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The surprising power of water leaks (and how to prevent them)

If you’re looking for ways to protect your home and family, chances are you’re mostly focussed on physical security – locks, alarms, automatic security lights – or maybe you’re thinking about installing some extra smoke alarms.

First off, don’t let us discourage you: those are all good ideas, and you should definitely check out our latest guides on the changing nature of house fires and how not to get burgled, according to science (and the police).

But secondly, it might surprise you to hear that fires and burglaries aren’t the leading causes of damage to UK homes at all. There’s another, less obvious factor that causes the same amount of damage as all house fires, gas explosions and burglaries combined: water leaks, known in the trade as “escape of water”.

The #1 cause of damage to UK homes

Water leaks are by far the #1 cause of damage to UK homes – to the tune of around £2 million in damage every single day, according to the ABI. A burst pipe can easily release a thousand litres of water per hour into your home, if not three times that. Considering one litre weighs one kilo, that’s one to three literal, metric tonnes of water per hour. A serious leak can bring down walls and ceilings in addition to ruining your electronics, furniture and textiles. It also usually means moving into temporary accommodation for at least a month, if not six, while a drying company tries to dehumidify your home and make it liveable again.

Even worse, 48% of UK residents report that they weren’t reimbursed for the cost of the leak by their insurer (for example: the leak was caused by an overflowing bathtub, or by drilling through a pipe while attempting a spot of DIY – and you didn’t have “accidental damage” cover). Leaks may not threaten the safety of our loved ones in quite the same way as fires or intruders, but no good home protection plan would be complete without some kind of defence against them.

It’s also worth mentioning that leaks are incredibly bad for the environment, and humans in general. Between the treatment plant and your tap, leaks waste nearly three billion litres of fresh water per day in the UK alone – that’s more than the total water consumption of London. It’s hard to adequately illustrate just how much water that is – but for example, if you turned your kitchen tap on full blast, it would take more than 300 years to waste the same amount of water the UK loses to leaks in a single day. Considering 2.7 billion people already don’t have enough water, and unsafe water kills more people than all forms of war and violence combined… it’s a pretty sorry situation. The environment agency is warning that even the rainy UK will be drastically short of water by 2050… so there are plenty of good reasons to add extra leak protection to your to-do list.

How to protect your home from water leaks

Let’s start by defining the types and causes of water leaks in UK homes.

There are two major categories of water in your home: fresh water, from the grid to your tap or appliance; and grey water, which is waste water down the plughole (waste water in toilets is properly called “black water” – but here we’ll lump the two together).

Fresh water is delivered under pressure from the grid. Depending on your home, you might also have a pump that tops up the pressure. Because it’s pressurised, the fresh water side is more likely to leak than the grey water side. It’s also connected to the grid – so it will continue to leak indefinitely unless you do something to mitigate it! As a result, fresh water leaks are typically more destructive than grey water, although it might not feel that way if your toilet backs up.

40% of leaks are slow leaks; 60% are of the more dramatic burst pipe variety. Leaking pipes account for around 40% of all water leaks in the UK and Europe, whereas leaking appliances – dishwashers, washing machines – range from 20% to just 11%, depending on the survey.

The bathroom is by far the most common place for a burst pipe to occur (39%), followed by the incoming water main itself (34%) – but bathrooms also take the #1 spot for slow water leaks due to factors like aged grout and seals around baths, shower trays and tiling. Soil stacks (carrying grey and black water) account for about a quarter of all incidents.

Alright, so:

Locate your stopcock

The first thing you should do is locate the stopcock in your home and make sure it works. It might look like a garden tap; it might have a lever on top, or perhaps a circular handle.  If you don’t know where it is, try:

  • Under the kitchen sink (try here first);
  • Near the front door, likely in a cupboard or under a flap in the floor;
  • In airing cupboards;
  • Downstairs bathroom;
  • Garage, utility room or basement;
  •  If you have a communal entrance, maybe there;
  • Ask your neighbours (theirs is probably in the same place!)

Turning the stopcock – usually clockwise, righty tighty – will shut off the water supply to your home, drastically reducing the ensuing damage. But there’s no guarantee it’ll actually turn, so try it now! In new builds, you generally don’t have an issue. But 90% of UK homes are more than 40 years old; 15% are more than a hundred years old. Mineral deposits, wear and tear and plain old age can cause them to seize, and you don’t want to wait for an emergency to find out.

