through the tarp. By nailing through drywall shims, the force is spread over a larger area and the nail heads don't tear out. Lathing will work as well, if you can't find drywall shims.
- Viscueen - This is the clear plastic that contractors use, which most people misunderstand to be dropcloth material for painting. While it can be used to cover things for painting, it has many other uses. In your emergency home repair, this is a great material for replacing broken glass in your windows. Buy the thickest you can (probably 4 or 6 mil thickness).
- Duct Tape - Useful for 1,000 repairs or more. Make sure you buy good quality tape, as it will stick better, especially on uneven surfaces.
- Caulking - Great for sealing cracks, small holes and seams in wood. Caulking is normally used extensively by home painters, but the damage your home sustains might break that caulking loose.
- Nails and Screws - A number of different sizes might be needed. The most common sizes of nails are 16d, 8d and 6d (d = penny). For the screws, assorted sizes of drywall screws, from 1-1/4" up to 3" would be good.
- Plumbing Caps - Find out what size and type plumbing pipe your home uses for the water supply lines and have caps to fit that size pipe.
- Wire Nuts and Electrical Tape - The standard supplies for joining electrical wires together in a home.
Although you could add to this list, as you'll see, you can make just about all the emergency repairs you need to with the materials that are on it.
Making the Repairs
The first step in making any emergency home repair is to take a good look at the damage, with an idea of finding the extent. You need to be able to determine where the damage ends and where the good part of your home starts.
Let's take a rather severe situation as an example; a truck drives through the wall of your home. That's going to punch a pretty good sized hole in the wall. In addition, there will be damage to the electrical wiring and since the exterior wall is busted, there probably won't be enough support for the roof. You need to see all of this, so that you can determine where the broken part ends and the solid part starts.
Once you've determined where that line between good and bad are, the next thing to do is to get rid of all the broken material. I'm not talking about making the area clean, but rather cutting off anything that is too damaged to stay in place. Often, there will be pieces which are broken, but are still attached. If you attach your repair to those parts, it won't be sturdy enough to hold.
About the only exception to this is roofing shingles. Even damaged shingles will still provide some protection. However, if there are parts of the shingles that are broken and loose, those loose parts need to be removed.
With the broken debris cut away from the structurally sound part of the home, you're ready to start making your repairs. So, let's look at some specifics.
A Hole in the Wall
Since we started talking about a truck driving through the wall, it's only appropriate that we finish. Of the various problems that causes, the most serious is the loss of structural support for the roof. Left alone, that could ultimately cause the roof of the home to collapse, injuring anyone inside.
The first thing you need to do is determine which way the roof trusses run. That's fairly easy in most homes, because they have to run parallel with the gable ends. You will need to support the roof by adding a 2"x 4" structure that is perpendicular to the gable ends.
Measure the ceiling height in a part of the home that is not damaged. It should be eight feet, but may vary in some homes. That's the height you're going to need to make the ceiling in the damaged room to prevent any further damage to your roof. If it is lower than that, raise it up with a car jack (a hydraulic floor jack works best). To make it reach the ceiling, make a large T out of 2"x 4" studs, running the top of the T perpendicular to the gable end.
I suppose that in theory you could just leave the ceiling supported by the jack, but something would invariably happen, like someone kicking it and knocking it down. So, build a ladder out of 2"x 4"s, with the rungs every two feet apart and which is as wide as the height of your ceiling. The ladder needs to be longer than the area that is damaged. This ladder is actually going to be laid sideways, with the "rungs" of the ladder going vertically.
Basically, what you're doing is building a new wall structure, like the structure that was destroyed by the truck. Once it is built, set it in place to support the ceiling and roof joists. It should be as close to the outside wall as possible, but does not need to be against the outside wall. Even a couple of feet away is good. Make sure that it is plumb and holding up the weight of the roof, then you can remove the jack and its support.
Now that the roof is supported, you can do something about the wall itself. This is an excellent place to use some plywood. The plywood can be nailed over the hole, using 2"x 4" studs to hold it together. If you don't have enough plywood, you can also use a tarp, although that isn't as secure. It would be easy for looters to cut through the tarp.
To attach the plywood, place it on the outside of the home and use 8d nails or 2" drywall screws to go through the siding and into the home's structure. It will be easier to do this if you stand the sheets of plywood vertically, rather than running them horizontally.
