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Challenges for Future Water Leak Sensors in Commercial Buildings

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LAIIER
Man repairing a

When thinking about commercial buildings, the terms ‘larger-scale’, ‘more expensive’ and ‘more stakeholders’ may come to mind. These qualities are exactly why the impact of water leaks can be so devastating and is reflected in the average loss for commercial buildings at $1.4 million, compared to domestic homes at just under $4,000 [ref].

Water leaks in this context are not rare occurrences either, as commercial buildings, especially high rises, have more susceptibilities whether through a cracked humidity vent or damaged roof flashing. The more serious events can cause a rippling effect of issues for businesses, forcing downtime of up to six months in some cases [ref] and damaging company reputation.

To prevent the catastrophic impact of a water leak, water sensing devices have been used, whether installed or as an inspection tool, to detect the first signs of water leaks. Despite the array of sensor choices, there is now a consideration required for how varied commercial buildings are and therefore their leak types. This will impact features such as their installation and form factors- as, after all, there is no point in installing state-of-the-art sensors if they cannot be accessed for recalibration.

Therefore, in this post, we explore the key weaknesses of commercial buildings and what current sensing devices are offering. This will explain what we believe are the key features that should be in commercial water leak sensors. Then finally, we present our LoRaWAN water leak detector system that effectively de-risks potential water damage.

Commercial Buildings: More appliances, more pipes, more weak points 

Interior water leak damage on walls and ceiling

Roofs

Roofing, as an integral part of commercial buildings, can be the most problematic, in the US alone, more than $12 billion is spent annually on repairing and recovering roofs [ref]. Particularly on high-rise buildings, roofs are exposed to more extreme temperatures, wind speeds and precipitation that can damage roofing layers and vulnerable areas such as around flashing and skylights over time. 

Flat roofs are popular for commercial buildings but have worse drainage properties so damage like ponding and blistering can be more apparent [ref]. The multi-layer nature of roofs also means that if water bypasses the weatherproof membrane, the wooden boards and insulation layers below may be irreversibly damaged and impact structural elements below. 

External Features: Windows, balconies and guttering

Externally, commercial buildings are more likely to have more windows, balconies and gutters, opening up the possibilities for more water intrusion within the building if parts are not sealed effectively [ref]. Similar to roofing, this can warp inner drywall but consistent leaks can corrode rebar, sabotaging concrete structures.

Internal Water Sources: toilets, faucets and plumbed-in appliances

As well as more external features, more occupants or equipment mean more toilets, faucets and plumbed-in appliances. Although these appliances by themselves can be easy to repair, detecting signs of leaks can be difficult especially at the scale of commercial buildings. These types of leaks can also start very subtly but can deteriorate suddenly if not maintained.

HVAC technician inspecting ventilation system

Pipes and HVAC networks 

What is becoming more apparent due to COVID19 is that buildings have had lower occupancy rates meaning that plumbing systems have been drained and left full of oxygen. This creates an optimum environment for corrosion [ref], so when recommissioned, this can lead to unexpected issues in pipework. This phenomenon would likely occur in HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) networks which are already high maintenance from the varying temperatures, moisture levels and contaminants [ref]. 

Supply and sewer lines are another weak point susceptible to pipe bursts from cold weather, corrosion and adverse pressure. Pipe leaks may also be harder to detect as they can be underground.

There are many ways for unwanted water to damage a building and, to solely monitor water damage by eye is not enough- water leaks are unpredictable so will only be amplified at the scale of a commercial building.

Engineer inspecting server cables

The indirect destruction of water leaks

A building’s weak points will vary depending on the building type, whether a hospital, data center, high-rise office or storage warehouse; however, the potential costs could still be huge for whichever case. In many reported major water leaks, costs start from the initial repair of the leak but escalate to account for the amount of downtime, canceled contracts, increased insurance premiums and more. For example, from a single failed pressure release valve on the 16th floor of a high-rise office, water damage cost $6.5 million and six months of repair to fix damaged offices, elevators and electricals [ref].

Recovering the building’s structure can salvage costs, however, for buildings, such as data centers, companies can permanently lose valuable assets. Downtime alone for critical servers is reported at around $350,000 per hour [ref], and furthermore losing sensitive data can ruin invaluable business relationships. Hospitals are similarly critical buildings with valuable equipment and machinery but with the added factor of patients whose lives could be at risk. 

These varying industries demonstrate why different insurance types are required, whether covering the building structure or specialist equipment. But, even with most building insurance policies, not all water leaks are included due to the unpredictability of damage. Reducing the large risks of water leaks by early detection may open the door to more insurance policies that cater to commercial buildings.

