Making Emergency Repairs on Your Home

Any disaster carries with it the potential for causing damage to your home. While the damage isn’t always critical enough to require abandoning your home, many people do so anyway, more because they are not sure what to do about the damage, than anything else. But your home is your shelter, as well as holding pretty much all you own. So if you can avoid abandoning it, especially in a crisis situation, you’ll be better off.

Recently, I wrote an article on home repair materials you should stockpile for this very reason. With a few basic materials, you can deal with most storm caused damage to your home, allowing you to occupy it until more permanent repairs can be made by a competent contractor.

Emergency repairs are not the same thing as fully repairing your home. We’re not concerned with cosmetics here. That will come later, when you are able to hire someone to do more complete repairs. At this point, all we’re concerned about is making it safe to use your home as a survival shelter.

There are two keys you are looking for here. The first is to make sure your home is safe to stay in. If you have a natural gas leak, your home isn’t safe. Nor is it safe if you have electrical wires sparking. But a hole in your roof, caused by a tree branch breaking off and crashing down upon it, that isn’t necessarily dangerous. The tree branch and your home are probably stable, so you don’t need to worry about it falling apart.

The second concern is to “dry in” your home. This is a term contractors use for new construction. When they have the outer walls and roof skinned over and covered with a waterproof coating, the house is considered to be at this point. Rain and wind can’t get into the home, accounting for a lot of what shelter is supposed to do.

How is Your Home Constructed?

Most American homes are made of wood construction, regardless of what the outside of the home is covered with. Even brick homes are still wood construction, with the brick wall being built outside of the wood one.

This diagram shows us the basic framing of home construction. If we start from the bottom, we can see floor joists running diagonally from lower left to upper right. These provide the structure for the floor and are usually made of 2”x 12” boards. We see another layer of those for the second floor and a final layer for the attic. In the upper two cases, the floor joists are held up by the wall framing. This is made of 2”x 4” framing and is shown in the diagram by the vertical lines. The roof framework is made of 2”x 6” joists, set at an angle to allow water to run off.

The floors and roof of this home are covered with sheets of plywood or pressboard. Three-quarter inch thick sheets are used for the floor and ½” thick sheets for the roof. The walls are covered with sheathing, which consists of ½” thick plyood in the corners and ½” thick Styrofoam for the rest of the wall.

Pretty much everything else on the home’s structure is cosmetic, whether we’re talking about brick or siding on the outside or drywall on the inside. While each of those cosmetic parts has a purpose, they are not part of the structure. For repair purposes, our first priority is the structure.

Emergency Roof Repairs

The main thing you want to accomplish in repairing your roof is to keep rain from falling through. We’re going to do that by putting a tarp over the roof. But before doing that, we need to make sure that the roof is structurally sound. To do that, look at the damage that has been created. If there is a hole in the roof, then go in the attic and look for any of the rafters that are damaged.

Even if you can’t replace damaged rafters (perhaps because a branch is in the way), you can strengthen them. All you have to do is to attach 2”x 4”s to the sides of the existing rafters, nailing them together with 16d (penny) nails or 3” drywall screws.

Once the structure is intact, the next thing to look at is if there are any holes which need to be covered over. While you can just cover them with a tarp, your repair will last longer if you cover the hole with a piece of ½” thick plywood first. Just nail through the plywood and existing roofing shingles. You can use any nails longer than 1-1/4” for this.

Finally, dry in the roof by covering it with a tarp. It is essential that the tarp go at least to the peak of the roof and a little beyond. Otherwise, water could run down the roof and under the tarp. But if it goes over the peak, there is no way for water to enter.
Like the plywood, the tarp should be nailed to the existing roof. However, the wind will cause the nail heads to pull through the tarp, if you don’t use some sort of washer. Thin wood strips, cardboard strips or even plastic soda bottle caps can be used as washers. Use an abundance of nails, so that the wind can’t make the tarp flap in the wind. Flapping will cause the tarp to tear.

