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Leak Detection: What FMs should know

Author : David Strydom

04 June 2015

How important is leak detection with respect to property maintenance? What are the most dangerous kinds of leaks? Are FMs as aware of various types of leaks – and the dangers they pose – as they should be?

Water pipe leaks are big news, particularly when they lead to waste. But water leaks are just one type – indeed, there are several. PFM spoke to sector experts, asking about the various types of leeks and what FMs can do resolve issues.

A major contributing factor for potentially catastrophic leaks in buildings is not having precise knowledge of the extent and condition of pipe systems, says Steve Broughton, MD of emergency cleaning firm CleanSafe Services.

The company, based in London, with branches in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, is kept busy responding to problems caused by floods of water, sewage and other chemicals, some hazardous, in buildings across the UK.

“Pipe systems in buildings are often hidden, and plans and documents designed to show where they run, how they’re connected, what they’re used for, and their condition are often not accurate,” says Broughton.

“For FMs, it’s a major problem. Thanks to construction mistakes or unforeseen circumstances, floods can occur even in the most modern buildings, with potentially devastating consequences.”

One such case in recent months was a health and fitness club, part of a national chain, where 50,000 litres of raw sewage was found in four chambers under its indoor swimming pool, after members complained of a bad smell and flies in changing rooms.

An area of up to 100sqm was found to be filled with sewage up to 0.75 metres deep. The chambers were infested with tens of thousands of flies. The heat generated by the fermenting sewage pushed temperatures to over 40 degrees centigrade.

In a three-week operation, working at night, CleanSafe removed the human waste without the club having to close, and without its members knowing there had even been such a major problem. Emergency cleaning operatives then fumigated, deep cleaned and deodorised the chamber. The flood was found to have been caused by an uncapped sewage pipe. Once it was professionally capped off, a spill could not happen again.

“The sports club had been facing a huge problem, in terms of loss of income, if it had to close to remove the sewage, as it first feared, and major adverse impact on its reputation,” says Broughton. “Luckily for them, we were able to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. FMs need to be absolutely sure they understand assets like drainage systems inside out, and the potential risks they face.”

Jamie Nash, director of Polygon, says the most dangerous leak is the one you can’t find. “You could argue that the most dangerous leak is the one you can’t find, especially when you think that even the smallest 0.5mm leak could lose 20 litres of water every hour. Imagine the damage 20 litres of water leaking every hour for days on end could do to your property if it goes unnoticed?”

Nash says his company finds more than 4,000 leaks every year, from domestic water pipe leaks to large and complex commercial leaks. “Whatever the damage scenario, the damage outcome is generally the same – high levels of customer disruption, significant business interruption, an increased water bill and potentially expensive remediation. All this can of course be avoided by integrating a plumbing maintenance plan into your overall maintenance schedule.”

The other clear danger associated with leaks is the damage caused in trying to find the leak. “Traditional methods of leak detection can be highly disruptive and essentially involve making holes in the walls or floors in an attempt to locate it. Market leading leak detection companies employ a range of non-destructive technologies including Acoustic, CCTV, Correlation, Endoscopy, Thermography and Tracer gas.”

So how can FMs protect against these dangers? “Our leak detection checklist should help. First, identify a provider with nationwide coverage so you’re safe in the knowledge they will always be by your side. Second, find a provider that is already trusted by other, similar organisations and can demonstrate an audited process and KPIs. Third, source a provider that can demonstrate water regulations qualifications such as BPECK and RAS and can provide evidence of a training competency framework. Fourth, is the provider demonstrably investing in the latest technologies and best practice sharing?

“Ideally of course, you would find a provider that could find the leak with little or no damage to the building infrastructure; but then that same provider could find the leak and repair any damage caused by the leak. The danger associated with a less seamless approach is of course the time and effort associated with managing multiple suppliers; the delays associated with co-ordinating a number of services and the cost of such an approach.”

By identifying a full service provider that can maintain, find, fix and dry, FMs can enjoy several clear benefits, most notably mitigating against damage in the first place, and in the event damage is evident, it’s resolved in the fastest, most effective method possible.

