If you arrive at a water-filled cottage, the first thing to do is identify the source of the leak. If it’s coming from a burst pipe you’ll want to turn off the water supply and cut the power so you don’t get another big shock. If you're not handy enough to repair burst pipes yourself, call in your local plumber.
If the leak is not from the plumbing, try to determine if the water is coming in from the roof or through a wall. Ice dams are a common source of leaks. Warm air escaping from the attic helps melt the snow on the roof. It drips down towards the eaves where it freezes, eventually backing up under the shingles. When the temperatures rise the ice under the shingles melts into the cottage.
There are a few steps you can take to minimize damage from ice dams. Start by using a roof rake to remove as much snow from the roof as possible. You can also install heating cables along the roofline to prevent freezing. Once the warm weather arrives, you’ll want to get up into the attic and assess whether you need more insulation or ventilation to prevent damming next winter.
Another common source for leaks are gaps in the caulking around windows and doors. Inspect the exterior of all your windows and doors for signs of deteriorating caulking and replace as needed. Note that most caulking won’t properly adhere in sub-zero temperatures so you might need to wait for a warm day to apply.
If the flooding is substantial, you might need to call in a remediation crew to safely clean up the mess. They’ll dispose of saturated carpets and other porous materials, use fans to completely dry the area, and sterilize any mould. For smaller leaks, you’ll want to remove any sodden materials, open up the walls to allow the space to dry, and use a bleach or ammonia solution to kill mould. Make sure you wear a ventilator and gloves for this job.
If your cottage is three-season, make sure you shut off and completely drain all the water lines. If you have an air compressor, use it to blow the lines clear. Fill all the traps under the sink drains, in the toilets, and in the bathtubs and showers with non-toxic plumber’s antifreeze. You should also ask a cottage neighbour to check on the property periodically or hire a service company to do so. Whether you’re a seasonal or year-round cottager, be vigilant about regularly cleaning your eavestroughs and make sure all the downspouts discharge the water at least four feet from the foundation.
If your cottage has a basement, be mindful of what you store down there. Valuable electronics and treasured family heirlooms should be elevated off the ground or stored elsewhere. And don’t leave paint cans or household chemicals in the basement. If you do get a flood, they could turn it into a toxic soup.