In just one home, leaks in plumbing can waste anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 gallons every year. They can also cause serious structural damage, mold problems, and in the case of a dripping faucet, insanity. The worst part? Many leaks aren't even visible, and can be difficult to detect. Water stains, or a significant increase in your water bill, could tip you off to their presence. Some leaks are obvious, and easily fixed. Some, not so much. What follows are some methods to help you check for leaks in your home, seen and unseen. While not the most exciting way to spend your Saturday, checking for and locating leaks will save a lot of water, and it may save you money - water use will go down, and you won't need to pay the plumber extra hours to find leaks for you!
Got kids around? Turn your leak detection hunt into a fun, educational game! Teach children about why saving water is important and let them help you try to spot leaks in and around your home. An extra set of eyes is always handy, and they may even see something you miss!
The easiest way to begin is to take a good look at your fixtures and appliances. Toilets are the most common leak culprit, and are hard to spot without testing, which is why we have a detailed guide to detecting and repairing common toilet leaks. While you're in the bathroom, check out your tub or shower, sink, and the floors around them. Any curled flooring, loose tiles or stains should immediately alert you to a problem.
If you have shower doors, stand inside, close the doors, and splash water all around the door and frame. If you find any water outside, you'll need to replace any worn floor sweeps and gaskets on the door, and possibly re-caulk the frame. Though seemingly innocuous, these kinds of leaks can seep water into the subfloor, potentially rotting the wood and developing into a major (and costly) repair.
The tub/shower drain is also a source of leaks, since the connection to the bottom of the tub/shower can separate slightly, allowing water to leak outside the drain body and into flooring. Those with plastic or fiberglass tubs or shower pans are especially at risk for this kind of leak, as those materials will flex. A simple check for this leak uses a test plug. Simply fill the tub or shower with enough water to create a puddle, insert the plug, and wait a few minutes. Should that puddle shrink, it may be time to replace a gasket, re-caulk, or install a whole new drain.
Faucets are notorious leakers. Luckily, these leaks are usually obvious, and a leaking faucet often needs only a replacement part or new o-ring to be fixed, and such repairs are often easy enough to do on your own. Our guide to fixing leaky faucets will help you locate the source of the problem, and gives general instructions for faucet repair.
As for your sinks, they can have problems with leaking around the rim, which can damage countertops and cabinets. Check for puddles or stains around the sink and inside the cabinet. Any loose countertop material or deteriorated caulk around the sink are telltale signs of these kinds of leaks, as is a loose faucet base. To make sure your sink is tightly sealed, use a sponge to squeeze out a noticeable amount of water around the sink's rim and the base of the faucet. Check inside the cabinet and underneath the sink for any seepage after a few minutes. If you do discover any leaks, they can usually be taken care of with a re-caulking, or tightening of the sink's undermount clips (if applicable).
To check for leaks in your sink's plumbing, dab a dry tissue or paper towel all around the hot and cold water supply line stops and hoses. After that, fill the sink up with some water and then remove the stopper; grab another dry tissue and wipe down the length of the waste piping as it drains. Leaks of this nature will usually require replacement of stops, fittings, or supply lines.
Like faucets, water heaters generally don't have concealed leaks. If you see water on the ground around your heater, check the temperature and pressure relief valve: if it's constantly leaking, you need to check the temperature and pressure. If these are within the operating limits of the heater, you'll need to replace the valve. If the valve doesn't appear to be the offender, check the fittings and stops connected to the heater, and replace as necessary. Sometimes condensation from the heater will create wet spots or puddles. While this isn't technically a "leak", condensation can cause problems. Check that all heater venting is clear. You may end up needing to adjust settings on the unit, or even consult with a plumber to resolve the issue.
Do you have a whole-house humidifier? How about a swamp cooler? These two appliances often have an overflow drain connected to a waste line. If the refill valve on these units doesn't close, water continues to flow through, straight into the waste line. This kind of leak is virtually undetectable (you might notice your water bill is higher), and can waste many thousands of gallons of water over the course of months and even years. Try turning off the unit while keeping the water supply on. If you notice that water continues to flow through the unit's drain line, you'll need to get it repaired.
Outdoor leaks can also be difficult to detect, and a leak in a swimming pool can be especially hard to notice. A simple way to find out if your pool is wasting water is "the bucket test". Set a bucket down on a step in the pool, and fill it to match the pool's water line. Mark the water levels on both the inside and outside of the bucket, and come back about 24 hours later to see if the pool's water level has gone down any.
If you have a sprinkler system or irrigation for a garden, turn the water on and keep an eye on all the lines for damaged heads or leaks. Some systems may leak when the water is off, usually due to a malfunctioning valve. A sprinkler system may betray leaks in its piping through especially green or lush areas.
Some leaks know how to hide. If you've tried everything mentioned above and found nothing, but still have your suspicions that there's a leak somewhere, there is one more thing to try before calling the plumber. While you may not be able to locate them, you can at least confirm the existence of a larger leak (or several smaller ones) using your water meter. If you don't know where your supply shut-offs or water meter are located, our guide can help you.
Make sure that every faucet and water-using appliance in and around your home is off. Keep in mind any automatically-controlled devices like ice makers, pool fillers, and pumps, and be sure to disable them. Once you're certain your house shouldn't be drawing any water, take a look at the water meter. Any water or dampness in the meter housing could be sign of a leak: if a source cannot be found on the meter, it could point to a leak on the supply line (water from a leak can travel down the length of a pipe to collect in a completely different area from the leak).
Check for movement of the flow indicator (a smaller dial on the meter face, usually with a large triangle in the center). If it's moving, water is flowing somewhere. If it's still, you're not safe yet: the leak may be slight. For a more thorough test, record the number displayed on the meter register (the main display recording your home's water use), and come back a minimum of 15 minutes later to see if any water has been used. For more reliable results, you can leave everything off overnight, then check for usage. Remember, though: the bathroom is off-limits during this period!
Should you end up detecting a leak, you can get a better idea of its general location by shutting off the main water supply outside your home. If meter-movement still occurs, you have a leak in the piping going between the meter and the house. No movement? Your leak is somewhere in the house. If your water meter test comes up negative, this does not necessarily mean you're in the clear. Some leaks are only occasionally active, and it could be that your test was performed outside of that window. If you still think you may have a leak, it's time to call your plumber. Using professional tools and technology like the Gen-Ear Leak Location System, they should be able to find the problem, or set your mind at ease.
The EPA estimates that the average household's leaks can waste upwards of 10,000 gallons a year. 10% of homes lose 90 gallons or more per day. Collectively, that's a whole lot of water. With these kinds of figures in mind, checking for and repairing plumbing leaks becomes much more than just preventing damage to your home, or saving a few dollars. Using the tips here, you'll be contributing to the preservation of our most important resource. Good job!