What should you do if your stopcock doesn’t turn? There’s normally one in the street, too, which can be shut off to allow a plumber to replace your old one. It’ll be under a metal cover in the street, or maybe your front garden, and usually have the word “water” or a “W” marked on it. Bear in mind it might feed multiple homes though, so don’t just turn it off! We recommend you get a professional plumber to do the job, and make sure your neighbours are aware they might lose their water for an hour while it’s going on.

If you’re unlucky enough to have a leak, the first thing you should do is shut off your water supply. The second thing you should do is turn on your taps and try to run the water down the sink, rather than out of the burst pipe. Unless the leak is very localised and you can be confident it’s not going to get anywhere near electricity, you should also consider turning off the power at the fuse board (AKA consumer unit). You should then call a plumber, or the home emergency service on your home insurance, if you have it. Also consider notifying downstairs neighbours if you have them, and moving valuables out of harm’s way.

Improving your odds

At least 50% of leaks are caused by plain old wear and tear. One way to avoid them is to inspect your pipes and appliances regularly for signs that they’re nearing the end of their lives. It’s not always the easiest, because pipes tend to be built into your walls and cabinets, but here are some examples of ones you can probably get at:

The flexible hoses round the back of dishwashers and washing machines are a common point of failure. Inside the woven metal jacket is a hose made of something “EPDM” – synthetic rubber, basically. EPDM has a shelf life of five years – not a service life; five years to live from the point it’s manufactured. That’s assuming you keep it away from UV light, excessive temperature, vibration... and regardless, you have no idea how long it’s been sat in a warehouse before you bought it. In other words, it’s probably a very good idea to replace those flexible hoses every four years or so. There is another kind made with “PEX”, which can last 50 years or more – but they also cost about ten times as much as EPDM, so it’s rare to see them bundled with appliances as standard. Consider investing in them when you replace your old EPDM ones if you want real peace of mind.

Another example: many older UK homes still have a hot water cylinder, and it’s typically on an upper floor or in your attic. These devices represent a convergence of multiple risks: first of all, if you have one, it’s probably at least 20 years old, if not 50. Secondly, it does a lot of heating up and cooling down; meaning a lot of expansion and contraction, and cumulative stress on its connecting joints. Thirdly, it’s usually in an obscure place you don’t look very often, so you won’t notice a slow leak until it manifests as a damp patch on your ceiling (or your power tripping, because it’s shorted the lights). And fourthly, like we pointed out, it’s very common for them to be on upper floors or in attics – so any escaping water can travel down through multiple areas of your home and cause widespread damage. Occasionally checking on your cylinder and feeling around underneath it for any signs of damp can head off a major headache down the line.

We mentioned earlier how bathrooms are a prime suspect for leaks of both the “burst pipe” and “slow leak” variety. The latter often develops when the sealant around your bathtub or shower starts to fail and detaches from the tiles. Every time you take a bath or shower from then on, a small amount of water will escape through the crack and make its way under the floor. Does your tub or shower tray flex a little bit underfoot? If so, it’s probably made from acrylic (plastic) or FRP (fibreglass-reinforced plastic), and that movement makes it particularly susceptible to pulling the sealant away. That goes double if you have young kids who like to jump around in the tub! You can’t often see a broken seal with the naked eye. Try prying at it a little bit with a fingernail or a blunt instrument like a bank card. If the edge comes away from the wall, it’s time to replace it.

Getting smarter

You might be reading this and thinking – “who has time to go fiddling with the sealant in their shower trays?”. We hear you. Look, prevention is always better than cure, but there’s a halfway house in between: early detection.

Smart leak detectors are small devices – usually wireless and battery powered – that you can place under appliances or around pipework to get an early warning if a leak develops. They typically have a number of metal pins or tracks on the underside, and when water bridges the gap between them an alarm goes off and you’ll get an alert to your smartphone, wherever you are in the world. Some have probes that can be fished into awkward spaces like wall cavities; some also have humidity sensors to warn of damp and mould, or temperature sensors to give you an indication of freeze risk.

