How Do Leak Detection Systems Work?

Posted by
John Woodard on March 04, 2024

Each year, plumbing leaks cause billions of dollars of property damage in the United States alone. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average water damage insurance claim is a staggering $10,234. Water damage can result from a host of problems, many of which are difficult to predict. A burst hot water tank, pinhole leaks in copper piping, an under-sink faucet leak, or a frozen pipe can all culminate in destroyed insulation, ruined plumbing, and sagging ceilings.

Fortunately, water damage is an avoidable calamity. Leak detection systems can be installed inline on any home’s plumbing. Leak detection systems meticulously monitor the flow of water as it passes through the pipes and shut off water flow when a leak is noticed. Leak detection systems are engineered to give the homeowner peace of mind, ensuring your property is protected from catastrophic damage and jaw-dropping repair bills.  

What is a leak detection system?

leak detection system monitors the flow of water through a pipeline. When abnormal behavior is detected, the system cuts off the water flow to the entire household by closing a valve within the leak detector. Leak detection systems are usually installed at the water’s point of entry into the home. This way, no matter the problem, water flow can be shut off from every water-using fixture and appliance, protecting the whole home from disastrous and expensive damage. Whether a toilet flapper becomes jammed, a tub is left running too long, or a fitting bursts behind a wall, a leak detection system will immediately recognize the escalation in water usage. Leak detection systems are programmable, letting you customize shut-off settings based on your household’s water usage patterns. They also connect to smartphones via an app, sending you alerts when they detect irregular water flow. This allows you to protect your property remotely, whether you are at work or on a vacation thousands of miles away from your home. 

The Wi-Fi connectivity of most leak detection systems gives you the power to monitor your water usage in real-time. The leak detectors will notify you via an app when a leak has sprung, cutting off water flow before the small leak morphs into a catastrophe. Though the leak detection systems are equipped with smart valves that will immediately stop water flow when they sense flooding, the real-time tracking lends helpful insight into your household’s water usage. Many leak detectors have both live and historical data visible within the app. Using this data, you can observe when your water consumption is highest and what appliances or fixtures are triggering the water usage. 

Leak detection systems are also capable of detecting when pipes are in danger of freezing. When pipes freeze, they are at risk of cracking or bursting, (as water will expand as it hardens into a solid form). This can lead to costly plumbing repairs, not to mention potential flooding if the pipes thaw and water flows through a broken pipe. If temperatures within the pipes drop below freezing temperatures, leak detection systems will sever the water connection until temperatures rise or the homeowner assesses the risk and turns the water supply back on.

How does a leak detection system work?

Leak detection systems work by monitoring water flow through either a mechanical turbine or ultrasonic wavelengths. These leak detection systems observe the pattern of the water flow, either by counting the volume of water passing through the sensor or sonically recording the time delay. Other leak detectors also cut off water by detecting the presence of moisture. If these leak detection systems sense moisture reaching the floorboards, a mechanical valve is triggered that will block water flow. Moisture-sensing leak detectors are better suited for under-sink or point-of-use applications. Whole-house leak detection systems tend to track water usage to detect potential leaks.

Mechanical leak detection systems

Mechanical leak detection systems use an impeller to count the gallons as they pass through the unit. As water flows through the system, the blades on the impeller fan spin. As the fan spins, the gallonage of water passing through the system is recorded and communicated back to the system. This type of mechanical leak detection system works by physically tracking the water flow. Water demand in a home usually comes in intervals, like when running a dishwasher or brushing your teeth. Sustained periods of water flow indicate to the system that a leak is present somewhere in the plumbing.

Ultrasonic leak detection systems

Ultrasonic leak detection systems use ultrasonic waves to detect irregular water patterns within your pipes. These units transmit ultrasonic waves both upstream and downstream, recording the rate of flow. The flow data is then communicated to your Wi-Fi router and relayed to your smartphone. If your Wi-Fi goes down, the unit pulls historical water usage data and any programmed settings to continue to monitor water flow. Like mechanical leak detectors, ultrasonic detectors sense when water flow has exceeded expected use for an extended period. At this point the ball valve inside the unit will close and stop water flow to the entire home. The apps for these devices also typically reflect the water’s temperature, the humidity of the room, and the water pressure.  

