Water leaks are a serious issue
Domestically in the US, leaks can waste more than one trillion gallons of water per year and every day 14,000 Americans face a water damage emergency. This is reflected by how 1 in 50 US homes will make a water claim each year amounting to a huge strain of $13 billion in annual insurance payouts. Behind these payouts, the added detriments of water leaks to homeowners and utility providers expand to damage to the surrounding property, higher water bills and dealing with secondary effects such as mold.
Currently, the smart home industry is booming, addressing key issues such as home security, air quality and energy usage. These smart-home devices generally use a proactive stance; predicting and communicating changes to keep the homeowner in control and one step ahead. This is very unlike most water leak repairs, where action is only taken when someone notices drops of water or worse a burst pipe.
This presents an opportunity for a home water monitoring system to detect and prevent leaks at an early stage. While there are currently leak detectors such as internal or spot water detectors, these can require intrusive and expensive installations. Requiring cost-effective and discrete solutions that detect leaks early is therefore integral in ensuring its value for homeowners.
Furthermore, water leaks also vary widely around the home, whether it is a dripping pipe, a leaking toilet valve, or a burst hot water tank. Here we share our analysis of three of the most common leaking situations that vary in context, underlining how current sensors may not be practical. Understanding the nuances of differing water leaks will be crucial in developing the next IoT water leak system that can benefit homeowners, insurance firms and utility providers.
More homeowners are buying built-in dishwashers
Dishwashers present faster, more hygienic and water-efficient cleaning that is estimated to use 25% less water than hand-washing. This is no wonder why 59% of Americans own one and that the growth of the global dishwasher market size will reach $10.23 billion by 2025.
However, in order for dishwashers to provide this efficient performance, higher temperatures and water pressures for larger loads create harsher environments that can lead to the degradation and leaking of dishwashers. The extent of a dishwasher leak can be unpredictable as many gradual leaks can suddenly turn into major ones. Even before locating where the leak is coming from, spotting early signs is difficult enough- especially with concealed built-in units, which are only becoming more popular.
Built-in dishwashers tend to have more advanced features in a more compact size, making it easier for homeowners to be unaware of potential problems. Not knowing how serious a leak is can therefore discourage them from seeking professional advice.
Furthermore, dishwashers are usually fitted next to valuable countertops and kitchen appliances which can cause unexpected secondary damage. Both not detecting early signs that lead to sudden leaks and having high-value furnishings increase the likelihood of larger payouts from insurance companies.
What leak detectors are available?
Before we move on to the next critical area of leaks, we introduce what water leak detectors are on the market to highlight the gaps in function and form.
Firstly, internal leak detector sensors operate by monitoring the internal pipeline parameters (e.g. flow or pressure) and require a device to be installed within someone’s existing pipeline. These internal sensors bypass the need to be installed within the limited space around a dishwasher, but cannot detect where the leak is coming from.
The other main category includes spot water detectors that are placed next to the potential leak like a toilet or a pipe. These usually have one or more probes that when in contact with water communicate to a centralized hub that there is a leak.
Looking at current home leak detection systems, probes are mostly rigid palm-sized pods that must be strategically placed so water has a chance to seep under them. Although this is easier for large leaks that spread, the more compact dishwasher may make it harder to know where exactly to place these probes.
Other than the actual sensor, how the device alerts the homeowner of a leak is another essential feature. Commercial water leak detectors use a range of solutions such as noise alerts or Bluetooth-connected apps, but these are not power efficient or reliable if someone is away from home.
What is emerging is the use of Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) for example LoRaWAN. These are battery-efficient, long-distance, and easy-to-setup networks perfect for the water leak sensor.
Weak Points in a sink: small to sudden leaks
Sinks, whether in the bathroom or kitchen are another well-known area of leakage. Similar to dishwashers, sink pipes are usually hidden in fitted units which makes it hard to notice the first signs of a leak.
This is especially the case for long-term wear such as corrosion or valve loosening, as leaks can start with just a wet pipe surface. Very small leaks like these can be wet to the touch but may be too subtle for an internal leak detector sensor to measure. Spot leak detectors may also find it difficult to catch a detectable amount of water as they have to be placed on an unobstructed surface below.
What makes sink leaks even more conspicuous is that their water performance can appear unchanged despite a large leak. Being unaware of this excess water can damage surrounding furnishings and encourage mold to grow- particularly in moist rooms like the bathroom.
Components of sink fittings and pipes further introduce a wider range of potential leak types whether from a loose drain or a clogged P-trap. Considering there are these weak spots that could have easy or more extensive repairing, regular checking and maintenance are necessary.
However, it is unrealistic to expect households to constantly check under-the-sink piping as they may be further discouraged by the cramped spaces. Ignoring leaking pipes, though, can lead to major incidents like burst pipes which can leak as much as 400 liters (around two bathtubs) an hour.
Depending on the severity and nature of the leak, households can receive large insurance payouts for the secondary damage. However, most home insurance policies do not cover leaks associated with poor maintenance, so homeowners can take a lot of this cost by themselves. This puts a large value on detecting leaks early.
Hot water tank leaks can be the most costly to repair
Lastly, hot water tank leaks are on average the most expensive to repair out of the three at around $1000 on average. One main reason for tank leaks begins when corrosion at the bottom of the tank creates small pinholes that at first leak very small amounts of water. But, when the pinholes are left without repair, catastrophic and costly failures are inevitable, which can even cause backflows to other areas of the home.
Although home insurance can cover some secondary damages, policies do not include the replacement of appliances. And, as a costly appliance to buy and install, this makes initial damage detection crucial.
Like sink leaks, locating where the leak is, exactly, can be difficult to know as a drip from above can seep through the insulation making it look like the tank is leaking itself. Leaks can therefore heavily saturate insulating materials before dripping onto the surface below- rendering spot leak detectors useless.
Furthermore, specific fittings around the tank, including flexible water supply tubes and thread connectors, are all potential areas of leakage. If someone finds the exact part to repair, this could save unnecessary replacements.
To identify which components are leaking may also need to consider sensors that can adapt to the variety of surfaces of the water heater: whether it is a soft insulating material or a rigid metal pipe. Spot leak detectors do not have the form factor to be placed flexibly in these areas, suggesting the design opportunity of these probes.
Water leak solutions must be adaptable
From these three categories of leaks, it is clear that sensing solutions must be adaptable to small areas of different surface types. Being able to detect small amounts of water at early stages is also a major incentive to prevent these catastrophic events that not only require replacing appliances but also repairing damaged property.
Built-in appliances, such as dishwashers, are only getting more popular (CAGR of 7.8% to 2025), highlighting the need to focus on discrete and wireless sensors. It is clear that internal and spot leak detector sensors still need further optimization to be convenient and accurate for leak detection.
Considering that the average American homeowner wastes an estimated 10,000 gallons of water from leaks every year, more sophisticated sensing systems provide a huge potential to save homeowners money. Also, if de-risking severe water leaks was guaranteed, this could open avenues for insurance companies that previously did not cater for leaks caused by poor maintenance.
The three specified leak sources were explored as the most common, however, there can be other leak types, which only emphasizes the need for more adaptable form factors in upcoming leak detectors.
At LAIIER, we have targeted these key issues by developing Severn Water Leak Detection Sensor that installs like stickers and tape. These sensors then communicate these captured insights by a wireless, power-efficient network: LoRaWAN. By making installation easier and more flexible in a range of home scenarios as mentioned, our LoRaWAN water leak detector can act more immediately to detect and prevent costly events.