The Water Way Finding Water Leaks Before It's Too Late

The Water Way

 As we go about our busy lives, we often forget about the plain facts of life  here on this spinning globe: gravity creates an unceasing tension in the  materials we assemble into buildings and other structures. Whether or not we  are paying attention, all of matter is reacting to gravity’s pull, and those forces can result in small tears or holes in facades, roofs  and other parts of a building.  

 Over time, such stresses can result in a hole in a roof, oftentimes at a plane  change area, such as where flashing surrounds a chimney. Even if it’s just a pinhole leak to start, if it is left undetected for very long, that  dripping water can cause serious damage to a building and even adversely affect  its structural integrity.  

 Water leaks are the bane of many homeowners and many condominium  superintendents. But unlike a drippy faucet or a drafty window, which often can  be simply fixed, water leaks sometimes can be very difficult to find and  remedy. Many different technologies exist to help find the source and the  extent of leaks and other technologies can help minimize the damage these leaks  cause. Knowing what makes leaks happen, the ways that they are found, and how  they’re repaired is essential for anyone living in a multi-family building. Because  after all, such a leak might happen in nearly anyone’s unit and still affect everyone in the condo because of a costly fix that all  will have to pay for.  

 Spotting Problems

 A longstanding leak might signal the need for a major building improvement  project, but it might also require a less invasive solution, such as a spot  replacement of just part of a roof. Knowing what solution to use is the  contractor’s bailiwick, but understanding something about the fixes for water leaks, and  the best practices for finding the source of the leaks, is the responsibility  of each building resident.  

 Water leaks in a condo building are generally of two kinds: rain-related or  plumbing-related. “The simple difference between a rain-related leak and a plumbing related leak is  if somebody is taking a shower upstairs from you or flushing the toilet  upstairs from you and you have water going into your kitchen drain, that’s plumbing related,” says Ralph Noblin, P.E., president of Noblin & Associates, a consulting engineering firm based in both Bridgewater,  Massachusetts and Dover, New Hampshire. “In a high-rise situation there is a ton of water in pipes. There are water  heaters, washer and dryer hook-ups, so plumbing leaks. This happens constantly  with condominiums and with absentee owners it’s becoming more of a problem. Say there’s this guy and he owns the windows in his condo because that’s what it says in the condo docs. So he waits forever to replace them. So when  it rains, water comes in and it trickles down into the unit six floors below.  So water leakage in condo units from rain events is common.”  

 Experts agree that roofs are the most common source or point of origin for  leaks.  

 “There could be multiple issues with roofs. Especially flat roofs,” says Michael Norman, president of Abbot Building Restoration in Boston,  Massachusetts. “Penetration could come from the roof, which could be from air-conditioning units  or vents from bathrooms and kitchens. Leaks can occur around those areas. Once  water gets into the roof and insulation gets wet, that could be a bad  situation. What happens with a flat-roof building is there’s usually insulation underneath the roofing system, underneath the membrane. Wet  insulation could lead to mold. The way you can tell if the insulation is wet is  if you walk on the roof and your foot sinks in, that’s a sure sign that the insulation under the membrane is wet.”  

 “Defective roofing has been the number one source of construction litigation  since forever and not by a little bit, by a lot,” adds Noblin. “At one point 60 percent of construction lawsuits had to do with leaky roofs.”  

 A leak doesn’t always have to be particularly severe before residents notice water stains or  seepage in the walls or ceiling, and some leaks will show up more or less  immediately. Other leaks could be happening for weeks before anyone notices.  Some leaks might not be evident in any way, such as a pipe leak for which the  building’s management can’t find the source. Such a leak might initially be detected through the water  meter on a building’s heating system.  

 One common water-related issue in multifamily buildings is leaking pipes that  are connected to steam boilers. In these systems, condensate return lines are  buried in the floor and can develop leaks. Such a leak is first detected  through the boiler’s water meter indicating that the system is losing water. At that point, a  building’s management team should have experts bring in monitoring equipment to find the  leak.  

 These days, infrared or “thermal” imaging often is used to find a leak’s source. Since a leak in a multifamily building can come from different spots  on a large surface such as the building’s exterior, thermal imaging covers all of that territory by looking for a  temperature signature on the surface that indicates where the leak is located.  The technology helps a professional to find areas of the building that are  water-damaged. When used on a roof, a thermal imaging device scans the surface  horizontally, detecting where moisture is trapped within the roof.  

 “There’s a number of different ways you can detect water leaks,” says Kieran Fitzgibbon, president of Statewide RM, Waterproofing & Masonry Restoration in Brookline, Massachusetts. “If it’s a wind-driven rain you could try to recreate the situation by doing a water  test. You can do a water test with a high pressure water hose, depending on  whether it’s a single source leak; you would typically walk the façade from the bottom up. Also sometimes involved in water testing is a little  investigation. You can remove some brick or remove some sheet rock on the  ceiling of the interior so you can see where the water is entering the  interior.”  

