Water Leak Detection in Commercial Buildings

Using the latest technology avoids significant costs and harm to people and property
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Sponsored by WATTS Water Technologies, Inc.
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Learning Objectives:

  1. Recognize why water damage is a critical and expensive concern in commercial buildings of all types that threatens the safety and health of occupants.
  2. Identify buildings which are at greater risk for leaks and water damage and the corresponding safety concerns.
  3. Describe different types of leak detection systems intended to help protect people and property from water damage.
  4. Explore and specify wireless leak detection systems in commercial buildings based on attributes and options to enhance human safety and good health.


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This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.
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This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
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This course can be self-reported to the NLAA
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Photo courtesy of Pexels; Kehn Hermano

Detecting water leaks in buildings before they become a serious problem can protect building owners and occupants against significant damage and expense.

All commercial buildings require water for a variety of purposes, both for use by people and by equipment. The plumbing system that brings that water into the buildings (and drains it back out) is engineered and designed to be efficient and durable, with the expectation of providing many years of trouble-free service. However, those plumbing systems have many parts and pieces that are installed or maintained by many different people with multiple factors that can affect the integrity of any aspect of the plumbing system. Sometimes, the installation is faulty, but not discovered until sometime later. Other times, lines are abandoned in place or the maintenance is lacking. Still other times, external factors come into play, such as unexpected weather, building damage, or changes in use. Any of these conditions can cause a weakening or failure of the plumbing system that can cause a water leak and potential harm to people and damage to property. This course looks at the problem of water leaks and the related water damage issues. It then reviews some of the traditional means to safeguard against these issues by using a leak detection system. In particular, the latest technology of using a wireless leak detection system is explored and compared to other systems to help design professionals make decisions on specifying the most appropriate system for commercial buildings.


All commercial and mixed-use buildings have the need for water to be provided and drained away. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water is typically used for the following multiple purposes in commercial buildings:

  • Restrooms/drinking – an average of 37 percent of total use
  • Cooling and heating – an average of 28 percent of total use
  • Landscape watering – an average of 22 percent of total use
  • Kitchen/dishwashing – an average of 13 percent of total use

Any of these uses carry the potential for being the source of a water supply line leak or for a drain to become plugged and overflow.

Sometimes it is the buildings themselves that carry increased risk for leaks including any of the following:

  • Newly constructed buildings that need to go through a start-up and commissioning period to find and detect any issues
  • Aging buildings/buildings more than 20 years old
  • Buildings with raised floors which can conceal inconsistencies in the plumbing
  • Buildings that experience extreme seasonal weather, causing expansion and contraction of the piping system
  • Medical related buildings with extensive plumbing/piping systems located near sensitive and expensive equipment or near the storage of irreplaceable medical samples
  • Multi-floor buildings with tenants above and below each other with multiple sources of water on each floor

Design professionals engaged in any of these higher risk types of buildings should certainly pay careful attention to the potential for water leakage from the plumbing and drainage systems and the means to address it.

Photo courtesy of WATTS Water Technologies

An undetected water leak can cause considerable damage to a building, interrupt building operations, and create potentially unsafe indoor environments for occupants.


According to the insurance industry, water damage is the number one cause of property loss claims in commercial buildings by a significant margin. The average commercial building insurance claim for water leakage is on the order of $80,000 to $90,000. The size of the building certainly matters, too, with some companies estimating an average leak to cost $25,000 per affected floor. Nationwide, claims for water leaks represent a $10 billion a year problem that is on the order of 71 percent of the total value of claims made, leaving only 29 percent paid out for all other claims.

Beyond the dollar amount, the frequency of water damage events is significant. The number of individual water damage claims are more common than fire and theft combined. On average, 57 percent of all real estate insurance claims made are for water damage, leaving only 43 percent for everything else.

The bigger picture reality is that water leaks happen all the time and in almost every building. In multi-story buildings in particular, water will flow down, meaning leaks that occur in upper levels can affect multiple floors below it. Buildings with reduced occupancy are also at a high risk, as there are fewer people and reduced maintenance staff to notice and find leaks.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in September 2022