Guide to Water Leak Detection and Prevention

Think of a tiny dot like this one: [•]. It’s small, right? But if this dot was a hole in your home’s water system, it could waste over 4,000 gallons of water every month. That’s a lot of water – enough for daily showers for an entire year!

Water is essential. We need it every day, and so do our pets and the environment. Every drop counts. So, even small leaks in our homes are a big deal and need to be fixed right away.

To help with this, we’ve created a water leak detection and prevention guide to help you identify and fix common water leaks in your home.

Understanding the Common Causes of Water Leaks

The plumbing system that brings that water into the buildings (and drains it back out) is an incredible feat of engineering. It’s a complex network of pipes, fixtures, and appliances that work together to keep water flowing in and out efficiently. But with all these moving parts, there’s bound to be some wear and tear.

But the bigger picture reality is that water leaks happen all the time and in almost every building, home, office, and industrial workplace. And while not all leaks are the same, there are a few common causes that you should be aware of:

Aging Pipes and Plumbing Systems

The heart of any building’s water system is its plumbing. As systems age and wear, they naturally become weaker and more prone to cracks, holes, and other damages. One primary concern is pipe corrosion, especially prevalent in areas with hard water. This is especially true for older homes with outdated plumbing systems that may not have been properly maintained or replaced over the years.

Furthermore, the joints, where two pipes converge, can weaken and become primary sites for water escape. Rapid temperature fluctuations, often due to seasonal changes or sudden uses of hot or cold water, can stress pipes and result in cracks, particularly in older infrastructures. Another concern is high water pressure; excessive pressure can stress the plumbing system, making even minor weak points potential leak sites.

Regular inspections and maintenance of plumbing systems can help identify weak points and prevent leaks before they happen.

Roof and Gutters

Roofs and gutters are essential components in safeguarding property against environmental elements. However, they are not immune to wear and damage. Broken or missing shingles, often resulting from weather effects or natural depreciation over time, expose the underlayment and decking to water ingress. The seals around roof installations, such as vents and chimneys, can also degrade, becoming potential entry points for water. Inadequately installed or clogged rain gutters can cause water to back up and pool, leading to damage and potential leaks.

High Water Pressure

While strong water pressure can be great for a refreshing shower, it can also put unnecessary strain on your pipes. Over time, this increased pressure can cause small cracks to form and eventually turn into larger leaks. This is especially common in homes with older plumbing systems or those with a water pressure regulator that is not functioning properly.

Foundation and Basement Problems

Issues with a building’s foundation or basement can also contribute to water leaks. Cracks in the foundation, whether from natural settling or structural issues, can create pathways for water to enter the structure. Additionally, if the property is built on a slope, improper grading and drainage can cause water to pool against the foundation and seep into the structure.

Aging Infrastructure and Natural Disasters

In some cases, water leaks can occur due to factors beyond our control. Older infrastructure, such as municipal water lines or sewer systems, can become weakened over time and lead to leaks. Additionally, natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods can damage water systems and cause unexpected leaks.

While we may not be able to prevent these types of leaks entirely, being aware of the risks and having a contingency plan in place can help reduce the impact of such events.

What Are the Visible Signs of Water Leaks?

Now that we understand some of the common causes of water leaks, it’s essential to be able to identify when a leak is occurring in our homes. Here are some visible signs to look out for:

  • Dripping or running water sounds, even when all faucets and appliances are turned off.
  • Unexplained increases in your water bill. A higher bill may indicate that water is being wasted due to a leak.
  • Musty or moldy smells, particularly in areas near pipes or fixtures. These odors can be a sign of hidden leaks.
  • Water stains on walls, ceilings, or floors. These patches could indicate an active leak behind the surface.
  • Bubbling or peeling paint, particularly in areas that are frequently exposed to moisture.
  • Warped or discolored floor tiles. Water leaks can cause damage to flooring, resulting in noticeable changes in appearance.

How to Detect Water Leak: The Ultimate Checklist

In just 15 minutes, you can perform a quick check to see if there are any hidden water leaks in your property. But first things first, spot your shut-off valve. This is critical should you experience an emergency leak or even before a plumber pays a visit. Whether at home, work, or in any public space, knowing where the main shut-off valve is located can save time and money if a water leak occurs.