 Another fairly routine way of inspecting a building to find water leaks is doing  a roof survey. In a roof survey, the building’s management will call in a professional, who will do a thermal imaging survey  of the entire roof. He will also take photos of the roof and then mark with  paint any damaged area of the roof. Generally, a professional will offer spot  fixes of the roof when small parts of it are damaged or leaking.  

 “If a large portion of a roof is leaking, it is almost always better to replace  the roof than fix the leak,” says Norman. A repair is a repair and repairs are only temporary. If it’s a flat roof, absolutely replace it. The problem with a flat roof is that even  though you have a bad section where the leak is coming from, it might not  necessarily be coming from that section.”  

 The single most effective preventative step to take to avoid roof leaks is  proper gutter and downspout maintenance. Make sure these parts of the building  are always clear and free of obstructions, by regularly cleaning them.  

 One method of detecting leaks in a roof sort of imitates what happens when a  gutter or downspout is clogged—it backs up water onto one part of the roof. By creating a dam made of sheet  metal around an area of a flat roof surface and then applying water to that  area where the leak was, specialists can trace a leak to see where the water is  coming into the building.  

 Some companies, like American Leak Detection, stick strictly to the inspection  side of this business. The company finds water leaks non-invasively—without excavation or demolition. For exterior water penetration issues,  American Leak Detection uses thermal imaging technology and also electric  vector mapping, which employs an electric current and water to find even a  pinhole-sized tear.  

 Whether or not a unit owner hears a drip coming from the roof or elsewhere, such  a leak might be making a sound that still is detectable. Specialists sometimes  use ultrasound technology to hear and find an active leak of water or steam.  This technology isn’t used on roofs, for obvious reasons—it’s too loud outside for the technology to work.  

 Repairing Leaks

 The most common source of water leaks in suburban multifamily buildings is the  roof. Areas of the roof where flashing is used typically are the weakest points  on the roof surface, and are the spots most likely to develop a leak. Because  each leak is unique, there’s no rule of thumb for how long it can take to find a water leak. Finding the  source of the problem might take just a couple of hours, or it might require  many hours of work, depending upon the size of the property.  

 Costs for bringing in a leak detection specialist vary. Several different types  of professionals are qualified to do the job, including firms that refer to  themselves as leak detection specialists, as well as engineers or contractors  with expertise in the area. Hiring such professionals can start at $600 per man  per day, and often two men are needed to inspect for a leak problem. Some day  rates range upwards of $2,000.  

 Knowing how to pick the right company to handle the job is a matter of matching  up skills and needs. For example, if the leak is isolated to just several  units, a company such as American Leak Detection could find the source of the  problem.  

 For a whole building leak problem, management always should consult the building’s engineer regarding how to proceed. If they pay attention, though, owners and  management will be able to pick out the best firms to do the work, based in  part upon what they say.  

 When they are found, leaks are repaired in various ways. If the leak is in the  area of flashing around a chimney, for example, the flashing might need to be  replaced and repainted. The type of fix for a leak always is dependent upon the  type of problem, but conditions of the building material that is affected, the  age of the building component (such as a roof, stone façade, or even steel window lintels), and the size and scope of the leak all  factor into a remedy. The amount of damage caused by the leak also is part of the equation.  

 Sometimes the leak is in the middle of the basement floor of a building. What’s happening in such a case is that the water table underneath the building is  rising and falling because of rains that soak the soil and seep up into the  basement.  

 To fix this type of problem, a contractor will install a water-tight membrane on  the basement floor and up the basement walls at least eight inches and as high  as a few feet. The same method can be used to seal an elevator pit, which is  essential to safeguard all wires in the building.  

 Other basement leak fixes could be much more invasive. Some buildings have  basement water problems because their exterior brick walls are porous due to  moisture coming through them. In these scenarios, the water is coming through  because the brick is in contact with a water source leaching from the soil. So,  a contractor must excavate to the base of the building to get to the root of  the problem. This fix involves moving soil and landscaping, and the logistics  can get pretty complicated.  

 Not every contractor will give an ironclad guarantee on his work, but many are  passionate about their jobs, and dedicated to helping their clients. These are  the specialists that a building’s management should be working to find, because they will do the job right.                       

 Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to New England  Condominium and other publications. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman  contributed to this article.  


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  • I have a problem in my condo in greenwich ct. Water is leaking into the top floor unit, (mine) and I need to find a licensed engineer to assess and write a report regarding the problem(s). Would you know of someone who services lower ct? We're almost in NY? Your firm sounds great but unless you work here regularly, we need to find someone closer. Any referrals for me? Thank you so very much.