Rapid removal of soaked materials from a storm-flooded building (C) 2013 Daniel FriedmanSalvage Building Contents
How to sort & salvage moldy or wet building contents

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How to clean & salvage wet or moldy building contents:

This article describes procedures for salvaging building contents that have been wet by flooding, leaks or storm damage, and procedures for cleaning and salvaging moldy building contents such as bedding, carpets, clothing, drapes, dishes, furniture, mattresses, shoes, books or any other items in the home. We describe how to sort out the salvageable items from items that should be thrown away.

Certain valuable moldy items such as rare books may be worth the cost of special cleaning but if you can't immediately pay for that process it may be possible to dry and store the items safely until you can.

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How to Sort & Salvage Mold-Contaminated or Wet Building Contents

Photo of mold on pillows and pillowcases on a bed (C) Daniel FriedmanMouldy Building Contents Salvage Advice in Four Steps

[Click to enlarge any image]

  1. First step - Safety: if your building is moldy or flooded be sure it is safe to enter.

    See FLOOD DAMAGE REPAIR PRIORITIES where we also discuss safe entry into a potentially unsafe building.

    For more detail also you may also want to
  2. Second step - Protect the building: if you have not begun steps to protect the building
    see Step 2. Give Your Home First Aid
  3. Third step - Start building dryout: if your building has been flooded and you've not begun to dry it out
  4. Fourth step - Sort & salvage building contents: OK, so now we can address how to sort and salvage the contents of a home that have been exposed to mold, flooding, a sewage backup or other contaminants. One reason for taking this step fairly early is to get salvageable goods out of the way of further demolition and cleaning that may be necessary in the building.

How to Sort Out Building Contents and Discard Debris Following a Flood, Fire or other Disaster

Photo of mold on carpet tack strips and carpet padding and underside of carpeting (C) Daniel FriedmanYou have three types of contents that should go to three different places:

  1. Salvage: Items you do want to save will require prompt and special handling described in
    our ITEMS TO SALVAGE discussion below.

    Generally you can salvage easy-to-clean nonabsorbent materials such as dishes & tables as well as items that are economical to clean such as bedding & clothing.

    As you'll read below some items require more careful inspection & thought in deciding to salvage them or to toss them out.
  2. Trash: Things you don't want to save - items to be discarded (but not garbage) such as ruined upholstered furniture, wall to wall carpet and padding (photo at left), and other non-salvageable items described in
    our ITEMS TO TOSS OUT list below.
  3. Garbage: food waste, spoiled food, similar products that may pose a health hazard if not disposed-of properly and promptly

Items Soaked by Floodwater Should I Throw them Out?

These items should always be thrown out after wetting or a flood

Photo of mold on walls and shelves in kitchen pantry (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Baby toys
  • Cosmetics
  • Food
  • Medical supplies
  • Stuffed animals

Watch out: Don’t take chances with frozen food if electricity went off unless food is still thoroughly frozen and contains ice crystals. As a rule, food will remain frozen for up to three days in a closed freezer without power.

Don’t refreeze thawed food. However, you can cook and then freeze raw meat that was partially thawed and then refreeze it.

Questions about the Safety of Your Food? Call the USDA Food Safety Hotline: 1-800-535-4555 Professional home economists will answer your questions from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday. Professional home economists will answer your questions from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday.

Then throw the stuff out, preferably in sealed plastic garbage bags.

Flood damaged debris tossed outside during cleanup (C) Daniel Friedman 2013 Flood damaged upholstered chair with severe mold contamination (C) Daniel Friedman\

Usually these items should be thrown out after wetting or a flood or wet by sewage backup

Photo of mold on papers stored in flooded steel file cabinets (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Books & documents though it may be possible to clean and salvage valuable books, papers & documents - see BOOK MOLD, CLEANING
  • Cabinets if badly water-damaged or if made of chip-board that has absorbed sewage. Cabinet removal, cleaning & salvage are discussed below at CABINET SALVAGE
  • Carpet padding
  • Carpets, especially large & wall-to-wall carpets. Valuable area rugs / carpets may be salvageable by professional cleaning
  • Foam rubber
  • Food (see below)
  • Mattresses
  • Paper products.
  • Pillows
  • Upholstered couches and chairs

Black mold growth (actually dark brown mold) was not visible on this living room couch set until a closer inspection was made.

Black mold on furniture (C) Daniel Friedman Black mold on canvas clothing or bag (C) Daniel Friedman

Items to Toss Out: How to Handle Things you don’t want to save after a building flood, fire, or other disaster

Flooded mattress (C) Daniel FriedmanPut things you don’t want to save outside to dry until the adjuster comes to confirm your losses.

Take pictures or videotapes and list each item for the record.

If you are not sure whether to throw something out, decide whether it is worth salvaging by checking the information in Step 6.

