Zurich warns UK universities of water damage risks while campuses remain closed

  • Between 2016-19, Zurich’s university customers in the UK were hit with £15 million worth of water damage
  • £9m worth of water damage occurred from just 32 instances
  • Research led universities are twice as likely to suffer escape of water damage, often triple the cost of teaching universities due to the high value of research lab equipment
  • Four out of ten incidents are directly caused by contractors and poor workmanship
  • Lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic puts universities at a far greater risk of large losses due to empty buildings and research labs

As over 150 Universities and research laboratories remain empty for the foreseeable future, new figures from Zurich insurance reveal the risk of flooding and water damage is rising every day for these organisations. Something as simple as a leaky pipe can lead to excessive damage to these buildings.

Zurich Insurance, a major player in the university insurance space, carried out a deep-dive analysis of claims data to raise awareness of the worsening frequency and severity of escape of water claims on campuses. In the three years between 2016 and 2019, Zurich repaired £15m of damage as result of burst or leaky pipes – almost £9m of that damage was incurred across just 32 major incidents at universities or research laboratories*.

Zurich’s data suggests that research universities are more than twice as likely to suffer ‘escape of water’ damage to their premises. The cost of this damage is generally three times that of teaching universities – largely due to expensive specialist equipment. Research intensive universities’ average cost of damage was in excess of £350k, compared to just over £110k cost of teaching universities.

Half of the large loss claims Zurich’s customer’s experienced involved damage to research laboratories. A further 47% of claims involved the loss of high-value single items of equipment. This included 11 mass spectrometers, which alone cost £1.6m.

Contractor error and poor workmanship were the leading causes of loss, responsible for four out of ten claims (41%). These were primarily caused during new build and refurbishment projects. Failure of compression joints (22%), recent piping installations (16%), installed after 2015, and block drains (9%) were also key issues associated with contractor works. Cold weather (9%), poor incident response (9%) and leaking air conditioning units (6%) were also relevant when counting the cost of escape of water claims.

The Association of British Insurers state that members pay out approximately £2.5 million every day for escape of water claims. In 2018 the industry dealt with 287,000 EOW claims at a cost of £930 million and the average cost of such losses has increased by 40% in the last five years.

Tilden Watson, head of education at Zurich, commented on the data: “Water damage to university buildings can be devastating, often destroying high-value research equipment which can disrupt teaching and student satisfaction. On top of this, many years of research can be jeopardised or lost, as well as the ability to maintain and secure grant funding which can reduce overall research revenues.
“That’s why we work closely with our customers and make recommendations around water supply management, escape of water guidelines and protecting high value and specialist equipment as well as water leakage detection technologies. However, these are more relevant than ever during lockdown as university campuses are closed and unoccupied. Sometimes, regular inspections and early detection can mean the difference between small damage that’s quick to fix and a loss that costs several hundreds of thousands of pounds to rectify while disrupting research projects and contracts for many months.”

The University of Surrey suffered a major escape of water incident in March 2018 when a cold water main pipe on the roof of an academic building froze and split. When the pipe thawed it forced water under pressure into an open riser, distributing water around four floors of the building damaging the fabric of the building along with laboratory and IT equipment. A swift response, with support from Zurich, enabled rapid mitigation and a swift restoration of all services.
Stephen Wells, Director of Estates, Facilities and Commercial Services at the University of Surrey, said: “Water damage can have a huge impact on any organisation. For a university, the damage could affect students and their courses and cutting edge research – often working to tight deadlines and affecting multiple partners. So it is essential that we have confidence we have done all we can to minimise the risk of any damage occurring, and also have everything in place to respond quickly to contain any incident and to begin the recovery process immediately.”

Not just a lockdown issue

Chartered Institute for Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) in the UK has also shared its concerns around the rising numbers of water damage incidents. As buildings slowly become reoccupied post-lockdown, there’s an increased risk of water damage as systems that have not been used for some time are suddenly turned on and re-energized, which may potentially result in pressure surge leading to joint and system failures. The institute advises that extra caution is to be exercised, particularly in areas containing high value assets.
Kevin Wellman, Chief Executive Officer at CIPHE, added: “An empty system that has been drained results in very damp pipe work that contains oxygen. Over a period of time this will increase the corrosion risk inside the pipe work especially at compression joints. When the system is re-commissioned leaks may occur which can be difficult to trace and especially hard to repair.”

Prevention is key

Zurich’s top tips on minimising the risk of escape of water include:

  1. Hire skilled contractors. When hiring contractors and plumbers to complete refurbishment and maintenance work, you must have robust processes in place to check they have the skills, competence and are professionally registered.
  2. Test your systems. Visual leak detection is simply not enough – engineers should undertake a comprehensive approach, thoroughly pressure test all plumbing systems, and those responsible for the oversight of projects should obtain signed confirmation that testing has taken place.
  3. Have robust Water Safety Plan in place. Ensure regular inspections are carried out on water tanks and pipework. This also includes knowing where your isolation valves and high risk pipes are, as well as locating where the high-value or important equipment is in relation to this piping so these items can be moved and protected in case of an incident.
  4. Whether empty or in use, regularly maintain plumbing and heating systems and check for any signs of failure. Any potential leaks should be notified and stopped as early as possible to minimise the damage caused by water escaping from the pipes.
  5. Invest in sensors and water leak detection technology. Remote monitoring and leak warning devices provide effective means of identifying water leaks in a supply system that is not readily accessible or at a remote location. This can significantly reduce the level of damage.