The Wall Street Journal: American Homeowners and Their Insurers Face a Flooding Crisis From Within

Data show claims for water damage from inside leaks have surged while other types of claims have fallen

By Leslie Scism 

More American homes are flooding from the inside.

Old pipes and valves, worn-out hoses on second-story washing machines and faulty connections for a proliferation of water-using appliances are causing a surge in increasingly expensive damage reported to insurers. The increase has occurred even as many other types of claims—including fire—have declined in frequency, according to industry figures.

One in 50 homeowners filed a water-damage claim each year between 2013 and 2017, the latest data analyzed by Verisk Analytics ’ ISO insurance-analytics unit. It crunches industry data on a five-year rolling basis. The 2.05% frequency rate is up from 1.44% annually between 2005 and 2009.

The bottom line is a $13 billion water-damage bill for homeowners’ insurance companies in 2017. Claims average about $10,000, ISO says.

“Wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes catch headlines, but the reality is that the No. 1 kind of risk that the everyday consumer has is a water claim,” said Jon-Michael Kowall, an executive in the property-insurance business of USAA, one of the nation’s biggest home insurers.

“It is lurking in the house,” he said.

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To tackle the problem, Texas-based USAA has 6,000 policyholders testing water-detecting sensors in a multiyear pilot project. This type of experimentation, where devices are installed to spot potential water damage, has morphed into one of the hottest corners of InsureTech, innovation focused on the insurance sector.

Insurance giant Chubb Ltd. , one of the biggest insurers of high-end homes, says the number of annual water claims costing more than $500,000 has doubled since 2015, and those over $1 million have tripled.

Industry executives said there are myriad factors driving the costs higher.

The increase in overall claims is due partly to aging homes. A postwar building boom in the 1950s gave way to other booms, meaning much of America lives in houses that are decades old and become likelier candidates for plumbing failures. Even homes built during the real-estate bubble of the early 2000s can generate claims as they often have far more appliances with water connections, boosting leak possibilities.

In addition, more homeowners today want their laundry room on an upstairs floor.

“In the old days, if the washing machine had a leak, you’d get a mop” and scrub a concrete floor and be done with it, said Chubb Executive Vice President Paul Krump.

The damage can be particularly stunning in expensive homes.

Developer George Fermanian had always been more concerned about the ocean potentially damaging his two-decade-old oceanfront property in southern California. The property even has a 12-foot sea wall.

But last year, a second-story toilet tank cracked and spilled water in the house for an unknown, extended period when he was away. Oak floors, walls, artwork, electronics gear and seats in a home theater all were damaged.

“Walls are gypsum, wood absorbs water, insulation absorbs water, your cabinets absorb water,” said Mr. Fermanian.

Repairs on his property took eight months and cost Chubb just over $1 million.

Chubb also paid for installation of a water-shutoff system that detects unusual flows of water through the plumbing system, and can be set to shut off within a minute of such activity, Mr. Fermanian said.

In luxury homes, wet bars, water-filtration systems, hot- and cold-water taps, extra bathrooms and other features create typical 40 points of connection into the plumbing system, said Stephen Poux, a senior executive at American International Group Inc.

“That’s a lot of opportunity for a valve or a connection … to spring a leak,” he said.

Mr. Poux regularly meets InsureTech entrepreneurs and tests problem-detecting products. “I’ve personally piloted several devices,” he said. “They don’t always work.”

AIG and some other insurers offer premium credits for policyholders’ use of technology deemed effective.

Though insurers’ payments are growing, it doesn’t mean they pay every water claim that comes their way. Since the 1960s, standard homeowners policies have excluded storm surge and river flooding. And in general, homeowners’ policies cover “sudden and accidental” damage, not routine maintenance.

So homeowners who neglect an obvious slow leak for months before serious damage occurs could end up in a coverage dispute, insurance executives and lawyers said.

Unfortunately, said Kathy Thaut, general manager of At Your Service Plumbing in Tacoma, Wash., many homeowners take the view: “I bought this house, and I just get to forget about plumbing.”

While that attitude is good for business, it has created a staffing challenge. She is working with a trade group to encourage young people to enter the field.

