16 August 2021
While fires are the cause of the largest losses in the insurance industry, it is the escape of water in construction projects that is the most common and expensive headache for property owners, construction companies and contractors. With claims paid out by the UK insurance market standing at £2.6m every day, the escape of water tops the charts when it comes to everyday damage. And it’s not just the huge costs that hurt. Insurance excesses, lost time and potential damage to a company’s brand and image can just add to the pain.
Trevor Chainey and Laura Frost – respectively UK Construction Lead and Senior Construction Underwriter at RSA – specialise in helping construction companies and contractors to reduce their everyday risk from escape of water. “The most common risks we're dealing with are in relation to defective and poorly-fitted pipework, and bad testing regimes,” says Chainey, a chartered civil and structural engineer with over 40 years’ experience working for a wide array of consulting engineers, contractors, developers and insurers. With a number of enormously complex projects under his belt – most notably the North Terminal at Gatwick Airport – he’s only too aware of the risks of substandard workmanship. “We used to have very high standards in construction, but unfortunately they’ve declined over the years and we’re now facing an awful lot of failures,” he says.
Complex pipework in modern construction is a major factor in these failures. Many high-end properties might have five or six different types of water-carrying systems, with independent water supplies going into fridges and kitchen taps, as well as into air conditioning systems. “It does become very, very complicated as water systems become more and more sophisticated,” says Frost, whose 20-year career at RSA has included work for major infrastructure clients such as National Rail and Gatwick Airport.
Aesthetics can also play a part. “No one wants to see pipes,” says Chainey, “so they all get buried away and then of course, if there is a leak, you don't know about it for a very long time.” These out of sight pipes can, unfortunately, lead to serious out of pocket scenarios.
“The most common risks we're dealing with are in relation to defective and poorly-fitted pipework, and bad testing regimes”.Trevor Chainey - UK Construction Lead
Lack of accountability
Another contributing factor is a lack of accountability in the construction industry. Even though there is a concerted effort to bring in stricter testing regimes, insurers are still getting a flood of claims. “People don't choose to hold other people accountable”, says Frost. “We've often had scenarios where the same plumbing contractor will be in two different buildings, with two different teams of people. And one building will perform worse than the other, because the project team have been more slapdash. And they're not actually held accountable for their actions.”
Chainey describes how just such a problem resulted in a huge loss at an upscale residential development in London, when a public sewer backed up and deposited its contents in the development’s basement. “Somebody working within the building simply failed to put a cover plate over one of the main connections,” Chainey explains. “For the sake of three or four bolts not being tightened up properly the total value of the loss was in the tens of millions.”
Change how you think: plan for the worst
So, what can construction companies and contractors do to protect themselves against the escape of water? Numerous pieces of technology are available, including isolation valves, leak detection sensors and AI-powered leak detection systems. But many contractors see these as adding complexity and costs – and they are the first to be scrapped when budgets are tightened.
The key to any solution is a well-implemented water management plan. “These plans cover all of the different risks, and then look at how they can be mitigated and addressed if they should occur,” says Frost. “Contractors should then have a map-like procedure for what they’d do in a worst-case scenario. But ultimately, they should be safeguarding themselves from such a scenario occurring in the first place.”
Change what you do: isolate your water supply
One of the most effective ways to prevent the escape of water is also the simplest: switch the water off when the site is empty. For large, complex sites it can be easier said than done, says Chainey, “so you need to make sure people know the location of the isolation valves and how to operate them.”
Change what you do: improve and simplify communication
Communication is key to getting this information across to site workers, so Chainey and Frost suggest that contractors carry out frequent ‘toolbox talks’ and site inductions, informing people what the emergency escape of water procedures are, and ensuring that leaks can be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Many of the big contractors make the mistake of providing too much information to workers. “I’ve seen water management plans that are 70 pages long,” Chainey says. That’s unnecessary and counterproductive: no one reads it. The key information for site workers should be simple: what the testing regime is, and where they should isolate the water. “Get that across on a page or two,” he says, and people are far more likely to remember it.
Put people and processes first
Ultimately, reducing losses from escape of water comes to down to simple planning, checking and making sure you have the right people on site. “If you're a management contractor and you’re bringing in subcontractors, you've got to have experienced supervisors out there every day, making sure that all the work is done properly,” says Chainey. “That’s one of the main keys to solving the problem.”
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