HPAC Magazine

Get smart about leak detection

August 21, 2019   By Steve Goldie

It was a beautiful summer day when I got the phone call: “Steven, I hate to bother you but water is coming out of your house.”
I was sitting on a patio enjoying a craft beverage, halfway through a well-deserved long weekend away. My neighbour called me to tell me water was literally leaking out of my house, through the bricks from the inside out. As I have stated, it was a beautiful summer day, hot and sunny and we had not seen a drop of rain in days, so the source of the water leaking from my home was not likely weather related.
My planned long weekend vacation had just come to an abrupt and unwelcome end. I immediately called a trusted friend who had a key to my house to go over and shut off my main water valve at the meter. I sadly left my craft beer unfinished, packed up my stuff and set out on the two-hour drive to whatever home was left.
By the time I arrived, the insurance company had been notified and they jumped into action, immediately scheduling a contractor to be there first thing the next morning to begin the clean up and drying out. The cause of the leak was a nut on a toilet supply tube that decided to split. I estimated water had been spraying out full bore for at least a day and a half.
If you need a visual, imagine the contents of a backyard in-ground swimming pool being poured out on the upper floor of your house, my subsequent water bill confirmed that was roughly the amount of water that leaked. My house is a side split and the leak was on the upper floor so one side of my home was completely flooded, plaster walls and ceilings were saturated, hardwood floors had buckled and split.
The outside wall cavities filled up completely and water was seeping right through the brick to the outside, which is what had alerted my neighbour. Half of my house had to be completely gutted and re-built, and I was displaced for months before I could finally move back in.
When it was all said and done, that failed part worth a few dollars resulted in about $70,000 of damages. I was fortunate since my homeowner’s insurance covered most of that. Had I been out of my house for a day or two more without having made provision for somebody to check in I may not have been so lucky. The lesson learned here; always read the fine print on your insurance policies.
Believe me, the irony of such an incident happening in the home of a plumber is not lost on me and I have heard all the jibes and jokes. The reality is however that water damage claims, and specifically non weather-related water damage claims, are among the most frequent and most costly home insurance claims each and every year.
As they say, s**t happens and often at the most inopportune of times. Granted, frozen pipes in winter account for a large percentage of these claims but even when everything is installed correctly and the best materials and components are used, sometimes things simply and inexplicably fail.
The supply nut that failed in my house had been in place without any sign of trouble for over 20 years and nothing had been changed prior to the break. How is one to predict such an occurrence?
I don’t write this to make excuses for my own experience, I write it to ask the question, is there a place for whole house leak prevention systems and what might that look like?
Is there a place for whole house leak detection? Absolutely yes, and I am not the least bit biased. Seriously though, over half of all insurance property claims are related to water damage, and over half of these are the result of burst water lines or plumbing components.
Insurance companies are very much in favour of some form of leak detection and most offer policy discounts to homeowner’s who have had systems installed. One major insurance provider lists nine preapproved systems on its website. I would not be surprised to see the insurance providers eventually moving towards making leak detection systems mandatory when home insurance is purchased.
With respect to the technology being available and effective, I would have to give a resounding yes to this question also. My incident happened two years ago and in those two years there has been a veritable flood of new products entering this market.
As with just about everything these days, most of these products are Wifi capable and/or web based and they break down into two types, sensor based systems and flow based systems.
Sensor based systems rely on water sensors located primarily in high-risk locations around the home such as bathrooms, kitchens, hot water heaters, washing machines, etc. A wide variety of sensors are available, some wired, some wireless.
Many are simply early warning systems; when water is detected they send either an e-mail notification or trigger an audible alarm alerting the homeowner of the problem. They are not connected to the shut off valve and are therefore not capable of shutting off the supply. These sensors are relatively inexpensive but in my opinion they do not do the whole job. Had I had this type of system in place two years ago, I still would have incurred some significant damage considering I was two hours away and would have had no quick and easy way to shut off my water supply.
If you opt for a sensor based system, be sure to choose one that does include controls that automatically shut off the main water supply when water is detected. There are many options of this type, many of which can be monitored through Wifi and a smart phone.
Flow based systems rely on a highly sensitive flow meter and automatic water shutoff valve. These systems are pretty much all web enabled and can be monitored and controlled with a smartphone and downloadable app. These systems can react to atypical or unusually high water usage and can alert the homeowner.
One system leaves the decision to shut the system off in the hands of the user where another gives the user the option of automatic shut down or user enabled shut down. The system I liked best incorporates a proprietary artificial intelligence that actually learns the water usage of the home, making detection of potential leaks more accurate. It also runs continuous tests of the systems looking for pressure issues and detecting micro leaks as small as one drop per minute, alerting the user of dripping taps or toilets that run on otherwise imperceptibly. These systems can also monitor temperature, shutting the valve in case of potential pipe bursts due to freezing. Most of the sensor-based systems also offer this functionality.
Sensor-based systems by far make up the majority of what is currently available, although I would not take this to mean they are superior. In my opinion, the problem with sensor-based systems is twofold; if the sensor triggers, this means there is already a leak and some damage may already have occurred. Secondly, you cannot always predict where the water is going to originate or end up; if the sensors are not in the correct location your home could still sustain significant water damage.
For my money, the flow-based systems are the way to go. These are virtually water usage management systems that not only help anticipate and avoid costly leaks such as the one I experienced, but they also help a homeowner reduce overall water usage.
I for one will be purchasing and installing one on my home very soon, that way if I ever get so rudely interrupted again, I can simply pick up my phone, shut off my water, and finish my beer. <>

Steve Goldie learned his trade from his father while working as plumber in the family business. After 21 years in the field, he joined the wholesale side of the business in 2002. His expertise is frequently called on to troubleshoot systems and advise contractors. He can be reached at sgoldie@nextsupply.ca.