Q&A / 

Water Damaged Drywall

DEAR TIM: A water line burst in our home and created a significant leak. We were home and able to contain most of the water, but quite a bit got through the floor ruining the drywall ceiling in the basement. Is there an easy way to deal with water-damaged drywall? Can we just wait for it to dry and then repaint it? How do you make the determination as to whether or not you have to cut out the ceiling and start over? Susie W., Baltimore, MD

DEAR SUSIE: For over three decades I’ve been dealing with drywall that’s suffered the indignity of getting wet. Sometimes we’ve saturated the drywall with water on purpose at the jobsite to get it to bend, but most times a roof leak, foundation leak, plumbing misfortune or chronic condensation causes drywall to fail.

Water damaged this ceiling and the ruined drywall was cut out so that new drywall can be installed and finished. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

Water damaged this ceiling and the ruined drywall was cut out so that new drywall can be installed and finished. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

I can clearly remember past calls from shocked customers who’ve lost entire ceilings where, without notice, the drywall crashes to the floor. The weight of the water and loss of structural integrity of the gypsum core causes the drywall panels to tear away from the fasteners. It usually happens at the worst possible moment.

You may not feel much water leaked, but it doesn’t take too much to create a disaster. The first signs to look for with respect to the ceiling falling are depressions around the fasteners. You’ll see small dimples form as the drywall surrounding the nails or screws succumbs to gravity and starts to droop leaving an upside down crater. If you see this happening, move all valuables and furniture from the room in anticipation of a ceiling collapse.

If you see a bubble or droop start to happen in the drywall there could be ponding water on the other side. Use a nail or other punch to create a drain hole allowing the water to escape. Capture it with a bucket.

Test the ceiling with your fingers. Poke at it. If it seems as hard as drywall that has not gotten wet, you may have dodged the bullet. But if the drywall seems soft or spongy, you’re going to be best served by cutting out the damaged section before it sags and possibly falls. Cut carefully as all sorts of wires, cables, water lines, radiant heating pipes, etc. can be just on the other side of the drywall.

Repairing water-damaged drywall is not too hard. Ceilings are absolutely the hardest if you’re not a professional. Working over your head is not easy, and getting the repair to blend in with the rest of the ceiling will be tough to achieve if you’re not highly experienced at finishing drywall.

It’s best to try to cut out the wet drywall as soon as possible so that you minimize any mold growth. Mold spores are absolutely hidden in the ceiling, the temperature is perfect, and they have food. The only ingredient missing was water, and now it’s present. Mold can bloom within days if you don’t act.

Be sure to wear goggles or other eye protection as you remove the damaged drywall. The last thing you need right now is a scratched cornea from a nugget of gypsum that falls into your eye.

One of the biggest challenges in getting the ceiling ready for a new piece of drywall is cutting back the water-soaked drywall to the center of one of the ceiling joists. This is accomplished with any number of tools from a sharp razor knife to a reciprocating saw held at a low angle so the blade just cuts into the drywall and not the wood joist.

You can also cut to the side of a joist and then nail on a scab or sister 2x2 that will be the lath catcher for the new drywall. Just be sure the bottom of the framing material is flush with the bottom of the existing joist. If it’s lower, you’ll end up with an unsightly hump in the ceiling.

The leaking water can sometimes create a massive water blister in latex paint on a ceiling. You may mistake this for ruined drywall that has a bulge when in fact the drywall may not have to be replaced. Prick the large blister and let all water drain out.

The day after the leak, do the test with your finger to see how stiff the drywall is. If it’s solid, you may just have to repaint and not replace drywall. The key is to minimize the amount of water that saturates the drywall. I’ve seen many a drywall ceiling that dries out and survives. It’s not unusual at all.

If you’re worried that the drywall might fall from the ceiling at a later date, you can always install additional screws. If you’ve got one-half-inch-thick drywall, then use 1 and 1/4-inch coarse thread screws. Be sure the drywall screw is countersunk about 1/16th of an inch. If you go any further, you’ll tear the paper around the bugle-head screw rendering it ineffective.

Column 873


17 Responses to Water Damaged Drywall

  1. Hi,
    I've just noticed something in my loft. It's definitely water damage. I don't know how long it's been there, and there looks to be something growing but it's solid and I did the poke test and just the paint chips off but the drywall is solid. Should I just scrape the paint off and re-paint or should I cut out of the drywall? I have pictures if you could please help me.

