"Why do we need leak protection installed on projects? We design water systems not to leak." This is typically the first question that arises when discussing leak detection with a plumbing engineer. And it's a great one.
The most straightforward answer is that water damage from plumbing failures continues to escalate at an alarming rate. Failed fittings, fixtures and water-fed appliances are the main culprits — not the system design itself. But as leak detection technology improves and becomes easier to integrate, property owners and insurers increasingly expect system designers to include water damage mitigation measures in their plans.
Plumbing systems account for roughly 7 percent to 10 percent of the design work for a new building. Water damage caused by plumbing leaks accounts for closer to 40 percent of insurance claims in the United States and Canada. Even as loss from fire damage continues to decline, water damage claims are on the rise.
And insurance costs are skyrocketing. It's common for commercial property owners to see insurance deductibles rise from $10,000 to $100,000 without leak mitigation systems in place.
Risks Are Everywhere
Countertop coffee makers connected to the water system in office kitchens can spring a leak, allowing water to run undetected for hours or even days.
Water heaters installed in the plenum space, water chillers under the sink and dishwashers are all vulnerable to hidden leaks. Mechanical rooms have many moving parts with flowing water, and it can be days before a water leak is detected.
Facility managers will tell you that in the era of COVID-19, the new way to flush a toilet is with your foot — damaging the fixture and causing water to flow where it shouldn't.
In residences, water heaters often unexpectedly fail and flood basement or finished spaces. Toilet and washing machine supply lines give out and water flows in under full pressure until someone discovers the issue. Dishwasher and refrigerator supply hoses can slowly leak out of sight for months, compromising the structure and leading to mold.
These are real challenges requiring dependable technology to detect and shut down the water damage before it escalates.
What Are Your Options?
The good news is that a variety of leak protection solutions are available, so it's easy to select technology meeting the needs of the client and property. Your options typically include:
• Flow-based systems that alert building staff of unexpected increases in water use and shut off the water supply automatically.
• Point-of-use systems that employ water sensors at potential leak points such as sinks, toilets, dishwashers and water heaters. Automatic shut-off valves jump into action when a leak is detected.
• Sometimes, it isn't practical to turn off the water supply when a leak is detected. However, sensors can still detect water leaks and alert staff of the location of the issue.
• Temperature sensors that detect low inside building temperatures alert the staff or owner of the possibility of frozen water pipe, often with the option to shut off the water remotely.
Modern smart leak detection systems typically employ wireless sensors and other components to identify the leak's location via smartphone app or another messaging service. Traditional wired systems may rely on audible alarms to notify residents or staff of an issue.
Addressing the Most Critical Concerns
• Commercial office space. Water heaters, restrooms and kitchen areas are the critical areas of concern in commercial buildings. A strategic combination of wired or wireless water sensors, flow valves and automatic water shut-off valves will keep water leaks in check.
Water heaters in a plenum space or mechanical room can often be protected with a standalone device. An automatic shut-off valve/actuator is installed on the cold water feed line, a wired sensor is placed in the pan, and the device is connected to an electrical source. If the tank leaks, the water is shut off automatically and an alarm sounds. Special kits are available with plenum-rated components to make it easy to work in these challenging spaces.
Install wired or wireless sensors at the sink, coffee maker, ice maker, dishwasher and any other water-fed appliance that might be a concern in kitchens and break rooms. Leaks occurring overnight or over the weekend can result in significant damage. An automatic shut-off valve on the cold and hot water feed to the area can be very valuable.
Point-of-contact sensors can be problematic in restrooms, where false alarms are common and equipment is susceptible to damage by the public. Smart flow monitoring systems with automatic shut-off valves are great for these types of spaces, detecting sudden spikes in usage, shutting off the water, and alerting the staff to the leak and location.
Some leak detection systems feature dry contacts for easy connection to a building communication system to instantly alert staff and provide the location of any leaks. Smart wireless systems provide smartphone app-based monitoring and alerts, plus the ability to set up zones within a single system. Central monitoring also may be available to keep track of multiple systems or properties from a single terminal.
• Multifamily properties. Owners of new-build multifamily low-rise and high-rise buildings are investing in water flow monitoring systems for individual apartment suites. With cloud-based flow systems installed in each suite, leaks are quickly detected, the water is shut off automatically, and the staff is alerted of the location of the issue via a smartphone app.
Monitoring water usage of individual units in real-time lets management take localized corrective action when the system flags unusual water usage.
• Construction sites. Five weeks before a contractor in the Southwest was due to turn over a 25-story, 225-unit high-end condo building, a catastrophic water leak occurred and ran undetected for three days. It caused $6 million in water damage and delayed delivery of the building by four months. Leak detection and automatic water shut-off would have mitigated this loss.
Insurance companies are increasingly insisting on the installation of leak detection systems to protect buildings in the construction phase. The most practical solution in these situations is often a flow monitoring valve installed at the main water source. The system will detect unwanted water flow, turn off the water automatically, and alert the contractor via a mobile app, providing round-the-clock protection for the construction site.
• Residential. In heating climates, about 70 percent of all water damage claims start with frozen water lines, fittings and fixtures. The damage occurs when the frozen pipe thaws and water begins running again, escaping through the fractures in the system, causing the pipe to burst and quickly leading to thousands of dollars of damage. This can be a huge problem for those who retreat to warmer climates during the winter months, leaving their properties unattended.
Smart leak detection systems include temperature sensing to send low-temperature alerts and allow homeowners to shut off the water remotely before the piping system freezes. The same system with sensors installed at washing machines, sinks, toilets and water heaters will detect leaks, shut the water off automatically and notify the homeowner.
Brian Postlethwaite is the technical sales manager for Reliance Detection Technologies/FloodMaster, a provider of commercial and residential plumbing leak detection and automatic water shut-off solutions. He has more than a decade of experience helping engineers and mechanical contractors specify and design the best solution for their application, no matter how unique. For information, visit www.reliancedetection.com.