Updated: June 2015
Catastrophic floods may grab all the headlines, but more common water damage from plumbing systems end up costing homeowners, renters, and landlords billions of dollars every year1. Plumbing problems (including leaking or damaged tubs, toilets showers and burst pipes), leaky roofs, washing machines, water heaters and frozen pipes result in thousands of people of water damage insurance claims annually.
Even with an annual plumbing inspection, careful routine maintenance, and emergency planning, you can't be everywhere water might make an unannounced, unwelcome—and potentially very expensive—appearance. That's one reason thousands of homeowners, renters and landlords have turned to water alarm systems of widely varying cost and complexity. These systems promise to alert you to potential water damage before it hits your wallet, but do they consistently stem disaster's tide?
The key word for this type of shut-off system is "automatic." When a sensor, typically placed on the floor where leaks are likely to occur, detects water, it wirelessly instructs a shut-off valve mounted on your dwelling's water main to cut the water supply.
There's no need for human interaction, and the systems promise 24/7 vigilance, even if you're thousands of miles from home. And since they're fully automatic — first detecting the water, then shutting down the water supply without any human input — automatic water shut-off systems are potentially the most effective way to prevent expensive water losses and prevent a water damage insurance claim.
But before you hit the plumbing supply store, be aware that these fully automated systems aren't necessarily a perfect solution. For starters, they're expensive — expect prices around $1,000, not including labor and professional installation. They're not always adept at identifying the kind of slow leaks that often lead to wet rot and mold. And also consider the following:
- You'll potentially need many sensors to cover all your home's leak-prone areas.
- Any water on a sensor may trigger a shut-down, whether the moisture's the result of a real emergency, a small amount of water that touches a sensor, or extreme humidity near the sensor.
- Some automatic sensor systems monitor water flow through a timer, so watering a lawn or filling a swimming pool can trigger a shut-down.
Sheathing is the wood, plywood, or wafer board that's underneath your home's shingles and other roofing materials. Since sheathing isn't visible from your home's exterior, check it from the attic. Sheathing is typically attached to your rafters using nails, so look for and repair nails that have missed their mark. Also check for sheathing that's delaminating (plywood) or swollen (wafer board).
Gables are your roof's side walls. If not properly braced, gables may collapse more easily in a tornado or hurricane. The most common method of bracing entails placing 2x4" wood pieces in an X pattern from the top center of the end gable to the bottom of the brace of the fourth truss and from the bottom center of the end gable to the peak of the roof.
Consider purchasing impact-rated windows or installing wind shutters for windows or other glass surfaces, including sliding glass patio doors, skylights and French doors that are exposed to the elements.
Wind shutters (or hurricane shutters) are protective coverings designed to completely cover and protect window and door glass openings during high winds. While some homeowners build their own wind shutters (typically using 5/8"-thick exterior grade plywood), information about custom-built options is widely available online.
For any double door entrances, secure at least one door between the floor and frame with strong sliding bolts designed by the manufacturer or recommended by your hardware store. It is also possible to purchase and install impact-rated doors.
Try to install any door so that it opens out and away from the interior of the home, instead of the more typical "door opens into the room" installation. Doors opening outward provide added strength to the structure.
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety website dedicates an entire section to reducing risks from a hurricane.
Although remote alert systems aren't designed to "slam the door shut" like automated shut-off systems, their proactive nature can still alert you of a potential water loss when you're away from home.
Remote alert systems typically use one or more sensors to actively monitor for water, temperature fluctuations, and power outages. Once the system detects an event, it automatically dials a phone number to report the problem. It's this ability to auto-report a potential disaster — many systems support land lines or VOIP, and some work during power outages — combined with a reasonable price tag that make remote alarm systems an attractive option for some homeowners and landlords.
When considering a remote alarm system, it's important to weigh its inability to completely shut down your home's water supply system against its automatic notification capabilities. And like an automatic system, there's no guarantee that a remote alarm system will detect every water leak. But considering that remote alert systems typically cost hundreds of dollars less than automatic systems and don't usually require professional installation, many homeowners and landlords find them a viable option in the face of potential water damage.
Local Alarm Systems: Lowest Cost, Fewer Features
These systems are the simplest, lowest-cost options for combatting potential water damage. Wireless local alarm systems often integrate into other home monitoring devices, including wireless security systems. Hard-wired or battery-operated local alarm systems, on the other hand, are specifically designed as a simple, inexpensive investment that won't require professional installation — place the sensors near where water damage may occur and they sound an alarm when water's detected.
But their low investment, typically under $50, may actually carry a considerable cost, since they may not catch every water leak. And since they simply "go off," much like a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector, you won't hear a local alarm if you're not home. In addition, these lower-cost options may not be as sensitive to water's presence as more-sophisticated systems.