The name of the game here is getting an early warning, so you can respond to the leak before it becomes a major problem (remember our “three metric tonnes per hour” figure?). It also works well for remote monitoring of holiday homes, rental properties and so on, or for extra peace of mind when you go away on holiday. In the latter case we’d recommend you leave a key with a trusted friend, neighbour or family member so that someone can respond if you do get an alert.

Leak detectors also synergise well with smart thermostats. Assuming your leak detector has a temperature sensor, you can configure it to “call for heat” if the temperature approaches zero – preventing pipes from freezing and subsequently bursting. 

Another effective, albeit much less common, solution – if you have a smart appliance that can draw water on command, like a SmarTap, you can use it to keep the water in your pipes moving (and therefore not freezing) if the temperature trends towards zero.  

Smart leak detectors can help you to keep an eye on what’s happening in your home, but they have one major drawback: they’re what we call a “point sensor”, i.e. they only protect a single point in your home. You have to successfully guess where a leak is going to occur ahead of time, and drop a point sensor in the right place (and if you have a large home, costs can quickly escalate). 

Enter the smart stopcock: very much like a smart meter, but for water. You (or your plumber) install the smart stopcock on the incoming water main, immediately after your conventional stopcock, allowing it to keep track of fresh water flow anywhere in your home. It can tell you (i) if there’s a small amount of water flowing all the time and therefore a slow leak; or (ii) if there’s an unusually high amount of water flowing, indicating a potential leak. Some smart stopcocks, like the one linked above, can automatically shut off the water supply to protect your home – and even provide you with insights as to which appliances are consuming the most water.

The most effective strategy is to fit a smart stopcock, but also throw a few point sensors into prime “grey water” leak zones: under shower trays and bathtubs under your appliances, water tank, boilers, radiators, sinks, around waste water pipes if you can access them. Consider also adding a couple of point sensors in your attic, to get an alert should your roof start leaking.

Some closing thoughts

It’s easy to underestimate water leaks – they certainly don’t capture the imagination in quite the same way as towering infernos or bad guys in balaclavas. But they’re enormously destructive, and exceedingly common (in a survey of 2,000 EU homeowners aged 30 to 69, more than half had already experienced a damaging leak). Something that catches many people off guard – and leaves them out of pocket – is that not all leaks are automatically covered by home insurance. If you leave a bath running, accidentally knock a nail through a pipe, or your kids decide to create an impromptu water slide while you’re not looking… those typically count as “accidental damage”, and not many buildings and contents policies include it as standard. Your insurer might also ask for evidence you’ve been keeping up with your maintenance, because leaks caused by “negligence” generally aren’t covered at all.

There’s also something called “trace and access” – meaning, knocking holes in your walls to figure out where the leak is coming from. Trace and access usually has its own “sub-limit” in your insurance policy – i.e., it’s capped at a much lower figure than your overall cover. As a result you might not get reimbursed for the damage a contractor has to do to your home in order to fix the leak. And even if your insurance does cover the damage, the excess on policies for water leaks is usually much higher than the general excess, meaning you could be left out of pocket.

If you’re ever fitting a new bathroom or kitchen, we strongly recommend you consider how someone would access the plumbing infrastructure if it started leaking. If the answer is “smash the tiles up with a sledgehammer”, you’re going to want to fit an access hatch of some kind!

Another thing to consider is: “if this appliance leaked, how bad would the damage be?”. If your washing machine is in the garage, it’s going to cause an awful lot less damage than if it’s in a kitchen with lovely floor treatments and fitted cupboards. Upstairs bathrooms have greater potential for damage than ground floor bathrooms, because water is going to spread through two floors instead of one. Consider what’s below, and if the answer is “a living room full of expensive electrical equipment”, that bathroom might be a good spot for the leak detectors we’ve talked about.

Leaks are rarely something we think about when upgrading our home security, but hopefully this guide has given you an idea of their importance in an overall home protection scheme. If you’re not already with Hiro, you might like to know we give you a discount on your insurance just for owning leak detectors. We also give you discounts on leak detectors themselves, and we regularly publish evidence-based guides like this one to help you protect your home. Check out the blog for more information, or get a quote for Hiro home insurance below:

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