Step 1: Checking Indoor Leaks

Leaky Toilets

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “the most common source of leaks is toilets, accounting for almost 30 percent of indoor water use.” To check if your toilet has a leak, add five drops of food coloring to the tank. Wait 15 minutes and see if any color appears in the bowl. If it does, you have a leak that needs attention. Common causes include:

  • Float arm problems: Remove the cover from the tank and look at the float arm. If it is set too high, water will overflow into the overflow pipe. This means the float arm or ball needs adjustment or replacement.
  • Flapper issues: The flapper is a small, rubber flap that covers the hole in your tank where water flows into the toilet bowl. It’s attached to a chain that controls how long it remains open. When you flush, this flap should open and close completely, sealing off the hole so water can fill up again in the tank. If it’s not sealing properly, the water will continue to drain into your bowl.
  • Overflow tube difficulties: The overflow tube is a small, vertical tube designed to prevent your toilet from overflowing. It’s connected to the flush valve assembly and sits in the middle of the tank. When you open up your toilet tank, you’ll see these black plastic tubes running up from the bottom of the tank. The tube’s job is to take water that has risen too high in your toilet tank down into the bowl. If this tube or valve isn’t working correctly, you’ll see water trickling down the sides of your toilet bowl.

Do The Toilet Color Test:
A simple test with your toilet can reveal leaks. Here’s how: Add some food coloring to the water in your toilet tank and wait for about 10 minutes. If the color starts appearing in the bowl, there’s a leak. Do remember to flush afterward to prevent any stains. If you do spot a leak, the problem might be a worn-out toilet flapper.

The Leaky Faucet

Dripping Faucet: If you find a dripping faucet, start by ensuring it’s closed tightly. If the dripping persists, it’s likely due to a worn or incorrect-size seat washer (sometimes referred to as a stem washer). Replacing this washer might be a task you can handle on your own with minimal tools like an adjustable wrench and a couple of screwdrivers. However, if the faucet is washerless, it could be time to call a professional plumber.

Changing the Washer: Before you start replacing the washer, turn off the water supply to the specific faucet. Usually, kitchen and bathroom sinks have shut-off valves located beneath them. Turn this valve clockwise until tight to halt the water supply, ensuring the rest of the house remains unaffected. Make sure that the replacement washer is of the exact size as the worn-out one to avoid recurring leaks.

Step 2: Check Other Common Causes of Indoor Leaks

While toilets and faucets are frequent culprits, several other indoor components can contribute to unexpected water wastage. It’s essential to inspect and address these less obvious sources to ensure comprehensive water conservation in your home.

  • Water Heater Tank: Check the pressure valve release on your water heater tank. If it’s stuck, it can leak, causing water to drip down the tank and collect on the floor. This valve is usually a brass fitting at the top of the tank.
  • Boiler: If you hear a continuous sound of running water from your boiler, instead of periodic starts and stops, you might have a leak.
  • Water Softener: A continuous sound of running water from your water softener, especially between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., indicates a possible recycling issue.
  • Washing Machine: If you find water on the floor near your washing machine, call a repair service to check for leaks.
  • Humidifier: Pooling water under your humidifier suggests a leak. If the overflow discharge goes into a drainage line, continuous running water can hint at a stuck float valve.
  • Fire Suppression Systems: Modern homes and businesses often have these systems. Regularly check the sprinkler heads to ensure they don’t leak.
  • Refrigerator Ice-making Unit: Excessive ice in the freezer or puddles under the refrigerator point to a leak in the ice-making unit. Consider calling a repair service for a diagnosis.
  • Dishwasher: Water on the floor near your dishwasher indicates a potential leak. A professional repair service can help pinpoint and resolve the issue.
  • Bathtubs & Showers: Inspect the spout and showerhead for drips. If you spot any, you might need to replace the washers on the faucet handles. Turn off your home’s main shut-off valve before attempting this repair.

Do the Final Check: Don’t forget to inspect sinks or water appliances in overlooked areas like the garage, basement, or attic. Regular checks help catch leaks in these hidden spaces.

