How Facilities Maintenance Finds Water Leaks
When an accountant or accounts payable clerk notices the company is using way too much water, and feels their complaints are not being heard, what are you to do? You, as the owner or manager, can motivate your facilities maintenance staff to check for leaks by showing interest yourself. Here are some suggestions.
Water Bill Analysis
Start with a group analysis of your water bill. High water bills generally mean one of three things:
Use is excessive - Too much irrigation, shower, air conditioning, kitchen, or laundry water being used by staff or customers, depending on your business.
Equipment and fixtures are old and not water efficient.
Somewhere a piece of equipment is malfunctioning and/or there's a leak in the plumbing system.
Assuming the first two are not an option or have already been addressed, here is how to check for the third.
With your accountant, check your water bills carefully. It's important to find out as much as possible before asking the company's maintenance people to check their systems.
Compare water usage on the current bill with the last several bills. A telltale sign of a malfunction is a sudden spike in usage.
When did it first jump? What was going on that month?
Did your water supplier raise prices?
Did you add new water-using equipment or expand a service that uses water?
Do you pay water and sewage on the same bill? Did anything happen with sewage charges?
Do a little research on the Internet. How do your bills compare with other businesses of your size and type?
Once you have as much information as possible from the bills and have generated some ideas for why the bill might be so high, then notify your inside and outside facilities maintenance supervisors. They never see the bills, so they might not know that anything is wrong. Ask them if they know what went on during the month the bill spiked. Ask them to check their systems to see if they can tell why the bill is so high.
Check the next month's bill when it comes. Is usage still high? Call a face-to-face meeting with your maintenance and landscape people. Show them the bills and explain what you see. Ask them what they discovered with their investigations. They will probably recognize that if the problem had been found already, it would show on the bill as a decrease. Work out a plan of action with them and tell them you'll let them know what the next bill shows (so they know you're not just going to let it go).
Water Leak Detection
Most leak detection specialists prefer customers to isolate the area of leak as much as possible. It saves them time and their customers money. This video shows how.
At some point, you'll want to check the other utility bills. If the water bill is still high the following month, compare that month's bill with the same bill from the year before. How does water use compare? If you've installed any new equipment that uses water, can it be offset by replacing any older water fixtures with newer, more efficient ones?
Check your other utility bills too. A corresponding hike in energy costs on the electric bill, coupled with no new installations, could indicate a leak connected with hot water use or one connected to the air conditioner, if it is water cooled.
If your analysis shows that water use is still too high and your maintenance people don't see anything wrong, you likely have a leak somewhere. You will need to call another meeting to discuss the probability, if you haven't already.
I'm making the assumption that you have knowledgeable people working for your company or organization, and that if the problem was a simple one they would have already solved it. That leaves hidden leaks as the greatest potential culprit.
It may be that you recognize your maintenance staff is overloaded already, and doesn't have time to do an extensive investigation. In this case it might be easier to just hire a professional water auditor to do the job. If you already know the problem is in the irrigation system somewhere, which is often the case, you will only need a large landscape survey done. However, if it looks they could make the time, here are the next steps to take.
When looking for water leakage there are several places, both inside and outside a building, that your facilities maitenance people will check:
Appliances & Fixtures - They will go to each water fixture to check for leaks caused by worn out washers. Then they'll check refrigerators, ice makers, washing machines, air conditioning, toilets - any piece of equipment that uses water - looking for water pooling under it, next to it, or inside of it. They'll listen to see if they hear water flowing, and may even use a special leak detector.
Indoor Plumbing - If nothing is awry with equipment and fixtures, they will start turning water on at key locations and listening along the lengths of the pipes. They'll look for bubbles in the paint on walls and ceilings. They'll look for water leaking out from under floorboards. They're likely to press for weak, wet wood or drywall anywhere along the length of the pipes and smell for stagnancy anywhere.
