When Tony Herman started Leak Geeks Plumbing in Fort Worth, Texas, 18 years ago, not including leak detection and repair services was never an option.
“In the part of Texas we’re in, the ground shifts a lot — we get a lot of movement which causes breaks in the sewer line both underneath the house and out in the yard,” he says. “Freshwater is kind of the same thing, but a lot of our freshwater leaks come from small kinks in the copper water line when the plumbing system was installed, the water line resting against a small rock or something which rubs a hole in it over time or electrolysis will develop because the electrical system is grounded to the plumbing system. Over time, that grounding will eat away at the copper pipe.”
Leak Geeks gets an equal amount of freshwater and sewer leak calls from customers, which is an additional source of revenue for the plumbing company. Herman employs both electronic leak detection methods along with geophones. The company also sells whole-home solutions, though consumers are largely unaware of these products still, Herman notes.
“A lot of times, just by listening is how we find leaks on the freshwater system,” he says. “We pressurize the system with air to make the leak a lot more pronounced. On drain lines, we’ll use cameras and locators. If we can’t find it with the camera, we’ll pull a pneumatic test plug through the system. About every 5 feet, we’ll stop and pressurize the system. If the system drops, we know we haven’t found the leak yet. Once we get past the leak, the system will hold, so we can narrow down where the leak is located. It’s a very time consuming way of finding the leak, so usually, we try the camera and hope we can find it that way first.”
Nashville-based Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, and Electrical relies on acoustics, compressed air and dye tablet techniques to detect and locate leaks in a home, notes Jimmy Hiller, president and CEO of the company.
“In a home, the most common areas for leaks are outside on the main service line, inside on the internal water supply line and around toilets,” Hiller says. “Defective or old pipes can cause major leaks, while small pin holes in pipe systems can also create large problems over time. Advanced leak detection comes with plumbing experience, so we have regular training meetings with our technicians to share knowledge and tips amongst our team.”
Hiller offers several options for leak detection depending on the homeowner’s needs and budget.
“Leak detection and prevention offers a valuable revenue stream for us because it allows us the opportunity to make recommendations for future service,” Hiller says. “This service allows us to fully cover any plumbing-related need homeowner may face and positions us as the industry expert. This results in higher levels of consumer trust and increases the likelihood that Hiller will win the business. Additionally, many of our competitors do not offer this service, which differentiates us in this trade.”
Finding the leak
Leak detection presents a growth opportunity for plumbing contractors, according to Marty Silverman, vice president of marketing, General Pipe Cleaners.
“With all of this aging infrastructure, there are going to be a lot more opportunities out there,” he says. “All over, water lines are failing. There is certainly business to be had. There are companies that do nothing but leak location. Contractors have to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to farm this out to somebody else, or do I want to do it myself and get the profit?’ If they make the decision to do it themselves, they can get a machine to make leak location easier. It’s a great business opportunity that’s only going to grow.”
General Pipe Cleaners has made several advancements to make its system as user friendly as possible, Silverman notes.
“Well, we started with a divining rod,” he jokes. “Our system allows contractors to be proficient in leak location, and it’s much easier than in the old days when gut feel played a lot into leak location.”
The original machines were complicated by lots of features. Contractors had to figure out how to separate the sound of the leak from wind, traffic and other noises, Silverman explains.
“We found most water leaks come within a certain range of frequencies,” he says. “So in our newer model, we preset the frequencies to that range so they don’t have to guess anymore. We also included higher-quality headphones to block out all other noises.”
Lastly, General Pipe Cleaners added in a sound amplification manifold (SAM), Silverman notes.
“The idea is that by the time the contractor is called, the leak has been going for a while and the ground is now saturated,” he says. “Trying to hear the sound of water coming out of a crack in a pipe underground in an area where the soil has been completely flooded is hard to hear. This device adds air to the water line, and as air escapes through the crack, it amplifies the noise — much like if you held a hose over a bucket of water, you hear the splashing noise. If the hose is below the water line, you don’t hear anything at all.”
Darren Merlob, founder and owner of Leaktronics, notes that advancements in technology — such as smart meters and Internet of Things (IoT) data and measurement collection methods being implemented in flow meters and other devices — as the biggest influencer in the leak detection market.
“New technologies like this are empowering customers with knowledge about their water use due to potential leak situations,” he says. “Customers can receive texts and emails about a rise in use, or a noticeable change in things like water pressure, usage measurements and more. The issue that still exists with all of these technologies is that while they can tell you there is a potential increase in water use, they do not specify where the leak is. This requires a professional leak detection technician, and tools like those we manufacture at Leaktronics.”
One of those tools from LeakTronics is the FLASH Leak Locator, which identifies leaks from within lines and transmits a signal at the precise location of the leak.
“By using technologies that isolate leak sounds and reveal the exact location of the leak in question, we’re reducing the time it takes to accurately find pipe leaks and greatly reduce the cost and effort to reach them,” Merlob says. “This includes reducing destructive methods of digging and breaking ground. By using highly sensitive listening technology, we can literally get on top of the leak in a pipe and use sonde technology to tell the technician where the mic is underground within fractions of an inch — alerting both the repair technician and the customer of the precise location of where the repair will take place. Noise filtration and noise cancelling technology has also made a big difference in the ability to distinguish leak sounds from other surrounding noise. Phantom Power has also added to the sensitivity and power of listening equipment.”