  2. hello,
    we had a bubble in our dining room and we think the cause is the upstairs laundry as it is right above the damage. I popped the bubble and ran the machine (with no clothes) and didn't notice a leak. Do you think it is safe to repair the drywall or should i try to find the source of the leak?

  3. I was wondering what does it mean when the nails under the drywall are black and you can see the boards they are nailed to also, those are also black. They go from the ceiling to the floor. I live in an apt/townhouse and our basement floods every spring from the melting snow. There is no neighbor on this wall so I'm wondering if it could be water or mold.

  4. Ice and snow build up has caused a pretty bad water leak above the hot water tank and has soaked through and dripping into a bucket. I've removed the ice and snow, the water has stopped dripping, will it dry and be alright? If not what do you suggest I do?

  5. water damage can cause so much trouble if not taken care of right away. You made a very good point in that a lot of damage can come from what you think is a small leak. It's always better to be safe than sorry and repair it, especially if you don't want the ceiling to collapse on you if it goes untreated! Thanks for the informative post.

  6. I live in the desert, is mold possible from a one-time overflow? My ceiling drywall in my downstairs bathroom got wet from the upstairs toilet overflowing. I'm inspecting the ceiling drywall to make sure it doesn't need to be repaired, so far, the only soft spot is around an A/C duct where the water came through.

  7. We recently had water damage from the second floor into the ceiling of the main floor. The dry wall ceiling feels just as hard as it always had but the nail pops that have been plaging the house since it was built a year ago are more noticeable. You can also see where they used tape to connect the pieces of drywall. Is it possible that the entire ceiling needs to be replaced? The contractor refused to fix the nail pops.

  8. We live in an apartment complex and the wall in our bathroom above the sink and light fixture is soggy to the point where I can peel it off.

    This continues up to where the wall meets the celing where I notice a slight soggy-ness but not as serious as the wall. We are on the 2nd floor with another apartment above us.

    Really want to guage then savarity of the situation. I have a day off in a couple of days where I can be home to call the apartment to fix it, just hoping I can wait that long. We notice a dripping sound when the apartment above us is using their bathroom so we at least have an idea of where it's coming from

  9. Last week, we had our roof replaced. The workers removed the entire roof, thus the Alabama rains came, and they came in full force. Part of our upstairs bathroom collapsed. The upstairs bedrooms' ceiling a almost full of water stains, but are still intact. Several large water stain are also on the lower level. The company partially replaced the upstairs bath ceiling, but not the bubbled spots. They want to prime and paint the remaining stains. The attic insulation is also drenched. I am concerned about mold and the future integrity of the ceilings throughout the house that have been damaged. The company is dragging its feet. My son has asthma and is high allergic to mold. There is no carpet in the house ~ all hardwood ~ because of his asthma. Please direct me to what we should so. There is no sense of urgency at the company. There are repeated no-shows and passing the buck. Can you proved some direction for us? Many thanks!

    • Simple.

      ALL rain-damaged materials get replaced. You DID, as I suggest in many past columns here, get a COPY of the contractors general liability policy BEFORE he started work, right?

      You DID ALREADY call the insurance company to file a claim haven't you?

      Tell me you're not HOPING all goes well.

      I'm sorry to be so tough, but I just don't understand why people are so trusting.

  10. Water damage is water damage, but the first point before embarking on water damage repair is to make sure that the source of the problem has been repaired properly.Thanks for great posting.

  11. Tim Carter my aparent just recently had a horrible leak through the attic from the roof. I had buckets in 4 spots and there's streaks going across my ceiling. My landlord does not think this is a big deal, however i just pushed on my ceiling like you had said and can almost push right through it, it's very soggy. All they want to do is repaint. I also had water coming out of the top trim in a doorway.. I am trying to get help for i have a one year old son. I am frightened to go to sleep in fear that the ceiling will collapse.. it is all right above our bed. Management told me to sleep in another room.. Should i take legal advice..? Please help me...

  12. Great article you have presented here.I liked your tips that are really informative.There are some things you can do to combat water damage. Just make sure you act quickly! Letting walls stay wet for more than a day or two can mean having to start over with just the structural wood and studs, discarding all of your wet drywall. Your best bet for reducing water damage is to allow air in from outside. Air circulation will help to make your walls dry faster than they would on their own.Good share.

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