Nick Phillips, critical environments service director, NG Bailey, says, “When people think of leak detection, water leaks will be one of the first things that come to mind. But for anyone working in the FM arena there are many other potential ‘leaks’ that need to be managed, such as refrigerants, fuel, heat, sound and energy.”
Leak detection plays an important part in the maintenance of any property, Phillips points out. “Leaks can negatively impact systems as a whole, they can affect the environment and, quite possibly, the well-being of the personnel that have to work round them.

“However, there are some building environments where leaks can have a catastrophic impact, and yet the risks are often overlooked. In data centres and other critical environments, for example, leak prevention and detection at the earliest opportunity are crucial.” 

It’s easy when managing a critical environment to focus on the key equipment, such as uninterruptible power supplies and data servers, says Phillips. But the risk to the operation, and the company’s reputation, can be equally high through water or other liquids affecting electrical, IT equipment or even work areas.

“The implications of leaks could be threefold: a catastrophic impact can result in a loss of service and, therefore, closure or suspension of operations; a legislative impact can result in fines and cause financial and reputational damage to a business, while an energy impact can cost money due to inefficiencies.”

While seasoned FMs will be aware of the most common leaks and the risks associated with them, there are still a number of areas that can be overlooked. 

FMs will be well aware of the need to check refrigerant systems for losses, and the impact that water ingress can cause. They’re less likely to have effective regimes in place for checking underground fuel tanks. Also, if you view the loss of conditioned air or heat as ‘leaks’, then again there’s unlikely to be a rigorous regime in place for identifying and resolving these. If you also view these as leaking costs, you can see how taking a similar approach to finding and fixing all leaks can have a direct impact on the bottom line. 

As with any FM regime, it’s essential a rigorous risk-based approach is taken to maintaining any asset, from pipework to fabric, particularly within a critical environment.

Any approach needs to categorise those risks and develop appropriate controls and maintenance plans to mitigate them. There also needs to be a dedicated system in place for monitoring the key risks identified onsite on a continuous basis.

Maintenance good practice recommends a comprehensive building survey every five years to assess the physical condition of the premises and anticipate the remaining life of external and internal building components and installations. 

One key output is a 10-year maintenance plan, which will identify and report on incipient signs of defects and anticipate and prioritise expenditure. This will enable the FM team to manage and keep control of costs arising from the use and occupation of the premises.

Crucially, there also needs to be a contingency plan in place for when incidents do happen and the team should be rehearsed in responding to potential scenarios to minimise impact and ensure the leak is repaired as quickly as possible to minimise impact.

Richard Leigh, business development director at Lanes Group, says water pipe leaks are bad enough, but foul drain leaks in buildings pose additional dangers, in terms of structural damage, harm to health and reputational risk. “Many sewage pipe systems in historical buildings and modern ones, are encased in the building structure, so leaks can be hard to detect until a lot of damage is done.”

In modern buildings, where there is a demand to maximise floor space with minimal structural supports, pipes are slung above false ceilings, and are made of plastic, to minimise their weight, says Leigh. “A common failing in internal drainage is burst joints in plastic pipes. In one case, in a large NHS hospital, there was a leak in a basement medical records area that cost thousands of pounds.

“Macerators had been installed in sluice rooms in wards above to reduce water usage. The macerators created waste sludge which become blocked in the pipe, causing the burst. The law of unintended consequences applied. Retail premises, like supermarkets, have similar problems. Liquids can build up behind blockages, and then leak at weakened joints where the plastic has become brittle.

“The first time the problem is noticed is when a customer goes to the service desk and complains about the smelly water falling from the ceiling in aisle three.”

Leak detection and prevention can also be hampered by difficulties in maintaining up-to-date records. Leigh says: “Drainage systems are developed over long periods, for different owners, by different FM companies.

“Standards of maintenance and repair, and priorities for use, change, and often records are not kept up to date. We often find asset registers are not accurate. Conditions that cause leaks can easily go undetected with, potentially, catastrophic consequences.

