What is the Source of Most Leakage Problems in Buildings?

The parts of your building’s water infrastructure, how they fail and leak, and what factors influence how and why leakage problems start.

The source of most leakage problems in buildings – leaks that start from water within a building, as opposed to water coming from outside sources – is infrastructure related to water supply and drainage.

Think pipes, valves, fixtures, and fittings – the good news is that most failures are relatively predictable. The bad news is that they often start in places that are difficult to see and monitor.

We cover the parts of your building’s water infrastructure, how they fail and leak, and what factors influence how and why leaks start.

Tightening screw on a pipe

Gaskets & washers

This includes the most common devices and materials we use to prevent water leaks between two parts of a building’s plumbing. These usually achieve this by creating a water seal, ensuring the water pressure is even throughout the plumbing fixture, and giving a smooth surface to tighten nuts and bolts against.

You are probably familiar with these – they are used to protect against water leaks from sink taps and shower heads and around the drains of all the fixtures you’d find in a bathroom.

The most popular material for these devices is synthetic rubber, although you may see some made of silicone or a plastic compound. You’ll find washers and gaskets made of fiber or metal that must withstand high temperatures or pressures, such as on a boiler’s fittings.

Any gasket or washer will fail, given enough time. Especially in the case of rubber, they deteriorate over time, becoming brittle and eventually cracking. Despite this inevitability, predicting how long they will last is difficult. Many factors influence this, including

  • The quality of the material used in the washer or gasket.
  • How often it’s used.
  • The chemical attributes of the water itself.
  • The water pressure.
  • Temperature changes in both the water and the building.
  • The quality of the installation work.

Additionally, the vibrations of water moving past them and the building itself also has a significant effect, eventually bending or warping them so that they lose their compression seal.

Tanked hot water header with valve

Hot water plumbing

Water heaters have a well-known lifespan of 8-12 years. This mostly comes down to an issue of corrosion. Over time, minerals and natural acidity in the water eat away at the steel of the holding tank, causing rust and the eventual breakdown of the tank.

To prevent this, many water heaters have a sacrificial anode, a metal rod that attracts the minerals in the water that would otherwise build up and corrode the heater walls. However, anodes typically don’t last much longer than three years, and because it’s inside the tank, the only way you can check it is by draining the heater tank and opening it up.

To top it all off, by their nature, all parts of a building’s plumbing that heat, hold, or move hot water experience thermal fatigue. This can be mitigated by measures that aim to keep the heater and pipes at as consistent a temperature as possible, but this can’t be eliminated entirely. Over time, this will lead to water heaters and pipes cracking from thermal stress.

Leaking copper pipe

Pipes, valves, & joints

Predicting the lifespan of a building’s piping is difficult to predict. While all pipes will eventually degrade, this is heavily influenced by three major factors: the material of the pipe network, the chemical nature of the water and the design of the plumbing network throughout your building.

Roughly speaking, the most common pipe materials have average lifespans before they become more likely to break down:

  • Copper: 50 - 70 years, depending on usage. Will tend to spring pinhole-sized leaks as they age.
  • Brass: 80 - 100 years, although these are rarer now, as lead was previously used in the metallurgy process due to its corrosion resistance.
  • Galvanized steel: 80 - 100 years. The zinc coating protects against common corrosion of the pipe but will begin to rust as the coating deteriorates.
  • Cast iron: 80 - 100 years. Like galvanized steel, will begin to rust as it ages. Uncommon in modern buildings, will generally only see these in older structures or as drain pipes.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and similar polymer compounds: 50 - 100 years. There is less general agreement on how long these last. PVC pipes are still relatively new and haven’t been around long enough for us to have better information about how they degrade.

Much like water heaters, plumbing, especially metal pipes and joints, tends to deteriorate faster due to water with high mineral content. These minerals build up on the insides of joints and valves, restricting water flow and causing valves to become stiff or stuck. This can lead to issues with water pressure, causing additional load and wear on the pipes.

Finally, water leaks are more likely to happen in complex plumbing systems. Joints are usually one of the spots most vulnerable to leaks due to temperature and water pressure. The more joints there are, the greater the risk.

Frozen pipe

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems

HVAC systems leak water for a few different reasons.

One of the most common is clogging of the air conditioning condensate drain. This drain line runs through your building, typically made of PVC or metal, allowing condensation from the system’s evaporator coils to get out.

With a large building with a central heating and cooling system on multiple floors or where temperature control is critical, such as in a supermarket, this includes a complex system of vacuum pumps, valves and collection tanks.

If the drain line becomes clogged or a pump breaks, you’ll likely find a leak will start rapidly while the air conditioning system is running, as water backs up and overflows.

The other common source of water leaks, beyond cracking and age of pipes and tanks, similar to what we described above, is when evaporator coils freeze over. This can happen because air filters need to be cleaned or, more concerningly, if refrigerant is leaking out of the system. When this happens, moisture builds up around air handlers, resulting in a leak.

While the main solution to prevent HVAC water leaks should be regular inspection and maintenance, accidents still happen and will usually only be noticed when a leak or flooding is already underway. In these situations, it is critical to act quickly, as HVAC systems can put out a lot of water quickly.

LAIIER's Severn sensor installed on a pipe

Severn Water Leak Detection can protect you from leaks before they can get started

Water leaks in a large building’s plumbing and HVAC systems can be hard to find, especially since the things we’ve covered are usually behind walls or in other hard-to-reach spaces. The main advantage you have when protecting your building from water damage is that you know water leaks will happen, and we know where they are most likely to occur. This is where water leak detection systems and the Internet of Things can help – protecting and warning you about leaks before they can cause damage.

If you’re looking for a way to protect your commercial property from water damage, our Severn Water Leak Detection system could be a powerful tool to help. Severn sensors can detect leaks early on and minimize the amount of damage caused.

Learn more about Severn Water Leak Detection, or book a demo today.

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