Garbage Items & Garbage Disposal - health hazard warning

Get rid of food and anything else that could spoil or go bad immediately. Don’t let garbage build up.

Garbage piles will cause yet another health hazard by attracting animals and insects.

If your insurance adjuster has not come, tell your agent or adjuster that you need to get rid of potential health hazards. That person will tell you

How to Dispose of discarded items properly after a flood, hurricane, fire or other disaster

Flood damaged building contents & debris piled outside for garbage pickup (C) Daniel Friedman

Do not burn or bury them. There will usually be more frequent garbage pickups after a flood. Your local TV and radio stations will have announcements concerning trash pickup schedules and drop-off sites.


Framing and structural components can be kept

Unlike wallboard, wet studs and sills that are touched by floodwaters do not need to be thrown out.



Interior Hollow-Door Doors, Trim & Similar Items are usually Thrown Out

Our photo of floor baseboard trim exploration (below left) shows what happens when trim is left in place at the bottom of a wet floor. Better would have been to remove the trim and the bottom 12-inches of drywall to dry and inspect the wall cavity.

Photo of mold on the closet interior side of a hollow core hanging bypass door  (C) Daniel Friedman Photo of mold on the closet interior side of a hollow core hanging bypass door  (C) Daniel Friedman

At above right we show the right way to handle trim in a flooded building - remove it and pile it with site trash to be removed - as a first step in addressing wet walls and wall cavities (discussed below).

Photo of mold on the closet interior side of a hollow core hanging bypass door  (C) Daniel Friedman

Hollow wood and plastic or vinyl doors usually have cardboard spacers in the middle that lose their shape when wet.

Generally, hollow-core doors come apart after they are flooded sand need to be replaced.

Things you do want to save in a Building that has Been Wet by Floods, Storms, Fires, etc.

Moldy books (C) Daniel FriedmanMove & Store Items to be salvaged

Move these items to a safe, dry place or store them under-cover outdoors.

The longer they sit in water or remain wet, the more damaged they become.

Watch out: ARC and FEMA advice for relocating salvaged items such as " In some cases, you may only be able to move them to a dry or clean room in the same building while you clean the other rooms." can be risky.

  • Don't move wet but salvageable items into a building area where their water or moisture content will cause water, high moisture, or high mold risk in the new stored-in area.
  • Don't move sewage-contaminated items into an occupied building area nor into a building area that has other than a sealed, easy-to-clean/disinfect floor.
  • Don't move mold-contaminated items into an occupied building area nor into a building area where high levels of moldy dust and debris will cross-contaminate the stored-in building surfaces or contents.

Should You Move Salvage Items to Your New or Temporary Residence?

Watch out: Beware of bringing moldy contents out of a building into a new residence as you may import high-enough levels of mold to irritate building occupants even if the new location does not encourage mold growth.

Yet you can't simply leave possessions to be salvaged in a wet, mold-conducive or sewage-contaminated building. Not only are these items in the way of building dry-out and clean-up operations, but the items themselves may become so badly damaged that the become beyond salvage.

Use Temporary Contents Storage: rental space, garage, other building areas for salvage items

Photo of mold on a leather jacket (C) Daniel FriedmanWhat about moving flood-damaged items to a Self-Storage rental facility

Watch out: think thrice before moving wet or contaminated salvage items directly to a storage facility in their wet, soiled state.

You risk violating your rental contract, cross-contaminating the stored items of other tenants, and thanks to the out-of-sight / out-of-mind problem I've found that storing such items frequently leads to continued mold or sewage pathogen growth, worse contamination, sometimes to the point that the items are no longer salvageable. You've basically paid rent to store trash.

The black leather jacket you see at left was covered with extensive mold contamination but was salvageable by professional cleaning.

Watch out: leaving soft goods (that are costly or difficult to clean) in a mold-contaminated area means that those items are likely to need extra (and more expensive) cleaning before they can be returned to use.

Don’t leave wood furniture in the sun where it will warp as it dries.

To save an area rug, lay a sheet or some other material on top so the colors will not bleed. Clean it promptly.

Don't leave a wet but valuable area rug that is to be salvaged rolled-up.

You may find (as I did) that colors bleed so that the rug is damaged even if it can be later cleaned. Also the longer a wet rug or carpet is rolled-up or folded up the more extensive may be its mold contamination, making it harder to clean.

On-Site Cleaning & Storage of Salvaged Building Contents

Reasonable places to store salvage items that are to be cleaned are on a clean dry concrete floor of an attached or detached garage that is not itself already filled with items that would be cross-contaminated, or in a dry outdoor area that is protected from the weather.

Alternatively you may contract with a professional cleaning service to remove the items directly to a cleaning facility where they will be cleaned and sanitized as needed and then relocated again to a clean-dry storage area.