If your home is made of brick, you won't be able to attach the plywood to the outside of the wall, so you'll have to attach it to the inside. That may require trimming the length of the sheets slightly, in order to make them manageable. The sheets are eight foot long, which is your ceiling height. If one or the other is off, there will be interference. Cutting an inch or two of the end eliminates that problem.
When nailing from the inside, it is extremely important that you locate the studs in the walls, so that you can nail through the drywall and into them. The drywall that the wall is made of is not strong enough to hold the nails.
The other problem you'll have with nailing the plywood inside the wall is that of waterproofing. You'll need to add a tarp to the outside of the wall to keep the rain from damaging what's left of the wall.
Hail Damaged Roof
Hail damage is one of the most common forms of damage that nature does to homes. Roof shingles of any type really aren't designed to withstand the force of hail falling on them. While the roof may not totally crumble, it will crack and asphalt shingles will lose their gravel covering.
Before patching, cut away any shingles that are damaged to the point where they are loose. Those will probably come loose the rest of the way, damaging your patch.
A tarp or several tarps are the ideal way to patch roofs that have sufficient damage as to question their ability to keep the rain out. When stretched taut and nailed down well, the tarp will be able to resist the rain, as well as any damage that they wind might cause. But if they are not taut, the rain will destroy the trap, eliminating your rain protection.
When putting the tarp over the shingles, make sure that it goes over the roof peak and down the opposite side at least a foot. Otherwise, the rain that hits the part of the roof above the tarp will leak down under the tarp, making your work for naught.
If the tarp is just nailed or screwed to the roof, the wind will cause it to tear. Therefore, something must be used to spread the clamping force of the nails or screws. That's why I mentioned the drywall shims in our list of materials. Nail or screw through them, ensuring that the fasteners are driven tight. You should have a nail or screw at least every foot and strips shouldn't be more than three feet apart.
You can nail or screw right into the roof as there is plywood under the shingles. That will give it enough of a structure as to avoid damage.
A Hole in the Roof
The big problem with holes in the roof, besides them letting rain in, is that they are usually caused by a tree branch, if not an entire tree, falling on the roof of your home. Removing the offending tree or branch can be more work than patching up the damage that it causes. Normally, the branch has to be cut up into pieces for removal.
A hole in the roof should also be repaired wit plywood. However, before attaching the plywood, it is a good idea to inspect the roof trusses (the structure for the roof). If they are damaged, nail pieces of 2"x 4" to the side of the damaged truss, much as a splint would be tied to a broken leg. The added pieces of 2"x 4" will prevent the damage from getting worse.
You will also need to cut the existing plywood around the hole, squaring it off. That way, you can cut a new piece of plywood as a patch and make it fit into the hole, sitting flush with the subroofing around it. Seal the edges with caulking to help prevent leaks.
Once the patch is in place and nailed down, it can be covered with a tarp, as discussed in dealing with hail damage to your roof.
Windows are the easiest thing to have broken by any sort of natural disaster. Typically, this is caused by flying debris, but in hurricanes or tornadoes the wind can break windows without any help. Of course, if you know a hurricane is coming, it's a good idea to cover up the windows, but you don't always have enough warning for that.
Replacing the window glass often requires the aid of a professional. The old wood windows (not modern wood ones) could be repaired by just about anyone. But modern windows require special tools and techniques to take them apart. In the mean time, you need to cover up the window.
This is where viscueen comes in. The easiest repair is to cut pieces of viscueen the size of the windows and then seal them in place with duct tape. If you don't have viscueen, then pieces of tarp can be used. However, while the tarp will let some light in, it won't be as good as the viscueen.
If there's still a chance of windows being broken by flying debris, you'll want to use pieces of plywood to cover the windows, rather than viscueen. Viscueen isn't strong enough to withstand the strain of wind-blown debris being hurled at it.
Attaching plywood over windows might be a bit difficult on a brick home. There really isn't much to attach the plywood to. If you have wood windows, it's easy, as you can nail into them. But nailing into brick isn't easy, nor is nailing into an aluminum window frame. What you'll have to do instead is to put a piece of wood across the window from the inside and screw through the plywood on the outside into the piece of wood on the inside of the windows.
