Buildings Buzz

Advancements in Water Leak Detection

Surprisingly, natural disasters are not the highest risk to buildings, it is water leaks which cause the most damage, drip by drip.

Water damage is the leading cause of insurance claims in the United States, even exceeding fire and theft claims combined, but the latest advancements in water leak sensing and shut-off technology can uncover risk for building owners and managers, and headaches for engineers.

Potential for high losses in high-rises

Water is labeled “the enemy” by some insurance claims managers. Occasionally pipes make a splash – bursting with an impressive show. Others dribble, unnoticed, for extended periods in cabinets or hidden spaces.

Multi-story buildings, especially structures of 20+ years and those with numerous tenants, carry high risk related to water damage. Normal infrastructure wear and tear as well as human error increases chances for leaks. For example, water trickled down nine floors of an office building after a leak on a hot water tank relief valve went undetected for a weekend. Losses totaled $600,000.

On top of costs to rebuild, estimates and headaches grow when tenants and owners experience loss of use. Also, mold and mildew can increase a claim tenfold and require strict environmental compliance.

The ‘smoke detector’ for water

Smoke alarms moved from rare to ubiquitous as innovators refined technology and improved affordability. Leak sensing systems are the ‘smoke alarm’ for water and poised to follow a similar growth path. While fire prevention deserves priority as a life-saving measure, drips and small floods harm property and assets and interrupt business, residence and quality of life.

Water leak sensing innovation

High-rise building owners, managers and engineers thirsty for a solution will discover advancements in water leak sensing are making the systems easier to install and manage. Some products work well for single dwellings and specific uses, but they prove difficult to scale for multi-level residential or commercial applications. The latest devices mitigate high risk for large structures and protect property and assets by leveraging modern technology:

Wireless – No one wants to fish wires through crawl spaces, not to mention suffer the expense and disruption wired installation involves. Wireless water leak sensing ensures any building, new or existing – even historical – can be retrofitted with sensors. When a leak occurs, the unit responds with a local alarm and delivers notifications by phone, text and email to managers. It also tracks the time of response.

Cloud-based – Sensors are placed at sites of potential leaks – sinks, air conditioners, toilets, plumbing chases and more. For buildings with hundreds of units, individual systems would ring multiple cell phones. Instead, cloud technology supports combination of data from all units into a single portal monitored by building operators. Additionally, cloud-based management will not be interrupted by power outages.

Automated – In some cases, automatically shutting off a water valve when a leak is detected is worth any inconvenience to users; for instance, the building may lack 24/7 monitoring or the water source itself is near mission-critical equipment. In other situations, immediate notification supports adequate protection. Useful leak sensing systems offer both options.

Building engineers and property managers can identify problem areas where wireless leak detection can be of most benefit. A typical system has a payback of less than 1 year by avoiding just one leak. No one will miss the drip.

Tips on choosing a system

A building assessment must be done to determine your building’s needs. Identity the common areas where water leaks occur and other critical areas you would like to protect. Determine if you would like to protect common areas, tenant suites, or both and decide whether you would like the extra protection by using automatic water shut off valves.

Once you determine your needs there are options you can pursue. For property managers who want to reduce costs, standalone systems that are specific to individual tenants may be a viable option. The drawback here is that the responsibility is on the tenant and building engineers will not know if there is a leak unless reported by the tenant.

Water leak detection systems that utilize current technology and integrate with BMS systems may also be a way to go. The caution here is that BMS systems are not always reliable and subject to failure during power outages. For property managers and building engineers that want comprehensive water leak detection, look for systems that offer the advancements in wireless and monitoring technology as well as capabilities that work well within the specific building portfolio being considered.

Laurie C. Conner is President and CEO of The Detection Group. Reach her at:

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