“The only answer is to authorise a full external and internal drainage survey, certainly when a new building is acquired, then at appropriate intervals as part of a preventative maintenance programme.

“When taking over a new building, it could be helpful to look over its drainage maintenance history. A lack of one should sound an alarm bell, and if there are indications of problem hot spots, with long-term unresolved issues, these are places where leaks could be more likely.”

Early leak detection is crucial in historical buildings, where internal soil stacks could be embedded in walls. “Sewage and foul water leaking from these stacks can cause considerable damage, chemically-reacting with stonework and mortar to weaken and erode it. It can have a profound effect on the structure of the building.

“FMs also need to be aware older materials used to build drainage systems may contribute to such internal seepage.

“For example, we recently had to replace a pitch fibre pipe under the kitchen in England’s oldest inn, in Cambridgeshire. Pitch fibre drain pipes were once common but are no longer used because they literally rot away. FMs responsible for pub and restaurant chains have to see these sort of assets as major risk factors for sewage leaks.”

Water leak detection is an increasingly important issue for FMs, yet it remains a hidden and under-estimated danger, says Rob Staines, MD of Aquasentry. “Increasing use of IT, even in the past five years, and many businesses’ complete reliance on it, means even small leaks can have a disproportionately large impact on business continuity. Often, IT cabling is run through the same spaces in a building as water service pipes, whether clean or foul water. The first businesses know there’s a problem is when their computers go down, and the IT system fails.” 

Then, there has to be a search to find the cause and location of the IT failure, while no business is being done, and the money taps are turned off, says Staines, adding that there are sophisticated leak detection systems available. “The main two systems are based on detector matting or linear cable networks, which can be laid under floors, in walls, or in ducting. 

“These can detect even small changes in moisture levels, alerting the building manager at the earliest opportunity a leak may have occurred, and where it’s happening.”

Since the recession, this means many building owners have seen leak protection as a cost that they can cut. There is still the attitude a water leak is something they can deal with when it happens, Staines points out. “We have sympathy for FMs. They can advise clients of the risks, but they can’t force them to act on them. In many cases, however, doing nothing can be a false saving.”

The cost of installing appropriate water detection will be much less than the cost incurred by a leak which may cause serious damage to a building, stop a business from trading, or harm its reputation, and cause serious damage to assets in the building as well. “Unfortunately, it means we’re often called to install water leak detection systems after the damage is done. A regional private art gallery we advised declined to have leak detection installed.” 

“Several years later, they had a water leak, which caused significant damage, and they asked us to install a fully-comprehensive system, with every specialist failsafe going.”

Staines says it’s often the smallest water leaks that are the most damaging. “A catastrophic leak and flood is detected quickly, and action can be taken. But a pipe drip, drip, dripping in a wall cavity can be undetected for years. By the time it’s found, it can have caused significant structural damage that will cost a fortune to put right.”

Major art galleries, international banks and digital media companies are among those who have most to lose if a water leak and flood occurs. However, similar but smaller businesses may be living with the risk of having only partial protection. “Many smaller banks may protect their server space, for example in branch offices. But their customer-facing areas are often unprotected. So, if a leak and flood occurs, IT systems may still be affected, and business continuity may be badly hit. So a lot of damage is still done.”

Despite significant resistance to acting on leak risks – often not instigated by FM professionals – Staines says there have been signs over the past 18 months that businesses are doing more to guard against leaks in buildings. “As the economy has started to recover, there’s a sense that business continuity plans, put to one side when the recession set in, are being dusted off, and businesses are addressing risks they knew were there, but didn’t have a budget to deal with.

“We’re seeing an upturn in FMs and building managers coming to us for advice on leak protection. That’s a promising sign. Maybe, some have thought, we know we’ve been unprotected for several years, but we got away with it, now we want to put in place measures we need. Others, along the way, will have been hit hard by water leaks. That’s the risk they take.”