The rise of whole-home solutions
Today, there is more product choice in the leak detection category compared to two years ago, notes Ian Greene, marketing director, FloLogic.
“This new, broader spectrum of products have differing price points and differing levels of ability to catch leaks,” he says. “Some entry price-point systems are limited to catching leaks in specific locations where sensors detect the accumulation of water with point-of-leak detectors. Other systems, such as FloLogic, use flow-based detection, enabling leaks that occur anywhere within a plumbing supply to be identified. Most new flow-based systems use metering technology, which enables water volume use metrics to be accessed by the user. But metering technology is limited in its ability to detect real-time flow, or leaks, that are of lower flow volume. FloLogic uses a proprietary flow sensing design to catch leaks in real-time beginning at 0.5 ounces of water per minute.”
Greene notes that a growing percentage of today’s homeowners use smart home technology. They have the ability to control, and have oversight over, their home’s climate, security, lighting and more using their smartphones. As a result, they are open to, or are actively seeking smart home water products to complete their smart home ecosystem.
“In addition, the insurance industry, who pays out an estimated $10 billion annually to repair water damage, is more aggressively promoting and incenting the installation of leak control technologies,” he says.
John Holzheimer, vice president of manufacturing and supply chain management at Waxman Consumer Products, parent company of LeakSmart, says the company has formed partnerships with several leaders in the IoT industry, including Google, Amazon, Control4, Nest and SmartThings. Currently, users can ask Siri or Alexa to turn off their water main if a LeakSmart system is installed.
“Smart home is no longer a novelty,” Holzheimer says. “According to the Consumer Technology Association (which named LeakSmart the CES 2019 Automation Device of the Year), nearly 30 million smart home products will be sold this year — a 23% increase from 2018, which shows a real tipping point in the industry. We also see that customers don’t just want novelty, they want something that brings convenience, peace of mind and protection — not some other thing to worry about.”
In general, leak detection products and their level of protection keep getting better and easier to install, Holzheimer adds.
“LeakSmart offers a free app, reusable sensors that keep working even after getting wet,” he says. “We now offer two valve controller options — our cut-in, which must be installed by a licensed plumber but can fit more sizes of pipe plus be installed indoors and out, and the Snap, which can be installed without tools or cutting of water pipes. Our Hub 3.0 ensures the LeakSmart System continues working even during power or Wi-Fi outages, and LeakSmart’s valve controllers feature an all-brass valve.”
Moen has also formed a partnership in this space by teaming up with Flo Technologies earlier this year to launch Flo by Moen, a smart home water monitoring and leak detection system that enables homeowners to control their home’s water from their smartphones.
“Incorporating IoT in leak detection products has provided consumers with the ability to receive real-time information about their home’s water consumption and alerts to any abnormalities,” says Michael Poloha, group manager, IoT, Moen. “Within the Flo by Moen app, users can control how the system provides alerts and respond to potential issues. Alerts may be sent to users through push notifications, via email, or by text or phone call. The user also can turn off their water directly from the app. If the issue is critical, and the user isn’t responding, the system can be set to shut off the water automatically to protect the home.”
Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) also have contributed to growing innovation in this field, Poloha adds. Through AI, Flo by Moen can learn a home’s water usage patterns to identify abnormalities or leaks throughout the home.
“In the event a catastrophic issue is detected, the system will alert the user, allowing them to take action on their own or if the user fails to respond to alerts, the system can be set to automatically shut off the water to protect the home,” he says.
Water in general is becoming a bigger issue for homeowners and people are starting to take notice of the leak detection category, notes Jeff Long, director of marketing and operations, StreamLabs. “Insurance companies are starting to look at solutions to mitigate their risk as it relates to water damage in the home,” Long says. “There are also environmental factors that come into play when you consider water conservation and regions of the country that are susceptible to draughts and have to ration water supply. In addition, high water billing and pressure on utility companies to be more accurate with their metering practices are putting more emphasis on the category as well. Overall, leak detection and water monitoring are getting more attention as the need to address all of these market needs increases. A large indicator of this is that we’re seeing multiple companies coming out with products to enter this space.”
Long believes one reason for growth in this category is because of the integration of smart home technology with rough plumbing technology and know-how to solve a real problem in the marketplace that has yet to have a good solution up until recently.
“We’re not a tech company trying to get into the water or plumbing space, we’re a plumbing manufacturing company making a natural transition into the home, if you will,” he says. “Because we’re already there — we’re already behind the wall, we’re just coming out and being more consumer facing now.
“Another trend is apps are becoming more user friendly and commonplace,” he continues. “For all intents and purposes, once you install the product — the Control valve itself — the StreamLabs app becomes the consumer facing product. Because you’re not going to go downstairs to touch the Control valve all the time. You’re interacting with the App and so, I think it puts more focus on your user experience and user interface to ensure those are really clean, intuitive and consistent. It forces us to up our game, which is great. It’s still an emerging market that has only reached that early adopter/early innovator stage. These products will continue to evolve and grow. We’re going to see more integration from leak detection products with other components in the home. The sky is the limit.”