Broken Door Frame
If someone tries breaking into your home by kicking in the door, they will probably succeed. Generally speaking, this cause the door lock and the deadbolt to break through the door frame, which is the weakest point. To make an emergency repair to this you'll need to find the pieces and try to get them back into place. Then, cut some long strips of plywood or cut a 2"x 4" down to make a strip of wood.
This strip of wood or plywood can be attached across the inner side of the door frame, with screws to reinforce the door frame. This will actually make the door frame stronger than it originally was.
In some disasters, such as an earthquake, your home's plumbing could become damaged. It's not unusual in those cases to have a broken pipe that is spilling water out constantly. In such a case, the home's water needs to be turned off. But you need that water; so you need to be able to make your plumbing usable again.
The best solution is to have a plumber make the necessary repairs. But we're working under the assumption that you need to do that work yourself. Maybe there isn't a plumber available, because there are too many homes damaged. Or maybe your home has extensive damage to it and the plumber won't touch it. In those cases, it's going to be all up to you.
The thing to do then, so that you can have water for at least part of your home, is to figure out where the leak is and cut it off. Then you can turn the water back on and use it in the parts of your home that aren't damaged.
To start with, you need to find your water supply pipes. The way to do that is to start from the point in which they enter your home. If your home has a whole house valve, that will be the point. If not, look for your water meter, that will tell you which side the water is coming in from, then look for the pipes themselves.
If your home has a basement, then all the pipes will be running through the basement. If it is a single-story home on a slab, they may be running through the attic. The worst is a two-story home on a slab. In that case, the pipes are running through the slab, where you can't access them. You will be limited to working on the part of the pipe exposed by the damage.
Depending on when your home was built, it might have copper water lines, PVC plastic or CPVC plastic. It's easy to tell the difference, as the PVC plastic is white, the CPVC is a yellowish white and the copper looks like copper. It could also be 1/2" diameter pipe or 3/4" diameter. You need to know this, so that you buy the right fittings to cap off the broken part of the pipe.
Okay, now that we have gathered the information and have out parts, once you determine the location of the break, that's where we're going to go. You'll probably examine the break first with the water on, as you'll need it on to determine where the break is. Then, turn the water off and examine it again. You need to be able to see where the break is and which side of the break the water is coming from.
If you can't tell which side the water is coming from, cut the pipe at the break and turn the water on again. It should be obvious which side the water is flowing out of then. That's the side you'll need to cap. If you have PVC or CPVC pipe, you'll glue the cap on. PVC cement comes with a primer, which needs to be used along with the cement. Without the primer, you can't get good adhesion. Copper pipe needs to be soldered.
Once the break is repaired, turn the water back on and check to see that it isn't leaking. If so, you're home free. When you go back to rebuild your home, the plumber can easily reattach your pipes.
Of all the types of damage to your home, damage to the electrical wiring is the most dangerous. Not only can this leave wires exposed that can shock you; but it also has the possibility of causing a fire. If you have such damage, the first thing to do is turn off the main breaker in your breaker box, to cut off power to the entire home.
Your breaker box gives you an excellent point of defense for your home. By turning off the power, you eliminate any chance of anyone being shocked or of starting a fire. But you probably want electrical power in your home as well. So, at some point in time, you're going to have to turn it back on.
Hopefully, you've taken the time to figure out which circuit breaker in the breaker box provides power to which part of your home. If you have that marked on the chart in the box, it will make your job a whole lot easier.
Turn off all the circuit breakers and then turn the main breaker back on. You should see no difference, as the electrical power will only pass through the main breaker to the other breakers, it won't be leaving the box yet. Then, you can turn one breaker on at a time, checking that part of the house to verify that there is no problem. Leave the parts of the house that have been damaged for last.
With the majority of your home now having electrical power, examine the parts of the home which are damaged. Are there any electrical wires exposed? Do you see any broken wires? If so, you should separate the wires and cap them off with the wire nuts and electrical tape, before attempting to turn the power back on.
Homes are typically wired with Romex, which has three wires in a single outer insulation. One wire will have white insulation, one will have black insulation and the other will be ground. Don't allow the black and white wires to touch each other. The insulation can touch, but the copper wire cannot. So, when I'm talking about capping wires, what I mean is to cap the white wire and the black wire separately. The bare copper wire doesn't have to be capped.
With the wires capped, you can turn power on to that part of the house. Check carefully to see if there are any sparks or any smell of smoke. If there are, turn the breaker back off and leave it off. If there are not, then you are safe to use the electric power.