When asked if FMs were aware of different types of leaks, Aneysha Minocha, energy director at ISS technical services said: “Energy wastage is common in many working environments; we as FMs and service providers are best-placed to identify energy leaks and minimise operational energy consumption. This drives carbon and cost savings for customers but also increases the total lifecycle and efficiency of assets.”

The danger of energy leaks is that they can’t be seen, heard, felt or smelled, Minocha points out. “This type of leak is silent and the only time most organisations discover this is when the bill arrives at the end of the month. By then, it’s too late.

“Energy losses can be difficult to identify as they can be caused by multiple factors ranging from operational demands and behaviours, to asset performance and building operations strategy. As FMs we operate environments that are ever-changing in their use and demand, having to constantly balance thermal comfort, asset reliability and energy efficiency.

“In our experience, energy management isn't a one-off initiative that can reduce consumption; it needs to be addressed constantly.”

Technological advancements in the industry such as data analytics, remote connectivity and 
enhanced computing power can play a vital role in managing energy on a daily, hourly and real-time basis, says Minocha. “These can be used by the FM's to their advantage by having real-time visibility of energy consumption and anomalies, to enable identification of areas of energy leaks through root cause analysis and dynamic resolution.

“This results in an enhanced understanding of the built environment and enables the FM to guide their clients towards providing a sustainable workplace for their end users. At ISS we call it energy-led engineering and deliver this through our award-winning Energy Monitoring Application (EMAP) platform.

“Combining operational efficiencies with thorough energy audit of your operational building/portfolio will help identify potential issues with building fabric, BEMS/BMS, plant and equipment you're responsible for maintaining.”

Minocha says FMs play an increasingly important role in the world in which we live. “They help manage change in the operational environment, and play a role in influencing those at board level. Positive results on one site can lead to innovation programmes being implemented across a national portfolio. If I were working as an FM today, I would view it as an opportunity to influence the business and support corporate strategy by ensuring all services become integrated and energy-led. By adopting this approach, businesses could reduce carbon emissions and operational costs.”

Lisa Hannington, MD of Leak Detection Specialists, says hidden water leaks are often stressful and have potentially serious consequences. “FMs must act fast and decide if this is a job for a plumber or a specialist leak detection company. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of confronting a water problem, taking the right steps immediately will protect your budget.

“Priorities include keeping the budget low, and avoiding property damage caused by using the wrong people on the job. A traditional plumber would use ‘gut instinct’ on the source of your leak, then remove flooring, plasterboard walls and ceilings and even cut into brickwork or dig up your driveway to locate the leak.”

If a water leak isn’t detected quickly it has the potential to cause thousands of pounds worth of damage. “It’s not always apparent where the source of a leak is and for this reason, a leak detection specialist is vital,” says Hannington. “It’s important to remember a leak of any nature can cause serious damage to property. Even a 0.5mm leak can lose 20l of water every hour.” 

Hannington points out that acting fast in locating leaks will ensure the least amount of damage to the property. “Leak detection surveys reduce risk and mitigate against damage by providing accurate, non-destructive detection where traditional methods will be destructive or have failed.

All leaks are potentially dangerous if left, causing damage to property, Hannington warns. “Central heating system leaks could leave clients with no heating – in the dead of winter, incurring hotel costs. Central heating systems that are being refilled constantly suffer from oxidisation – rusting radiators and pipes from the inside out, leading to unhappy landlords with large unnecessary expenses.”

Furthermore, water mains supply leaks can quickly cause subsidence of land including footpaths, driveways, gardens or buildings. “Internal water leaks from pipes, tanks, underfloor heating and central heating systems cause an untold amount of damage to property including damage to walls and floors – costing hundreds to rectify. This is turn can lead to a multitude of health problems affected by damp including asthma. Children and the elderly are most at risk.”

Hannington says problems caused by leaks can escalate, providing a comfortable home to many insects, bugs and mites which thrive in damp and dark conditions such as under-floors and walls. “What may seem like a small problem, a simple water leak, can rapidly become a huge problem with extremely costly consequences. Leak detection prevents property damage and saves money. Put your trust in accurate, non-destructive leak detection. If you suspect a leak, don't wait until it's too late.”

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