Filed Under:Claims, Investigative & Forensics

Finding Failures Before They Happen

Typically, forensic engineers are thought of as claim service providers for the insurance industry. Most forensic engineers are called in after failures and catastrophes to help identify possible causes, provide scopes of repair, and identify potential avenues of subrogation.

Forensic engineers can provide another, equally valuable, service to the insurance industry, however. They can help to identify potential signs of failure in structures before disasters occur, which can be beneficial from an underwriting and risk management point of view.

The exterior insulation and finish system is an exterior barrier system that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Proper installation of EIFS is complicated and sensitive to construction details. In many cases, inspection by trained and certified third-party EIFS inspectors can pinpoint potential problems in structures with EIFS before serious damage can occur.

When inspecting the envelope of a building, forensic engineers typically are looking for signs of previous or potential future damage, such as small regions of moisture, mildew, or mold that may have gone unnoticed, caused by potential avenues of water intrusion from failures of sealants or barrier components. Such inspections often involve infrared examination, to detect hot or cold regions, or other methods of detecting previously unnoticed failures.

In steam-heated buildings and structures, regular boiler inspections are necessary to ensure continued safety and reliability. Review of maintenance, repair, and testing logs, along with inspection and testing of the steam generation and distribution systems, can provide valuable insight into the condition of those building systems.

Consulting forensic engineers also can be useful in diagnosing potential failures in electrical systems. Factors such as misconfigured systems, poor incoming power quality, or improper installation and maintenance of electrical systems often can be detected by careful inspections. Electrical testing equipment, ground testing equipment, and infrared examination can help pinpoint potential issues in electrical systems that may not be identified by simple visual examinations. Infrared examination is particularly useful in this regard, as it allows engineers to locate possible hot spots in electrical systems while power is applied.

In addition to uncovering areas of potential failure, inspections by trained forensic and fire protection engineers can help identify components under recall, such as the widely publicized recall of millions of Central Sprinkler sprinklers and Poz-Lok piping.

Due to the nature of their work, forensic engineers generally have access to a number of specialized tools to help identify potential failures. The simplest and most widely used of these is the visual inspection, in which documentation by photography and videography are commonly employed. The only drawback to visual inspection is that areas that are concealed cannot be easily inspected with the eye only.

Evaluation of these infrared images then can be used to pinpoint a number of potential failures. Due to the sensitivity of some infrared cameras, areas of poor insulation, pinhole leaks in building envelopes, and areas of anomalous electrical activity can be determined. Furthermore, infrared examination normally is noninvasive and can be conducted in finished regions without causing damage.

Electrical systems also can be inspected by infrared examinations. Flowing electricity generates heat in proportion to the amount of electrical current and the resistance of the wire or connection. Therefore, parts of electrical systems that are thermally hot can be identified easily for further inspection.

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