Water damages cost the U

For the second time in two weeks, rainfall resulted in leakage that caused at least $26,000 in damage to Weaver-Densford Hall.

Luke Feuerherm

For the second time in two weeks, meager rainfall transformed a storm drain into a nearly three-foot high geyser, resulting in leakage that caused at least $26,000 in damage to Weaver-Densford Hall.

In anticipation, Saturday’s rainfall was an opportunity to track the blockage as it happened.

Two maintenance workers “babysat” a problematic pipe, waiting for it to back up. When it did, they used a plastic sleeve to channel the water, and crews later pinpointed the culprit — a large calcium deposit.

“Two mechanics are really a bargain,” industrial hygienist Neil Carlson

Water problems like this are not unusual at the University, where a simple drain blockage or corroded pipe joint can result in thousands of dollars in water damage.

Between 2001 and 2008, the University had 70 instances of water damage of more than $10,000, totaling more than $11.5 million.

Major events in the past have raised concerns about the cost of water damage at the University.

In 2004, for instance, three preteen and teen vandals ran faucets and funneled water out of the sinks at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Swenson Science Building, causing $5.6 million worth of damage.

This was the primary event that prompted a 2007 task force that outlined the main causes of water damage and made recommendations to protect buildings in the future.

The University has since taken some measures to reduce costs associated with water damage.

Most significantly, the University hired two contractors to handle large water events, as opposed to engaging firms on an as-needed basis.

The true cost of water damage, however, was largely ignored.

“A single catastrophic event from an insurer’s perspective isn’t of importance,” University Director of Risk Management and Insurance Steven Pardoe said. “But we want to take what we know about reoccurring and preventable events, to reduce them and possibly save some money.”

Each year, after insurance, the University expects to pay roughly $700,000 for water damage.

In fact, about 60 percent of all University insurance claims are due to water damage, Pardoe said.

The Office of Risk Management and Insurance has analyzed these numbers, and the task force is reconvening, Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien said.

Beginning in early August, it will work on “a more purposeful plan,” O’Brien said.

This means looking less toward the rare and catastrophic and more toward a variety of water problems that plague the University.

For example, in 2005 the Transportation and Safety Building sustained $15,000 in water damage because a piping connector that cost less than $1 had eroded, a mistake likely caused by an inexperienced plumber, Carlson said.

In addition, a couple of University buildings cause constant problems, including Williamson Hall and the Civil Engineering Building.

Both were built below the water level and built on a downgrade, meaning that if drainage systems are not maintained and cleared of debris, flooding will occur.

“We’ve said that if you build a building and you put it in the water, you should expect it to leak unless you take extraordinary measures to keep water out,” Assistant Director of Industrial Hygiene Mike Austin said.

The University’s emphasis on “life safety” through fire prevention and control is another cause of its numerous claims, Pardoe said. Water systems such as sprinklers can lead to increased insurance claims because they are vulnerable to costly leakage, corrosion and failure.

“We have a lot of real estate to cover, and the fact that we have a lot of water damage claims is pretty predictable,” he said. “But, if we can trim this back, obviously we want to do it.”