Indoor leaks are usually found fairly quickly - with the exception of the fire protection system, which is more complex. Outdoors is a little harder (yet more common) since the underground piping is so spread out and is continually subject to environmental stresses.
Outdoor Plumbing - First your maintenance people will check any outdoor water fixtures (pools, spas, bars), again looking for water in the wrong places. Then you (and/or they) will need to talk to the landscape crew. If the crew hasn't already found it with their routine maintenance checks, the leak is likely underground. (Do make sure they are conducting routine checks.)
Underground leaks are hard to hear or smell, so it makes sense to use other detection methods first. Instead of weak wood or puddles on the floor, they will look for squishy ground along lateral lines between sprinklers. They'll look for areas with unusually green grass or collections of mushrooms (which love water). They'll turn the irrigation system on and look for any decrease in water pressure between sprinklers and stations. Then they'll walk around and listen carefully for the sound of water running when the irrigation system is off.
Here is where leak detection equipment can be really helpful. It allows the user to hear/feel the underground pipes vibrate as water rushes through, and by its strength be able to pinpoint the location of a leak.
Fire Protection System - This is the most difficult kind of leak to find, unless there is water obviously dripping from a ceiling sprinkler (rare). It's important to go through all of the steps above first, fixing all leaks found and checking the meter again, before tackling this one. This will require inserting an aqueous solution into what should be a dry portion of the system, then pushing air through to see where it bubbles out, if it does. At this point it's probably better to call in a leak detection specialist, if you haven't already.
High School Training Teams
Some cities like Los Angeles and Pasadena in California have programs that train high school students to conduct basic water audits and repairs. If you are a school facility with an overextended maintenance crew, you might call your water utility to see if an irrigation tech training program such as this exists.
Water Utility Companies
Water utility companies throughout the country are encouraging their customers to use water more efficiently. Many have special water conservation programs that will help you purchase new equipment at a lower cost, or help you track and reduce water used in the landscape.
If your maintenance crew cannot find a leak and you have a fairly large landscape, then you might want to have your water supplier install a dedicated irrigation meter. This is a meter that records irrigation use only. Cost will run $400-1,000, depending on size, if they can install to an already existing line. It will be more if they have to add new pipelines.
A dedicated meter will tell you for sure whether water leakage is inside or outside, thereby cutting your leak research time in half.
Dedicated Irrigation Meter
To test for leaks with a dedicated irrigation meter, turn the irrigation system off completely. Wait for twenty minutes, then check the meter. If the meter still runs, then you have a leak outside. If the meter is still, then the problem must be inside. Run the same check on the mixed use meter that is now measuring only inside use. If it still runs, then you know for sure that the leak is inside somewhere.
If you and your crew have already run all the tests above, then it's time to call a plumber or leak detection specialist. Make sure you tell them everything you have done to isolate the problem. It will help them pinpoint the wayward leak a lot faster and save your company a higher bill.
In the unlikely case that both meters are still when tested, then either someone has already fixed the leak (but didn't tell you) or the water utility has been making mistakes in their billing. Call the utility again to let them know.
Utility Bill Sewage Charges
A dedicated irrigation meter can also help you reduce sewage charges on your utility bill, if sewage is charged by the amount of water used, rather than a flat rate.
Water utility companies do not impose graduated sewage charges on water used for irrigation, since irrigation runoff goes to the storm drains, not the sewer lines. When you install a dedicated irrigation meter it will read only the water used for irrigating the landscape. Your existing meter (mixed-use) will then read water used for all the other functions; and your water utility will apply sewage charges only to your mixed use meter, not the dedicated one.
Meanwhile, during the process of researching the spike in your water utility bill, you will have improved your relationship with the maintenance crew and your accounting people, and will be saving money on any anomalies they found and fixed. It's much more economical to prevent leaks or catch them when they're small, than to wait until they become a serious problem. You save money, time, hassle, and keep your staff happy.
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