On a large project where a valuable inventory of stored material had become exposed to mold contamination, the U.S. Park Service arranged for the cleaning contractor set up cleaning stations right at the building. Items were first rough-cleaned right in the wet moldy basement, then brought out of the area of contaminat5ion to a series of two cleaning stations where the items were cleaned, then followed by (my) testing station that used an on-site microbiology lab to test the cleaned materials.

Using this approach we were able to detect and correct a problem with the cleaning system (re-using moldy cloths to wipe subsequent items), thus assuring that the cleaned items were in fact adequately clean. From that station items were moved to an on-site storage trailer pending future relocation and use.

Wet or Moldy Building Contents Cleaning Procedures

Moldy books (C) Daniel FriedmanContents from the building can in some cases be salvaged by cleaning, but just what can be cleaned depends on the nature of the material and also its value compared to the cost of cleaning and salvage.

Hard-surfaced items are easily washed or cleaned. Here we refer to things like china, dishes, glassware, silverware, hard plastic items, most solid wood items (though un-coated wood surfaces may require special cleaning & sealing).

A mostly wood chair with an upholstered seat may be most-economically salvaged by removing and tossing the upholstered seat covering and padding.

Soft goods like clothing and bedding can be laundered or dry-cleaned.

Soft goods that have not been wet but may have been exposed to moldy dust may be salvageable by HEPA vacuuming and cleaning.

Soft goods like carpets and upholstered furniture, if visibly moldy or if they have been wet, are often beyond economical repair. Books and papers require special handling - see BOOK MOLD, CLEANING

See BUILDING DRY-OUT PROCEDURES for a discussion of sorting out building contents for salvage after flooding or wetting conditions.

Stay away from magic bullets that don't work like ozone treatments for moldy homes or bleach to "kill the mold" - that is the wrong approach. See

How to Salvage, Dry, Clean & Restore Kitchen & Bathroom Countertops & Cabinets After a Flood or other Disaster

Photo of mold on kitchen cabinet doors (C) Daniel Friedman Photo of mold on cabinet door surface(C) Daniel Friedman

To salvage cabinets and counter tops that have not been badly water-damaged but that were mounted in a room that was soaked by flooding, fire extinguishment, storm damage or similar events, we [DF] find that you will need to remove wall mounted cabinets (on walls that were wet) and floor mounted cabinets (on floors that were soaked or flooded) to permit the cabinets to be properly dried and cleaned.

Photograph of inspecting below a bath vanity for hidden mold. Photograph of inspecting below wallpaper for hidden mold.

If there has been protracted leakage or spillage under built-in cabinets such as bath vanities, there may be a mold cleanup job under or behind these components. We removed this bath vanity after receiving complaints of recurrent moldy odor in this bathroom. No amount of cleaning of other bath surfaces had reduced the mold smell. A slight slope in the bathroom floor had been sending tub spillage behind this bath vanity for decades.

What makes a lot of sense sense is to study the building carefully to decide on the building points at most risk of having been wet from leaks due to construction details or other site observations. That's where one would make a test cut.

Our photos below illustrate the mistake of assuming that a plastic laminate countertop is necessarily "mold free".

Photo of mold on plastic laminate countertop (C) Daniel Friedman Photo of mold hidden on underside of kitchen counter  (C) Daniel Friedman

Our opinion was that the countertop above could be cleaned (below) and sealed with a fungicidal sealant; but further investigation was warranted to discover the presence of significant mold contamination behind or beneath wall and floor mounted cabinets. The decision to investigate such areas depends on the building's water entry history and just what has been wet.

Photo of mold hidden on the wall side of kitchen cabinets, after cabinet removal (C) Daniel FriedmanOften we can explore the backs of interior-wall-mounted cabinets by one or a few strategic test cuts made through the opposite side of their mounting wall.

Watch out: often the short-cut of leaving wall or floor mounted cabinets in place on surfaces that have been wet means that the back or under-side of the cabinet develops severe mold contamination - such as the back-side of the cabinet shown in our photo at left.

Don't do it. In my experience the claims that water extractors can magically remove water from enclosed wall, floor or ceiling cavities often lead to expensive disappointment while cabinet removal along with a few strategic drying cuts would have done the trick.

Where cabinets were left in place, or for cabinets mounted on an exterior wall, removal of the cabinets and exploration of the wall and wall cavity behind them may make more sense.

For details about finding and handling mold and water damaged bathroom or kitchen cabinets and countertops see


Continue reading at Step 5. RESTORE UTILITIES AFTER FLOODING if your building has been flooded or choose one of the articles listed below.

Continue at MOLD ACTION GUIDE - WHAT TO DO ABOUT MOLD if you are responding to a mold contamination problem

Continue at SEWAGE BACKUP, WHAT TO DO if you are responding to a sewer backup

Suggested citation for this web page

SALVAGE BUILDING CONTENTS at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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