Emergency Wall Repairs

Like roofs, when dealing with wall damage, the first thing you need to do is determine if there has been any damage to the structure. That structure is essential for holding up the upper floors and the roof. So if there is damage to the 2”x 4’ studs, you’ll need to add studs in, so as to support the weight.

In the case of a serious breach of your wall, you may need to build a short section of wall and set it in place, inside the existing wall. If you do, you need to be aware of the direction of the current ceiling and floor joists. If they are perpendicular to the damaged wall, then you can put your support wall just about anywhere. But if they are parallel to the damaged wall, you will need to locate the closest joist to the wall and place your support wall there, so that it is sitting on the floor joist and the ceiling joist is sitting on it.

The easiest way to tell which direction your floor and ceiling joists are running is to look at which way your home is running. If the long side of your home is parallel with the street, the joists will be perpendicular to the street. This allows contractors to use shorter joists when building the home.

Another way of telling is to look at the roof’s main ridge line. The floor and ceiling joists, as well as roof joists, will be running perpendicular to the ridge line.

Once you have your wall structurally sound, you can skin it over with plywood. If you are receiving a lot of rain, you might want to cover this with a tarp or visqueen, although that is not essential. Caulking the edges of the plywood are also useful to keep the rain out, but not absolutely necessary.

Emergency Floor Repairs

Contrary to Hollywood, it is rare that you will have damage to floors, but it can happen. If it does, you must be extremely careful in ensuring that you properly support what is left of the floor. One broken floor joist can mean an area four feet wide by however long the joist is that is not properly supported. Don’t trust the parts that remain, as they are merely hanging there.

It is not sufficient to use 2”x 4” studs as temporary floor joists, as they are not strong enough. But I didn’t put any stronger pieces of wood on that list. So, what you can do is to use a 2”x 4” stud, nailed to the side of the broken floor joist to stabilize it, and then add another 2”x 4” stud vertically, in the center or your patch, acting as a leg to support your repair. The vertical 2”x 4” will support the weight.

Holes in floors should be patched with ¾” plywood for strength. If you don’t have any ¾” plywood, ½” thick plywood can be used as a temporary patch, but it will feel spongy when you walk on it. Always be sure that the edges of any plywood flooring are resting on and nailed to floor joists. Never allow the edge to be between joists.

Broken Windows

Broken windows are probably one of the easier repairs to make. All you need to do is cover the window with visqueen (clear plastic sheeting) and tape it in place with duct tape. While this won’t provide much security, it will allow light in.

If you need security, you could make a cover for the window out of plywood, but that wouldn’t allow any light through.

If the Gas is Leaking

If you smell gas leaking in your home, you’ll need to shut it off immediately at the gas meter. The gas meter will always have a valve installed with it. This small valve, shown inside the circle on this picture, is often overlooked alongside the larger meter.

If the valve is parallel to the pipe, as shown in the picture, then gas can flow through it. You’ll want to turn it perpendicular to the pipe, blocking off the flow of gas. While the gas company has special wrenches that they use for this, you can accomplish the same thing with a pair of channel locks.

Take another look at that valve in the picture. See the two round holes, each of which is attached to a metal ear? When you turn the valve off, those should be in alignment. If you have a padlock available, slip it through those holes and lock it. That way, nobody can turn the gas back on, until repairs have been made to the gas lines.

If You have Damaged Electrical Wires

Damage to walls can include damage to the electrical wires contained within those walls. That can be serious, as the damaged wires could spark, causing a fire. You can easily eliminate that problem by finding the right circuit breaker in your home’s breaker panel and shut it off.

Few people bother to do so, but it’s a good idea, when you move into a house, to go through and determine what each circuit breaker is connected to and write that in the chart contained on the inside of the breaker box door. That way, if you ever have to shut off power to a room, you’ll already know which breaker to use.

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