A novel product to protect water heaters and other equipment from flood damage

Posted by on Sep 9, 2015

Cobia Innovative's flood cover that can be unfurled in advance of a flood to protect a water heater. Photo: Cobia Innovative

Cobia Innovative’s flood cover that can be unfurled in advance of a flood to protect a water heater. Photo: Cobia Innovative

Regular readers of my articles on the RDI website are aware that dry floodproofing measures—keeping water out of a building—raises some big challenges in terms of hydrostatic pressure. As a result, FEMA recommends this practice only for commercial buildings.

But why not protect individual pieces of equipment if a residential (or commercial) basement is allowed to flood? That’s a question Sean Mathews asked when his house in Little Falls, New Jersey was flooded in August 2011, when heavy rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused the Passaic River to jump its bank.

Mathews, a sheet metal fabricator by profession, saw the damage from flooding in his basement, and realized that even if he couldn’t keep water out of his basement, he could make waterproof covers that could be deployed in advance of a storm to protect the equipment from several feet of water.

And he did just that, launching company to design and market waterproof sleeves that could protect a water heater or other piece of equipment—just like the waders worn by someone fly fishing.

A water heater sitting on the flood cover base with the sides rolled up at the base of the water heater. Photo: Cobia Innovative.

A water heater sitting on the flood cover base with the sides rolled up at the base of the water heater. Photo: Cobia Innovative

A company is born

Mathews experimented with different designs and materials, and settled on PVC, with seams sealed using radio-frequency welding. The covers have a thick PVC base that the water heater, furnace or boiler sits on, and this is welded to the sleeve, made of thinner PVC, that is normally rolled up at the base of the equipment (see photo). In advance of a storm, the cover is unfurled up to 60 inches to protect the equipment from a moderate flood.

Mathews installed his first prototypes in his home in 2011, and when Hurricane Sandy came along in 2012, the covers protected his water heater and furnace. Inspired by the simplicity and success with his prototypes, Mathews and his partner started a company, Cobia Innovative, and had a small production run of these manufactured, which he distributed to neighbors in Little Falls, along with other victims of Hurricane Sandy who were rebuilding.

Since early-2014, Cobia has had these covers manufactured by Sealtech in Tennessee (which manufacturers dry bags for recreational use, among other products) using PVC fabric produced by Herculite, Inc. in Pennsylvania. Submersion testing has been carried out by QAI Laboratories, and the flood covers are now International Code Council (ICC) listed and code-compliant in all 50 states, according to Mathews.

Distribution has been set up through Home Depot, and Mathews estimates that about 200 units have been installed to date, with 30-40 sold retail as of August, 2015. The initial product, which retails for $177, has a round base and fits a standard water heater. A larger model with a 36”-square base is designed for furnaces, boilers, and high-capacity water heaters; Mathews expects this larger model to retail for $229 to $249, and he is ready to go into production when the company secures financing for a production run.

Cobia is in discussions with the local utility company, Public Service Electric and Gas (which serves nearly three-quarters of New Jersey), about a deal through which the utility company could buy several thousand flood covers per year for its customers.

The Cobia Flood cover shown fully deployed in this mock-up. Photo: Cobia Innovative

The Cobia Flood cover shown fully deployed in this mock-up. Photo: Cobia Innovative

Up against red tape

As Mathews is working to commercialize his flood cover, he has run up against a challenge with insurance premiums. Currently, a dry floodproofing measure like this is not eligible for an insurance premium reduction, because FEMA doesn’t support dry floodproofing for residential applications. Mathews would like to see a “partial premium reduction” for his system, since it offers “partial mitigation.” Full mitigation would involve elevating mechanical equipment out of harm’s way, but Mathews argues that his much-less-expensive flood covers offer some of that protection, so homeowners should be able to benefit from some level of savings in insurance premiums.

“I’m just trying to expand the definition of waterproof enclosure,” Mathews told me, “to include waterproof membranes, which are currently allowed for commercial properties.”

For information on Cobia’s flood covers or to offer suggestions on how to get around the red tape so that this solution could be more widely deployed, visit Cobia’s website, or contact the company by e-mail or phone: 862-926-7966.

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