How much flood water is needed to damage a car? Does it matter if it’s salty or fresh?


September 4, 2023 | 12:20 a.m

between hurricanes and record rains and tides; Americans have been driving through lots of floods and puddles.

All this water negatively affects your car.

You may not realize it, but even rainwater causes erosion.

Here’s the difference between a saltwater flood and a rainwater flood and the damage to your car.

“All water can be corrosive because rainwater contains acid, and I’ve heard of acid rain,” says Mike Porcelli, a mechanic, professor of automotive technology, and consultant. “And that can cause a lot of erosion. And salt water is exponentially worse than fresh water.”

Borcelli calls himself a doctor of medicine, a doctor of the machine.

Salt attacks metal

“Salt is very corrosive. It attacks metals, especially metals like aluminum and magnesium. In the case of aluminum wheels, if you sit in salt water or even in cars that are parked near the ocean, the salt eats them up,” he added. That day, we opened the hood and the aluminum strut (under the hood) was completely corroded. And I said, “This car should live near the ocean.”

Cars sit in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Adalia after they pass offshore in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Getty Images

Even salt spray from the ocean disperses salt into the air, which can travel.

The literature claims it can travel 60 miles in strong winds, Borcelli said.

He said that the side of a car parked facing the sea breeze would show faster wear than the other side.

Cars stuck in flood waters on Sheldon Road south of Ford Road in Canton, Michigan.

“If you have an electric car or have a combustion engine or a hybrid; “Salt water damages all vehicles,” vehicle instructor Lauren Fix told FOX Weather. “And what it does is it messes up things you don’t think about, like the exhaust system and the brake lines and the fuel lines.”

I have raised two brake lines. One was silver and clean. The other was on a car in Naples, Florida that recently felt the impact of Hurricane Adalia and was devastated by Hurricane Ian.

She said that rust and corrosion happen over a very short period of time.

A car is pictured on a flooded street after heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Hillary in Cathedral City, California.
AFP via Getty Images

Failure of these lines can cause the brakes to not work.

Flammable fuel may leak from the gas tank into the engine instead.

Floods can be disastrous for electric vehicles

“Also, electric cars and salt water are very corrosive. If you have an electric car that’s flooded. Don’t drive it, ever. Don’t even try to start it,” Fix said. “Call your insurance agent and let them pick it up. Take them to your local store, see what they can do.”

Several electric cars caught fire after the floodwaters of Hurricane Adalia receded.

A submerged car as Tropical Storm Hillary makes landfall in Cathedral City, California.
Allison Dinner/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Acids dissolved in rainwater will damage the paint

Salty air and fresh rainwater also corrode paint. He said salt water is also acidic.

“It eats away at the surface of the paint,” Borcelli said. “After a rainstorm, you see grains of water on the car and after they dry, they leave a little ring.” And it will eat the acid, stick to the paint. The only way to remove that is to scrape off some of the paint, and chip it under the acid craters.

Corrosion is only part of the problem with any water that finds its way into your vehicle. Standing water breeds mold and mildew.

A car is parked in flood waters as Hurricane Adalia makes landfall in Big Bend on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“If it (water) gets inside (the car), you will need professional help,” advises Borcelli. “Even if it’s just a matter of taking the carpet out, drying it, disinfecting it, and putting it back together again.”

He said the car’s steam cleaning, drying and disinfection should cost about $1,000 if caught quickly.

After mold and mildew appear, you may have to replace your carpeting and rugs. The foam in the seats will also mold and mildew.

Electronics and water don’t mix

The biggest problem with modern cars and floods, he said, is electronics.

Cars stuck in muddy flood waters on a street in Cathedral City, California.

“Everything is controlled by computers. The power windows are controlled by the computer. The lights are controlled by computers. So every electronic system, from the engine to the transmission, the tail lights, even the radio, It is controlled by computers.” “Some of these computers are located under the seats or higher under the dashboard. If water gets into the car and floods the floor, these computers are at risk of waterlogging.

This, he said, is why most insurance companies total flooded cars, even with no apparent damage.

Driving on salt-treated roads in snow and ice is equally harmful.

Snow collects in the nooks and crannies under the vehicle. Salt residue remains even after the snow has melted.


Porcelli has several tips for keeping your car in shape:

  • Wash your car, the sooner the better, to reduce wear. Some car washes have an optional undercarriage spray.
  • Have your car professionally cleaned and waxed once a year. Keep it clean and re-wax every month or two.
  • Do not drive through deep water.
  • Repair dings, scratches, and chips before wear appears.
  • Beware of buying used cars after a storm. Porcelli inspects used cars for customers before they buy a car for between $100 and $300. Ask an experienced mechanic to find out about flood damage, he said. He said the car fax only captures about 85 percent of reported problems.

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