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How contractors can wage war on water damage – and win

Jon B. Tate, Vice President of Construction - Risk Engineering April 2, 2019

Severe weather isn’t always the culprit behind water damage on a construction site. Taking steps to protect against human error can help.

Water Mitigation

Water damage on a construction site might call to mind torrential rainfall that unleashes flooding, as in states around the Missouri River recently. But, often, the culprit for water damage on construction sites is human error rather than Mother Nature.

This was the case with a high-rise project that was nearing completion. A decision was made to hydro-test an entire pipe system at once throughout nearly finished areas of the development. The high-pressure surge of water caused a pipe to spring a leak, with no spotters or other warning system to alert the crew to the failure and halt the gush. Finishes, fixtures and other building systems suffered significant water damage, leading to a multi-million-dollar loss, in addition to delaying occupancy.

This could have been avoided. Increasingly, risk engineers are helping contractors prevent such disasters by raising their awareness of potential triggers for water damage so that crews can adjust before it occurs. At Zurich, I’m happy to say that our proactive commitment to this cause has helped reduce our construction customers’ water damage claims by approximately 30 percent in the past four years (based on Zurich Claims data, 2015-2018).

Innovative tools and steps that can help contractors prevent water damage, now and later  

Water-sensing flow meters

The most costly water damage claims often trace to weekends, nights and other times when no one is on the job site. By installing a flow meter onsite, a construction superintendent or emergency personnel can get alerts if an unusual flow of water is detected. Someone can then go to the site to shut down the system before the leak wreaks havoc. These innovative flow meters and other portable alarm systems have quickly become a cost-effective investment for both construction sites and existing commercial properties. We recently learned of a construction project where a $350 sensor alerted a fire department to a compressor failure on a sprinkler system, which would have released water on an extremely cold weekend, likely bursting pipes and causing millions of dollars in damage. 

Spill carts

 Before construction begins on an existing building, it can make sense to assemble a spill cart with first-responder essentials for a leak or spill. Essentials may include instructions to shut off valves (and directions to their location) and an absorbent boom to contain and sop up rogue water quickly. This type of cart can cost as little as $200 to assemble, but it paid off recently for a chip-manufacturing cleanroom where a construction project breached the piping system and caused a spill. The customer quickly put the boom out and didn’t have to shut down operations and recertify the system, a disruption that would have been extremely costly.

Wet work permits and training

Inspired by hot work permits used when welding and other types of fire-risk activities are performed on a construction site, Zurich’s Risk Engineers devised a wet work permit checklist and training program for construction customers. Customers receive a list of practices and precautions when performing wet work or testing water systems inside a building. It includes guidance to isolate portions of water systems for testing or to conduct the testing prior to installation of interior finishes. The response to this program has been overwhelmingly favorable. Our customers have requested over 37,000 wet work permits since 2016 (based on Zurich Risk Engineering data).

Communication and teamwork lead to successful deployment 

The common thread in the successful deployment of these tools and steps is communication and teamwork. An end-to-end example of this started at Zurich a few years ago when our Risk Engineers and Claims teams discussed an upward trend in water damage claims involving fire sprinkler piping made of a new material. Conferring with our customers, we found that crews were using a type of caulk that was incompatible with the piping material, causing deterioration and pipe failures. From this discovery, we developed guidance to prevent these failures and shared that information with our construction customers.

That’s just one of many cases in which collaboration has proved to be worthwhile. Water has become the new fire in terms of driving construction property claims.  While flooding sometimes is beyond the control of construction crews, taking steps to reduce the risk of water damage can benefit every stakeholder in a construction project. Preventive measures can help contractors to deliver projects on time and on budget, making their customers happy to offer positive referrals. And every business appreciates those.

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