Water damage takes on a whole new meaning when you live in a high-rise condominium. Even a small leak can result in property loss on multiple floors and in numerous units before anyone realizes there’s a problem. Once an issue is detected, the water already may have spread so far that the origin of the leak becomes difficult to pinpoint quickly.
If your high-rise condo is located in Texas, Hurricane Harvey may have refocused your attention onto flood-related water emergencies rather than those resulting from internal leaks. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the very real risks associated with a water leakage emergency and to identify what you can do to mitigate them.
Common sources of leaks in high-rise condos
Although water leaks can occur anywhere you have plumbing, here are some typical places where internal leaks tend to start:
- Building-wide systems. Boilers, water tanks and heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems all bring extensive water flow through your high-rise. According to Omar Mont-Louis, regional director of facilities management at FirstService Residential in Texas, “You need to be aware of the water quality in your cooling systems because iron and sodium can attack the pipes and cause them to rust.”
- Sprinklers. Since fire-prevention sprinklers use high pressure, any break or leak will result in significant water loss in a relatively short amount of time.
- Appliances. Whether it’s the dishwasher in someone’s unit or a refrigerator in the common room, appliances are frequently to blame for leaks. Advanced appliances often require specialized knowledge to install because their plumbing connections are more sophisticated than those in older models.
- Water supply and sewer lines. One of the biggest issues with supply and sewer lines in high-rise buildings is that the piping is hidden inside walls. This makes it difficult to notice a leak until it has already done significant damage.
Leaks in the supply lines to toilets, sinks and appliances may appear minor, but they can cause costly damage to the units below. “It can be something as simple as a leak in a supply line on a commode,” explains Mont-Louis. “You can lose up to 10 gallons a day, and if the unit owner is on vacation, the leak can go undetected until the ceiling collapses in the unit below. A $2,000 job can turn into a $20,000 issue in a matter of hours.
Factors that put your high-rise building at risk
Not surprisingly, if your building is more than 20 years old, it runs a greater risk of having leaks because the infrastructure (plumbing and piping) has been wearing out over time.
Not following recommended maintenance schedules can also put your building at greater risk. Systems and components that haven’t been properly tested and inspected are more likely to spring leaks. Mont-Louis points out that, “one of the most important things you should know is the current condition and the expected life of your building’s equipment and infrastructure.”
Not having an updated reserve study or having a study that doesn’t include piping and plumbing is another risk factor, he says. “Sometimes the infrastructure gets missed in a reserve study so there are leaks that pop up all over the place.” Even with a good reserve study, however, leakage can occur. “Studies are generally updated every 2 to 3 years, but leaks can happen at anytime,” warns Mont-Louis.
Of all the risk factors, however, Mont-Louis considers the absence of a water damage mitigation program – including training for key maintenance staff and an emergency response plan – as the leading cause of costly losses. “Does anyone know how to respond if a water emergency occurs?,” Mont-Louis asks. “Do they know where the shut-off valves are and what each one controls?”
Elements of a water damage mitigation program
Although you can’t anticipate every leak, a comprehensive program will help you minimize the risks as well as the extent of any damage. Your condo association’s management company can help you create an effective program that is tailored to address your building’s unique features. Here are some of the things to consider as part of your program:
- Potential risks. Consider the age and quality of your infrastructure, the expected useful life of your systems, areas of the building where water damage would be particularly costly and the locations of high-volume or high-pressure water travel. An up-to-date reserve study will provide some of the information you need for your assessment.
- The location of water controls. Label the main valves for your building’s domestic water and fire protection systems, main valves on each floor and valves for critical areas of the building (for example, near your electrical or equipment rooms). Also label the water supply for chilled water, including the direction of water flow. Keep a list of this information, along with schematics in your engineering, maintenance and/or security rooms. If possible, obtain basic drawings of your building’s water systems, including the piping, plumbing, valves and pumps.
- Needed supplies. Mobile spill carts should be available in multiple areas of your building with items that can help you quickly reduce water damage such as tarps, wet vacuums, clamps, dehumidifiers, duct tape, mops and fans.
- Emergency response plan. In a high-rise building, you should have a plan for responding to a variety of emergencies. Specific to water emergencies, your plan should include:
- Identification of the team of people who should be alerted and who will have authority to shut off water, give instructions and take other necessary actions
- Training for your response team, as well as residents
- A list of vendors and contractors that can provide services and equipment
- Appropriate insurance. Texas high-rises are seeing their insurance premiums increasing primarily due to water damage. However, that doesn’t mean you should skimp on coverage. Be sure that you have adequate coverage for potential water damage, otherwise an emergency could create a severe financial hardship for your association. A good condo management company with significant internal resources and national buying power will be able to help you obtain the best coverage at the most favorable rates.
- Placement of leak sensors. Leak sensors in key areas allow you to know about leaks when they first start, but it’s important to be strategic in placing them to get the most return on your investment. Although it can be expensive to install multiple sensors, you will not only save money in the long run by reducing potential water damage, but your insurance company may also reduce your premiums if you have sensors. “Having sensors in areas like mechanical closets and some of the main water connection points may be worthwhile, especially if your insurance company adjusts your premiums for it,” says Mont-Louis.
No association wants to face the effects of water damage on their high-rise building. Staying on top of your maintenance and having a good program in place that includes an emergency response plan will help you be ready if the worst should happen.
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