Fun fact to rob you of sleep for the remainder of your adult life: The odds are pretty good that your home will suffer water damage at some point. The Insurance Information Institute says that about one in 50 homes filed a claim for water damage in recent years (up to 2019, so not even including this year’s calamities), and that an average of 30% of all insurance claims in that time involved water damage—in fact, water damage and freezing account for the second-highest number of homeowner’s insurance claims overall, after wind damage.
Now that you’re properly scared, here’s the good news: There are smart-home products that can help limit—or even prevent—water from wreaking havoc on your crib. Devices like smart water-leak detectors, smart water monitors, and smart water-shut-off valves can alert you to water leaks, warn you in advance that something is drippy, and even turn off your water supply to prevent damage from occurring.
The basic solution: Smart water-leak detector
The quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to protect your home and belongings from water damage is to install one or more smart water-leak detectors. These palm-sized sensors vary in shape, but they all work about the same way: You place them on the ground in a spot where you might experience a leak—around a water heater or clothes washer. If things go pear-shaped, the water should make contact with the sensor, triggering it to send a notification to your phone (and, for some models, to set off an alarm). Some leak detectors have a sensor cord, which allows you to monitor a slightly larger area. In our guide to smart water-leak detectors, we recommend the Flo by Moen Smart Water Detector because it monitors for leaks as well as for temperature changes (in case your pipes are prone to freezing). In our testing it was the only model that responded quickly to both water and connection issues.
Water-leak detectors do have a few shortcomings compared with the other available options. For one, a water-leak detector can only sense water that physically touches it—if water flows around the detector or runs in a different direction, then you just won the bad luck lottery. And leak detectors are generally effective only in small areas where water likely will pool—they can’t detect dripping faucets, running toilets, or leaking pipes buried deep in your walls. And even if a leak detector does its job perfectly, it’s still unable to do anything beyond sending word that there’s a problem—it’s on you to take quick action.
The upgrade option: Smart water monitor
A smart water monitor offers a more comprehensive way to keep abreast of burgeoning plumbing catastrophes. There are several models available, and they fit into one of two categories: a device that straps onto your water-supply line, and one that is physically plumbed into your line. These devices monitor the flow of water in your pipes (some also can detect changes in pressure); if water flows at too high a rate or for too long (or both), they will then send you a notification so you can call in the cavalry.
We haven’t yet tested any of these specific devices, but prominent brands include Flume, StreamLabs, and Phyn (we do have experience with a Phyn Plus—see below). Of those, the Phyn (which easily installs with flexible hoses under any sink in your home) seems to be the most promising because it is in physical contact with the water flow of your home. Since it can detect water-pressure changes, it’s also able to alert you when a pipe is starting to freeze.
As smart and refined as these devices seem, they still have limitations. For one, you likely can’t use them in an apartment building or any dwelling where water lines are split between residences (instead of one big circuit). And, similar to water-leak detectors, the most a water monitor can do is alert you to a problem—they don’t have the ability to stop the water flow.
The whole enchilada: Smart water-shutoff valve
The most useful option—as well as the most expensive and involved—is a smart water-shutoff valve. The more-advanced versions of these devices combine the water-flow-sensing abilities of a smart water monitor with an electro-mechanical switch that can be triggered to physically stop your home’s main water supply if a pipe bursts or freezes. At around $700, these devices are expensive, and a plumber needs to install them (though the whole process takes less than an hour). However, many home-insurance companies offer a discount for installing one, as well as a potentially discounted or rebated price, so it’s possible to break even. Flo by Moen and Phyn Plus are two popular models. Although we don’t yet have a Wirecutter guide for this category of device, we do have experience with both models (I own a Phyn) and think both are terrific options.
These devices rely on sophisticated AI software to interpret the various types of water flows in your home and to understand your pattern of water use. If the Flo or Phyn detects an oddball change in water flow or pressure that is consistent with a leak or pipes beginning to freeze, you’ll be sent a smartphone notification and sometimes a suggestion of what the issue might be: a toilet running or a faucet that has been left on. Depending on your preferences, these devices can be configured to completely shut off your home’s water supply if the potential leak hasn’t been resolved quickly (with both the Phyn and the Flo, you can opt out of that setting, or use the app to turn your water back on at any time).
Because these devices rely on a bit of guesswork, they sometimes get things wrong, which can occasionally be a problem. For instance, if you are away from home and fail to notice a warning, your water may shut off, stranding someone at home who’s taking a late shower. We’ve also found that these devices can sometimes be over- or under-sensitive. For instance, someone doing a load of laundry or running a hose or taking a bath at an atypical hour might trigger a heart-stopping alert that the house is flooding. Other times, a dripping faucet could go unnoticed for days or weeks because the flow is just too subtle to be detected. Still, we think homeowners—not to mention anyone who has a vacation or rental property—may want to consider these devices for their ability to thwart a potentially disastrous burst pipe, which can cause substantial home damage in a matter of minutes.
Another important point to consider: No matter how smart a water monitor or shut-off valve is, it won’t be able to detect water flowing into your home from sources outside your pipes—rain, flash floods, melting ice, or snow. If your home is vulnerable to water from outside, consider a water-leak detector.