One of the biggest advantages of an ultrasonic leak detection system is the lack of pressure drop. The control unit sits in line with your plumbing, allowing water to pass freely through. There is no impediment to flow that decreases water pressure. With a mechanical system, a marginal drop in pressure is to be expected, especially at higher flow rates. This is because the water must flow through the blades of the turbine before reaching your house. However, at lower flow rates these pressure drops are negligible and unlikely to be noticed by the homeowner.

Rusco smart leak detection systems

The Rusco Smart Ball Valve and Smart Leak Detectors allow for excellent leak prevention detection and control with the power of smart sensors and mobile app technology. The Smart Ball Valve connects to your household’s water supply and can be programmed to shut off, or turned off automatically when it receives a signal that a leak has been detected. The Smart Leak Detectors can be placed around plumbing fixtures, like near your hot water tank, in your bathroom, or in hidden or hard to reach areas of your home. These devices are small, lightweight, and quite simple to install. Furthermore, they are battery-operated, making their placement more versatile and further easing the installation process.

When the Rusco Smart Leak Detectors sense a water leak, they will alert you via the app, giving you instant control over the situation before thousands of dollars of damage can be done. The leak detector will then turn off the building’s water supply via the Smart Ball Valve, preventing any more water from escaping. Both the Smart Ball Valve and Smart Leak Detector connect to a home or building’s Wi-Fi, allowing them to alert any connected. Their remote activation, simplicity of design, and overall efficiency make them ideal for rental properties, vacation homes, apartments, and property managers. They are expert at monitoring your properties for you, giving you peace of mind and real-time insight into any plumbing problem. Additionally, the user-friendly design, versatility, and competitive price make them ideal for homeowners and DIYers. No matter where you are, you can control and contain leaks across your properties before the water can wreak havoc on your home.

Learn more: 5 advantages of owning a smart leak detection system

Do I need a leak detection system? 

A leak detection system protects your home from one of the most common and costly damages to households. A plumbing leak is more likely to damage your home than fire, lightning, or burglary. Each year, about 8.1% of homes experience a plumbing leak, contributing to over $10 billion dollars in insurance claims annually. In fact, on average, American households waste 10,000 gallons of water each year due to water leaks. These can come from sources as seemingly innocuous as a stuck toilet flapper or a small under-sink leak in your guest bathroom. However, over time, these small leaks accumulate thousands of gallons of wasted water.  

Furthermore, water damage goes hand-in-hand with mold. Mold can pose very serious health risks. Mold exacerbates skin rashes and aggravates allergic conditions, causing eye irritation, sneezing, and a runny nose. Inhalation of mold spores can also cause asthma attacks in those with severe mold allergies. Babies, infants, toddlers, elderly people, and those with pre-existing health conditions are all at elevated risk of illness associated with mold exposure. Even small under-counter leaks can lead to the proliferation of mold over time if they are left unaddressed.

What causes water leaks? 

Water leaks frequently occur due to water hammer, extreme pressures, corrosion, or aging plumbing. Water hammer is a surge of water pressure resulting from the water changing directions or stopping abruptly. When you open a faucet to wash your hands, water rushes through your plumbing and out through the faucet. When you close the faucet handle, all of the energy and inertia propelling the water from the water main out through the faucet is met with a harsh stop. This dramatic shift in momentum and dissipation of energy is known as hydraulic shock, more commonly referred to as water hammer. If you’ve heard a banging or clanking sound rattling around your copper pipes, that is a prime example of water hammer. Water hammer is a nuisance both because of the noises and vibrations it produces. However, it can also have negative effects on your plumbing. Severe episodes of water hammer can damage fittings and valves, causing them to fail. Water hammer can also beat away at plumbing over time, weakening the integrity of the pipes and leading to pinhole leaks. The damage brought on by water hammer pulses can be mitigated by expansion tankspressure regulating valves, or water hammer arrestors.

Learn more: What is a water pressure regulator?

burst plumbing leak

Cold temperatures

Extreme pressures can also damage pipes. Freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on a home’s plumbing. If water freezes within pipes, it will expand. This increased exertion of pressure on the pipes can cause cracks and even lead to pipes bursting altogether. This is especially a risk if your pipes are made of a metal like steel or copper. However, stainless steel braided hoses are also much less likely to burst or crack than rubber hoses. PEX tubing is one of the best ways to avoid freezing pipes. While PEX is not freeze-proof, it is sturdy and quite resilient against freezing temperatures. PEX tubing has more give than copper and can expand and contract without incurring structural damage. 

