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
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Software Platform

Most wireless leak detection systems require some included software to control, access, and communicate data related to the system. When specifying a leak detection system, there are several attributes to look for in that software, including the following:

  • Configurability The software should be highly configurable to allow building engineers and other key personnel to access the system remotely from any internet-enabled device, using any browser. Intuitive graphic design should make it easy to set up and configure devices quickly.
  • Customization The software should readily enable system monitoring and device management, but most importantly for customization of various settings for each device, such as a pre-alarm delay period, or number of sensors that must alarm before closing a valve. Notification groups should be able to be created to receive alerts and alarms with the ability to make changes to accommodate vacation schedules, new hires, role changes, etc.
  • Security In order to control who can access the system, the software should not be based on an app that can be downloaded to a device but, rather, through a program that is accessible from a desktop, laptop, tablet, or cell phone. That way, only authorized people can be given access to the program.
  • Monitoring Information The software should make it very easy for all of the users to interface with this information. A central dashboard should provide at-a-glance information about all installed devices in a building or a portfolio of buildings. Robust analytics and reporting should be available to generate custom reports for specific needs of the building owners and operators. For record-keeping and management purposes, the information generated in those reports should include alerts and alarms that occurred within the last 30 day, plus an audit trail of every incident since the system was first installed.

In general, the system software needs to be looked at and assessed with the same scrutiny as the hardware used for the system.

Photo courtesy of WATTS Water Technologies

The ability of the software to provide the needed information about leak detection in a building is critical to the successful and safe operation of the system.

Data Reporting

For each type of notification generated by the system, data is recorded and can be made immediately available. In particular, the precise time and location of a leak is reported, so the first person on the scene knows exactly where to go to turn off the alarm, resolve the issue, and reset the sensor. The system then keeps the data of when the leak happened, who received notifications, and how long it took someone to get there. Knowing this response time and sequence of events is an important feature for many businesses. Ultimately, all this data from leak events, alarms, and alerts can be stored, formatted, and used for reporting purposes. Overall, this helps create an information resource to contribute to better building management and to track the return on investment of the system.


Any electronic system that communicates with other devices or is connected to the internet is vulnerable to potential tampering or malicious activity. This potential threat is a big issue for everyone. Fortunately, a wireless leak detection system can address this concern in several ways.

The first thing to consider is that a wireless leak detection system should be on an isolated, stand-alone RF network, not on a Wi-Fi system as many residential systems might be. Next, none of the endpoint devices (sensors, valves, etc.) should communicate to anything other than its closest hub - they should NOT be communicating out anywhere else. The hubs then communicate only to the base station, which is the SINGLE point that goes out to the Internet for notifications. That one connection should be a wired (Ethernet) connection for better security. If Ethernet is not acceptable for a customer, cell communication is a great alternative because the cell system is separate from other local networks.

The overall system should be able to pass a security audit, ideally the strict audit requirements of a cyber-aware organization such as FM Global. That means the system should utilize the latest encryption and security features. Finally, as an added level of security, remote access can be disabled so no outside access is possible when security concerns arise.

System Resilience

Many building owners are increasingly concerned about the ability of all of the systems in their facilities to be able to withstand disruptions caused by severe weather, seismic events, or man-made threats. That includes the ability for critical systems to remain operational during such events to protect both people and property and help the building to quickly return to full functionality. Although water leak detection is not a life safety system like a fire alarm, there is still a need for a reliable back-up means to keep the communication and power going during interruptions. This might be even more important depending on the cause for the interruption.

Based on the above, incorporating a backup approach to a wireless leak detection system can be quite important in many situations. Accomplishing that requires attention to several key components. First, plug-powered devices need an internal battery back-up for redundancy, so the system continues to operate during a power outage. The internal battery back-up life expectancy should be at least four hours. Second, battery-operated devices should have a battery life expectancy of at least three years to allow for continued operation during outages. It is also important that “low battery” alerts are not only provided but followed up on by personnel to keep all batteries up to date. Third, it can be critical for the communication system to also have a back-up means to communicate - for example, an Ethernet failover to cell phone service. Finally, consider whether any of the components, particularly the base station, require a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for the ultimate in outage protection. If such a UPS is already provided in the building for other reasons, it would be worthwhile to consider connecting the water leak detection system to it.

Photo courtesy of WATTS Water Technologies

The ability to provide a battery back-up to powered components, or a long-lasting battery in other components, can mean the difference between a truly resilient, reliable system and one that loses its ability to function when it may be needed most.

Cost Effectiveness

By now, it should be clear that building owners can save considerable money on damage and lost tenant income by detecting water leaks early enough to prevent damage. When looked at in this light, a wireless leak detection system that is always on, always sensing, and always ready to send real-time notifications can quickly provide for a positive return on investment (ROI) on the cost of the system.

An effective water leak detection and management response can also mean that insurance company damage losses will be reduced dramatically, ensuring loss ratios will be low and in line with stated risk management objectives. Minimizing water damage claims not only saves money for both carriers and for the insured, but it also critically allows continuation of insurance coverage at normal property rates versus increased rates that reflect losses from water damage.

To better illustrate the cost-effectiveness of leak detection systems, consider that, as previously noted, the average cost of a leak is $25,000 per floor. A wireless leak detection system can cost about $2,000 per floor, plus an additional $480 per year for software service. Hence, in a typical 10-story building, the installation cost is $2,000 per floor times 10 floors, which equals $20,000. Hence, the first-year cost is $20,480. If there is just one leak on just on one floor within the first year, the system will save the building owner $25,000, which more than pays for the system.

To further illustrate the cost implications of having a leak detection system compared to not having one, consider this real-life situation in a building in San Francisco. Three weeks after the installation of a wireless leak detection system in a 38-story office building, the building engineer reported that he received an alert at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday evening. The alert indicated that a toilet was overflowing in a 17th floor restroom which was not equipped with a floor drain. A member of the building maintenance staff was called in to quickly assess and correct the situation. The engineer believes if this action had not been taken, then the water would have migrated down the 17 floors all the way to the lobby before anyone discovered the overflow since the weekend had already started and the building was mostly unoccupied. By preventing just this one disaster, the system paid for itself many times over.


The problem and issues associated with water leaks in buildings are quite real and quite costly. A number of different types of water leak detection systems have been used over the years which provides insights into which types work best in different building types and situations. For commercial buildings, the most up-to-date, reliable, and cost-effective solution has been presented here as a wireless water leak detection system. Design professionals that incorporate such systems into new or existing commercial buildings can help overcome the problems of harm to people and damage to property while saving the building owners and managers considerable losses. At the same time, the well-being and safety of building occupants is improved.

Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP is a nationally known architect and a prolific author advancing positive acoustical experiences through better building design. www.pjaarch.com, www.linkedin.com/in/pjaarch


WATTS Water Technologies, Inc. Watts is a global leader in the design and manufacture of innovative water solutions for residential, commercial and institutional environments. Products include an extensive line of flow control, filtration and treatment products for water quality, and residential plumbing & heating. Founded in 1874, Watts is headquartered in North Andover, MA.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in September 2022