It is probably one of the worst nightmare scenarios. You’ve been at work all day and come back home to find water trickling through the bottom of the front door and draining out onto the lawn.
You open the door and step onto the hall carpet, which squelches beneath your feet, and make your way to the kitchen. Water is cascading from the fitted sink unit-housing cupboard. You open the cupboard door and discover a burst water pipe. Instinct tells you that you need to turn off the mains water stopcock quickly. But where is it?
Accidental water damage in domestic property costs homeowners and insurance companies millions of pounds each year in claims and the uninsured costs of repairs and replacements. Although a major leak can be catastrophic, minor leaks can also cause considerable damage to the fabric and furnishings of a property if they are allowed to continue unchecked for even a short period.
Water is continuously present in our homes, filling networks of pipes that distribute it throughout the building, supplying demand when required and often hidden from view. Contained and controlled.
But when it does get the opportunity to escape, it can do so with an alarming and unlimited capacity, spreading rapidly over surfaces and searching for any recess where it can continue on its ever horizontal and downward progression.
Although the damage caused by a water leak can be serious for a homeowner living in a traditional house or bungalow, occupants living in shared multi story accommodation or flats can often become victims of leakage events occurring above them. This can lead to considerable ill feeling and legal action when compensation becomes an issue.
So, what can be done to reduce the risk of an unpredicted water leak causing substantial damage?
Well, one solution might be to turn the mains stopcock of when leaving the property unattended. This would be effective but not very practical, especially if the mains stopcock is in an inconvenient position.
Another solution would be to fit a water leakage detection device.
There are an interesting array of water leakage alarms and cut-off devices available. These range from the very simplistic to the quite sophisticated.
The available devices are often described as being passive or active.
A passive device is usually the less sophisticated. In its simplest form it consists of a sensor strip or contacts which activates an audible alarm when water is detected. They are generally battery operated. Some alarm units may house the detection sensors and operate as single units that can be placed in specific areas of risk. Other alarm units may have remote sensors attached by wires, or incorporate a signal transmitter and remote receiver.
These alarm type units can give occupants early warning of a leak problem allowing them to respond quickly and minimise potential damage.
However, these alarms are only effective if the occupants are present to hear the alarm when it operates, or likely to return whilst the alarm is sounding. The alarms are designed to emit an audible warning until the battery fails, which can be up to 24 hrs.
Passive type alarms are probably best for giving an early indication of water accumulating from the failure of an appliance such as a defrosting fridge or freezer. They may also give a good early indication of a small leak from pipe-work or washing machine plumbing parts and seals.
Of course, the alarm sensor points do have to be in the immediate vicinity of the leak and come into contact with water to operate the alarm.
Active type alarms are more sophisticated and are designed to automatically turn off the water supply if a leak is detected.
Although some models incorporate an audible alarm or visual indicator to inform that they have responded to a leakage event, the most important response is the immediate water shut-off which can prevent considerable damage occurring.
Most active systems are installed inline, and are usually positioned next to, and on, the household side of the mains stop cock. However, there are other automatic shut-off devices that can be installed into separate plumbing systems within the domestic plumbing network.
The automatic water shut off device can be activated by water sensor strips located throughout the property, but the more advanced and reliable type are designed to monitor flow and pressure in the pipe network and respond to any abnormal changes. These systems are very responsive and can detect even the smallest leak. Some models have an automatic regular valve opening and closing operation to ensure that the valve always remains free and operational. When left un-operated for long periods, valves have a tendency to become stiff and unresponsive.
Many systems have wireless controls that link to a display panel located in a suitable position in the property. From this panel, the householder can monitor the system to check its operational status. The householder can also select various operating modes to inform the leak sensor that the occupants are away from the property or to temporarily disable the system. Some models can send a status message to absent occupants via a broadband connection.
Perhaps the simplest automatic shut off system is one that can also be installed into the mains water inlet pipe on the household side of the stopcock. Although the installation is similar to the active type of leakage detection and cut off system, its method of operation is slightly different. It is simply an electronically controlled shut off valve that is operated remotely by the occupants when they leave or return to the property. Rather than stooping into a difficult to access area and turning off the mains stopcock, it can be accomplished by the press of a switch.
It can also incorporate a timer to accommodate the functioning of a device like a washing machine, which may be operating when the occupants leave the property. This is a useful and effective device as long as the occupants remember to operate it before leaving the property.
Regardless of whether water leakage alarm systems or sophisticated monitoring and cut off devices are installed, the householder, and the occupants, must familiarise themselves with the location of the property’s main stopcock. A frequent opening and closing of this valve will ensure free operation should a water leak emergency occur.