Old plumbing

Corroded or aged plumbing is also at high risk of sprouting a pinhole leak. Certain water conditions, like acidic water, can deteriorate metal plumbing over time. Galvanized steel plumbing is susceptible to rust. As rust weakens the pipes, small leaks will emerge. If these pinhole leaks occur in a concealed place, like behind a wall, in the basement, or in a guest home, these small leaks can cause jaw-dropping damage before they’re caught and addressed. However, a leak detection system will identify these small leaks the moment they emerge and before they cascade into enormously expensive repair projects.  

Learn more: How to troubleshoot leaking fittings | Types of plastic water pipes and tubing 

How much does a leak detection system cost?

Leak detection systems for the whole house cost between $500-$2,500. The expense of a system is determined by the system’s features and the number of physical components. Some homeowners may need to hire a plumber to install the system. Depending on the length of the installation and the hourly rate of the plumber, this can add another $200-$500 to the installation costs.

Some less expensive sysetms can detect leaks, but they do not have the ability to turn your water off. These are usually referred to as water monitors. These units are quite affordable, costing around $200. They also fit snugly on top of your water pipes, eliminating the need for costly and labor-intensive installations. However, in the event of a leak, they are unable to prevent any damage from occurring. They will send an alert to the homeowner, letting them know they have sensed abnormal water usage. Water monitors are useful for catching small leaks before they become more insidious problems. However, these systems are not ideal for vacation homes or properties you do not have convenient access to. They are also unable to mitigate the more serious water leak problems, such as burst pipes or water heaters.

What is a reverse osmosis leak detector?

reverse osmosis leak detector is an under-sink leak detection device that shuts off water flow when it detects the presence of moisture. Reverse osmosis leak detectors are used to protect your cabinets and floorboards from flooding if your reverse osmosis system begins to leak or your tubing or fittings fail. Water damage beneath a sink can lead to warped cabinetry, mold growth, and ruined hardwood. Just like whole-house leak detection systems monitor water usage to protect your home from damage, these leak detection devices will shut off your reverse osmosis unit at the first detection of moisture. 

These leak devices are mounted to the floorboard. Tubing running from the water inlet to the filtration system passes through the leak detector. Inside of the device is a small disc of compressed paper. When water spills out of the reverse osmosis membrane or storage tank and onto the floor, the moisture beads are absorbed by the paper disc. As the disc becomes damp, it expands upwards and outwards within the device. When the paper expands, it pushes upwards into a small shut-off valve. When triggered, the valve shuts off water flow to the RO system, preventing any more water from escaping and leaking onto your cabinet boards. Though mechanically simply in nature, these devices can be lifesavers. Under-sink floods can spill out into your kitchen or bathroom and lead to costly floor repairs and subsequent mold remediation. They are also extremely useful in settings where under-sink RO units are being used professionally, like pharmacies and medical laboratories. These simple, inexpensive devices provide RO system owners with security and peace of mind. 

Where are leak detection systems located?

A leak detection system should be installed at the earliest possible point of entry in your household plumbing. All water-using appliances and water heaters should be downstream from the leak detector. The less water travels before reaching the detection system, the greater the likelihood of avoiding water damage. All water filtration systems, like a water softener or other whole-house water filtration system, should be installed after the leak detection system. If the water filtration system becomes clogged or springs a leak, the monitor will spot the change in water flow and protect both your home and further damage to your equipment. Similarly, any water-using appliance, from your refrigerator to your showers, should be installed after the leak detector to ensure maximum efficiency from the unit.

Some leak detectors are point-of-use leak detectors. These are usually installed under a sink, targeting an under-sink water filtration system or a potentially leaky sink drain. These leak detectors usually use sensors to discern when water is leaking onto the cabinet’s floorboards. Some of these point-of-use detectors set off a loud alarm to alert the homeowner, while others can shut off the water supply to the specified faucet or water filter system.  

Can I install a leak detection system myself?

Many leak detection systems will require a licensed plumber to install because they require alteration to your home’s plumbing. Depending on the material used to plumb your home, this may necessitate copper plumbing being measured, cut, and soldered. Keep in mind, this is a system that will be inline before the totality of your household’s water-using appliances. Unless you have significant experience in plumbing, you should bring in a plumber to ensure that the unit is installed properly and is correctly monitoring your home’s water usage. 

Some units, like the water monitors, do not require any modifications to your home’s plumbing. Systems that merely monitor the water without shutting it off have simpler installations that you can perform yourself.


If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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