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Water Leak Detection Systems

Provided by our friends at State Farm Insurance, with some minor edits and additions by THE NATURAL HANDYMAN

Water Leak Detection SystemsWater damage can occur almost anywhere in your house. Water-using appliances and fixtures, such as refrigerators with icemakers, dishwashers, washing machines, toilets and water heaters are common locations of leaks.

Unfortunately, slow leaks at these appliances and fixtures are often times impossible to see until it is too late. If it goes undetected, a slow leak can lead to rotting house framing and subfloors, and can be a precursor to a catastrophic leak that can release several gallons of water per minute, causing extensive water damage. A water leak detection system may help prevent these problems.

If you think a leak detection system is in your future, there is a short list of manufacturers at the end of the article to get your shopping jump-started!

Types of Water Leak Detection Systems - Passive and Active

Leak detection systems can be either active or passive.  Passive leak detection systems are intended to alert you of a leak. They generally sound an audible alarm tone and some may also feature a flashing light.  Passive systems are frequently battery-operated, stand-alone units. They are inexpensive and easy to install. Some simply sit on the floor while others may be wall mounted. A moisture sensor is located on the floor and activates the alarm when it becomes wet.  The ZIRCON leak detector (shown below) will float and sound its alarm for up to 72 hours on a fully-charged battery.

Passive Water Leak Detection Devices

Photo 1: Passive Water Leak Detection Devices

Battery-operated devices need to be checked regularly and the batteries should be changed at least every year. Most devices will "chirp" when the battery is low, similar to smoke detectors.

Passive systems only help reduce water damage if someone hears the warning tone and acts to stop the leak. They are especially useful in locations where it is easy for someone to hear the alarm such as near refrigerators, dishwashers, or toilets.

Passive systems generally cost from $8.00 to $45.00.

Active leak detection systems usually generate some type of alarm, but also perform a function that will stop the water flow. They feature a shut-off valve and some means to determine that a leak is occurring. Most devices use moisture sensors to detect a leak. Other systems use a flow sensor and a timer to determine that something is leaking and the water needs to be turned off.

An active leak detection system can either operate at an individual appliance or it can operate and control a whole house.

Individual Appliance systems are designed to detect a leak from an appliance, such as a washing machine or water heater. When a leak is detected, an alarm is activated and the water supply to the appliance is automatically shut off.

Depending on the type of device, the homeowner may be able to install these systems without any special tools. However, in some cases a qualified plumber may be needed. Individual Appliance systems range in cost from $70 to $150 (device cost only).

The system shown below is the Watts IntelliFlow. It has dual operation.  The clothes washer is plugged into it, letting it turn the water on or off automatically when needed!  Also, it features a floor-mounted leak detector should a hose burst while the machine is operating!

Individual Appliance Water Leak Sensing Device

Photo 2: Individual Appliance Water Leak Sensing Device

Whole house systems shut off the main water service when a leak is detected. An automatic shut-off valve is installed on the main water service piping between the water meter and first branch piping. This valve usually requires 115 volt electrical service. Some models feature a battery back-up.

Some whole house systems, such as the FloodStopper System (photo 3) monitor several moisture sensors (also called water sensors). These detectors are installed on the floor below water-using appliances and fixtures.

These detectors may be hard-wired, meaning a wire must be routed through the home between the sensors and the control valve, or wireless. Wireless systems utilize battery-operated sensors that send a radio signal to the control valve if a leak is detected. The wireless systems are usually easier to install, especially in existing homes. However, because each sensor has a small radio transmitter, these systems often cost more. The batteries in wireless systems also must be regularly maintained and replaced.

Whole House Water Leak Detection System which uses Remote Water Sensors

Figure 1: Whole House Water Leak Detection System which uses Remote Water Sensors
(Remote water sensors can either be wired to the control panel or the remote water sensors can be wireless and "communicate" with control panel by radio signals)

Whole House Water Leak Detection System using Remote Water Sensors

Photo 3: Whole House Water Leak Detection System using Remote Water Sensors

Some whole house systems such as the FloLogic System use a flow sensor and timer that are programmed to accommodate the water usage patterns of the home. When water usage exceeds the programming, the device sends an alarm and shuts off the water service. Most of these devices feature "at-home" and "away" settings for when the home is or is not occupied.

Generally, whole house water leak detection systems take between four and six hours to install and cost between $500 to $1,500 depending on labor rates and the size of the system.

Convenient Features of Some Leak Detection Systems:

  • Some models of leak detection systems can be connected into a home's security or fire alarm panel. If it detects water, it can send an alarm to an off site monitoring company.
  • Most whole house systems feature a panic switch. In an emergency, pressing a button will automatically close the detection system's water service valve. Pressing another button will reset the system.
  • Some of the whole house systems that use remote water sensors also have temperature sensors. If the temperature at the sensor(s) in the home drops below a specified point, the detection system will send an alarm and close the automatic shut-off valve to lessen or prevent water damage from frozen pipes.
  • Some control panels can identify which moisture sensor detected the leak while some can only identify that there is a leak. Knowing which moisture sensor detected a water leak will make it easier to find and repair the problem.

Each house has different circumstances. Every homeowner should assess their own situation to decide what type of system and features best fit their needs. The next step is to contact the water leak detection device manufacturer to obtain product literature and to ask questions about their systems.

State Farm believes the information contained in this article is reliable and accurate. We cannot, however, guarantee the performance of all items demonstrated or described in all situations. Always consult an experienced contractor or other expert to determine the best application of these ideas or products in your home.

Water Leak Detection Systems List of Manufacturers

The following is a list of a few companies that manufacturer water leak detection systems with automatic shut off valves. Other products with similar safety features may be available on the market. The list is not meant to be a complete list nor does it imply that State Farm© has tested these products for performance. State Farm does not endorse these companies and does not endorse or guarantee the performance of these devices. Check with your contractor, local building official, the product manufacturer, or supplier to find the appropriate device for your situation.

Thanks to our friends at State Farm Insurance from allowing us to reprint this combined article.