Manual moisture detection sensor

Sensor solutions

For commercial buildings, there are many leak detection services hired to locate and specify the characteristics of a leak. These professional methods [ref] are usually for more serious leaks in inaccessible areas such as an underground supply line. Examples used include acoustic sensors, thermal imaging cameras and tracer gas [ref] to manually investigate leak types. These manual methods can be very informative after a leak is detected however, are slow, expensive and may require periods of downtime.

Water leak sensors, on the other hand, detect water leaks automatically, taking a more proactive approach. These sensors come in three main forms for commercial buildings: flow meters, spot sensors and cable sensors. Firstly, flow meters can be installed within pipes and plumbing networks to detect changes in flow, velocity, pressure or vibration [ref] so facility managers can be notified of any monitored water damage. These can also be set up to automatically shut off water supplies. The disadvantage of these is that for large multi-facility buildings, leaks are not located just stopped. These also do not detect leaks caused from outside the building which are just as important.

Secondly and the most common, there are spot sensors (or flood sensors) that are palm-sized pucks with multiple probes placed in leak-prone areas [ref]. Once the probes conduct water, this is communicated to prompt inspection in this area. This can therefore locate exactly where the leak is coming from, but spot sensors usually have a rigid form factor, restricting sensing to hard level surfaces.

Lastly, sensor cables are flexible alternatives to spot sensors meaning they can be installed around pipes or at the edge of rooms [ref]. Another benefit is that they can cover large spans of areas that suit commercial settings with large roofs or floorings. 

Overall, beyond just sensing water leaks, automatic IoT water leak sensors have extra benefits of data analytics, confidence in knowing when to service-specific areas and contribute to favorable insurance terms.

Applying LAIIER's Severn sensor onto a pipe

Future considerations for the optimum water leak sensor 

Although deploying these water leak sensors has the potential to reduce huge costs, how can their effectiveness be guaranteed? Careful consideration of the sensor’s location, accessibility and communication abilities are key in a successful leak detection setup. 

First of all, potential leak points can vary greatly so a spot sensor that is functional in an office kitchen may not be useful in an expansive IT cooling system. It may therefore be difficult for building contractors or owners to know exactly what solution to choose. At LAIIER, we have taken the need for adaptability to mind by developing a range of ultra-thin sticker-like sensors that can accurately sense in a wide variety of scenarios. This can cover wide areas or even be trimmed to fit in tight plumbing networks.

Additionally, where the sensor is installed is crucial for the first signs of a leak, but it can be hard to scope where this is exactly. LAIIER’s form factor and sensing technique make our sensors very economical and scalable, meaning that wide areas can discreetly be transformed into smart water sensors. This removes the need to pinpoint high-risk areas. LAIIER’s sensors can also communicate where specifically on the sensor it was triggered and to a more accurate degree than cable sensors [ref]. This makes it easier to identify the cause so only damaged parts need to be repaired.

During the operation phase, access to the sensor is vital as this will allow for maintenance and replacement if needed [ref]. LAIIER’s sensors allow for seamless remote connectivity, communicating not only sensor measurements but also sensor status, reducing the need for facility managers to manually inspect local leak monitors. Our Surface to Cloud™ platform on our LoRaWAN leak detectors furthermore allows for wireless and power-efficient communication. Extended battery life, automatic communication and scalability are all essential qualities seen in upcoming IoT water management systems. 

Finally, leak detector readings can be enhanced by having additional temperature and/or humidity sensors. This can form a larger picture of whether corrosion, as the main detriment of pipes, is taking place. LAIIER is currently developing sensors that consider the surrounding environment so that our platform can synergize this data for perceptive insights.

There is more to consider than just the sensor

It is conclusive that a lot is at stake for commercial buildings highlighting how important the water leak sensing opportunity is. Early detection and providing more data over risky areas keep stakeholders informed and in control over their properties which has not always been the case. Therefore, by taking this new proactive stance, this may transform the hesitant attitudes of insurance providers to be more confident in covering more water-related policies.

The process, however, does not stop with just a sensing solution: sensors must be strategically placed to detect a variety of leak types on a variety of surfaces, whilst also being able to communicate efficiently with the facility manager. Meeting these conditions is especially important in commercial buildings where water leaks can be more destructive.

LAIIER has kept these essential requirements at our forefront whilst developing our LoRaWAN water leak detector systems with our adaptable, printed sensors. 

To find out more about our sensor solutions and their applications in other industries, sign up for our monthly newsletter here. Have an idea or want more information on how we work with partners to develop scalable solutions? Email us at info@laiier.io


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