Step 3: Checking External Leaks

While indoor leak checks are crucial, many often overlook the outdoor water systems. These also require your attention to ensure a comprehensive leak-free environment. Here’s a breakdown of the outdoor areas to inspect:

  • Water Faucets: Inspect each outdoor faucet for leaks. Ensure they’re tightly closed when not in use. If you encounter a leaking faucet, turn off the shut-off valve before replacing the washer. In colder climates, remember to close the indoor shut-off valves during winter to prevent freezing. Drain residual water by opening the outdoor faucets. You’ll typically find the shut-off valves in the basement.
  • Automatic Lawn Sprinkling System: Examine your lawn for any soft spots. If you find any, they could indicate a leak in your sprinkling system where water is being absorbed into the ground.
  • Swimming Pools: Monitor your pool’s water level. If it remains unusually high or overflows during use, the automatic shut-off valve might be malfunctioning and continually cycling water in and out. This issue needs addressing to prevent water wastage.
  • Service Connecting Line: Keep an ear out for the sound of running water or look for soft, wet spots on your lawn, which could point to a leak in the service line leading to your home. Turn off the main shut-off valve. If you still hear water running, the service line might be leaking.

Now that you’ve checked for leaks and still can’t seem to find the source, it might be time to call a professional plumber. These experts have the necessary tools and experience to detect and fix leaks that you may not be able to identify on your own. Remember, early detection and repair of leaks can save you money on utility bills and prevent water damage in your home.

Technologies to Help Detect Leaks

As mentioned, professional plumbers are equipped with specialized tools to detect leaks that may not be visible to the naked eye. Some of these technologies include:

Water Leak Detectors

Water leak detectors are electronic devices that help identify leaks in your water system. They can be placed near appliances, pipes, and other water sources to monitor for unexpected changes in pressure or flow. These detectors typically come with alarms that sound when a leak is detected, alerting you to potential issues.

Smart Water Meters

Smart water meters use advanced technology to measure and monitor water usage in real-time. They can detect unusual spikes in water usage, which could indicate a leak or malfunctioning appliance. Some models even include options for automatic shut-off valves, allowing you to remotely turn off your water supply if a leak is detected.

Infrared Cameras

Infrared cameras can be used to detect hidden leaks behind walls or under floors. They use thermal imaging to identify temperature differences and can pinpoint potential leak areas. This technology is not as accessible to the average homeowner, so it may be best to hire a professional if you suspect a hidden leak in your home.

What Preventative Measures Can You Take to Avoid Leaks?

While you can’t always prevent leaks from occurring, there are some preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of leaks in your home. These include:

  • Regular Inspections: As mentioned earlier, regular inspections can help catch leaks before they become major issues. Make it a habit to check for leaks at least once a month.
  • Proper Maintenance: Keep your appliances and water systems well-maintained to prevent them from developing leaks. This includes regular cleaning, filter replacements, and professional servicing.
  • Winter Preparations: In colder climates, ensure you have properly winterized your home, including shutting off any outdoor faucets and draining sprinkler systems. This will help prevent frozen pipes that can lead to leaks.
  • Basement Waterproofing: Consider waterproofing your basement to protect against any potential leaks or water damage. This can involve sealing cracks in walls and floors, installing a sump pump, and using waterproof coatings.
  • Replacing Old Pipes: If your home has older pipes, consider replacing them with newer, more durable materials. This can help prevent leaks and reduce the risk of burst pipes in the future.
  • Improving Home Insulation and Sealing: Proper insulation and sealing can help prevent frozen pipes, which are a leading cause of leaks in the winter. It can also help regulate moisture levels in your home, reducing the risk of water damage.
  • Proper Roof and Gutter Maintenance: Regularly cleaning and maintaining your roof and gutters can help prevent leaks caused by clogs or damage. Make sure to check for any signs of wear and tear, such as cracked shingles or rusted gutters, and repair them promptly.
  • Installation of Water Leak Detection Devices: Consider installing water leak detection devices, such as smart water meters or detectors, to catch leaks early on and prevent extensive damage. These devices can also give you valuable insights into your water usage and help identify any potential issues.

Remember, taking preventative measures can save you time, money, and headaches in the long run. By incorporating these steps into your regular home maintenance routine, you can help prevent leaks and protect your home from water damage. If you do encounter a leak, don’t hesitate to call a professional for assistance in identifying and repairing the issue. With proper care and maintenance, you can keep your home leak-free and avoid any potential water-related disasters.