“There are not enough certified  plumbers to handle the workload of homeowners,” she said.

Among participants in USAA’s pilot project is Mark Fredriksen, who placed sensors near the water heater and washing machine, and under kitchen and bathroom sinks, in his family’s 20-year-old home in Smithtown, N.Y.

So far, they have averted two potentially costly claims, he said. One sensor detected dripping from an old bathroom valve. One another occasion, as he was putting his children to bed upstairs, the kitchen sensor chirped. Water was spitting out from a dishwasher hose.

Without the sensor, the damage “would have been happening directly under our noses and we wouldn’t have noticed until the next morning,” he said.

Write to Leslie Scism at leslie.scism@wsj.com

10 Plumbing Tips Everyone Needs to Know

Are you dealing with a dripping faucet, low water pressure, or clogged pipe? You’re probably tempted to call a professional plumber, and with good reason. Homeowners usually don’t have the necessary skills for a DIY plumbing job. plumbing tips
They can even make matters worse in the end, triggering thousands of dollars in property and personal damage. But don’t put your plumber on speed dial just yet! Here are 10 basic plumbing secrets every homeowner should know. Maybe one of these could save you a costly visit from your local expert. plumbing tips

  1. Know the Location of Shut-Off Valves
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    Plumbing Tips: Where Are Main Water Shut-Off Valves?

    Before moving into a new home, note the location of the main shut-off valve and drain (in some cases, the shut-off will be located outside the house). You should also get acquainted with sewer line access points, in case you need to conduct periodic clean outs. Note that apartments and condos may not have their own dedicated shut-off valves. plumbing tips

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  2. Don’t Puncture Pipes
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    Plumbing Tips: Don't Puncture Pipes

    Are you planning to drill holes or pound nails into your walls, floors, or ceiling? First determine if there are any supply or drainage pipes behind your work area, since you don’t want to accidentally puncture them. You may be able to locate pipes behind walls with an inexpensive stud finder. Alternatively, you could invest in an endoscopic camera, which can be snaked into the walls.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  3. Find Out What’s Flushable
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    Plumbing Tips: What Can't You Flush Down the Toilet?

    Homeowners shouldn’t use their toilet as a trash can, since flushing anything except toilet paper leads to nasty clogs. Even “flushable” baby wipes can back up the system!

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  4. Don’t Put Garbage Down the Drain
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    Plumbing Tips: What Can You Put in Garbage Disposal?

    Never dump coffee grounds, food debris, bacon grease, vegetable peelings, or starchy foods like rice or potatoes down the kitchen drain; they will almost certainly clog your pipes. It’s also smart to read the manufacturer’s manual for your garbage disposal to know what, exactly, the unit can handle.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  5. Take the Plunge
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    Plumbing Tips: Best Plunger

    Invest in a high-quality plunger to clear clogs in toilets, sinks, and drains. If you’re planning to clean sink traps, use a plunger to push most of the water out before removing the trap. The task will be a lot less wet and messy.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  6. Pull Out the Vacuum
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    Plumbing Tips: How to Unclog Sink with Vacuum

    When you’re trying to dislodge a clog caused by a small, hard object (like a child’s toy, toothbrush, or comb), rely on a wet-dry vacuum. It’s more effective to suck the object out. A plunger will only push it deeper into the drain, making it more difficult to remove.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  7. Don’t Ignore Leaks
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    Plumbing Tips: Don't ignore a Leaky Faucet

    That steady drip, drip, drip of a fixture symbolizes money going down the drain. In fact, a leaky faucet typically wastes up to eight gallons of water per day, while a running toilet can waste 200 gallons per day. Fix small leakspromptly before they become big—and costly—problems.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  8. Never Over-Tighten Fittings
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    Plumbing Tips: Never over tighten plumbing fittings

    A common DIY plumbing mistake is over-tightening fittings and connections, which leads to broken bolts and stripped screws. Remember this adage: “hand-tight is just right.”

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  9. Make Friends with Plumber’s Tape
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    Plumbing Tips: How to Use Plumber’s Tape

    Plumber’s tape (also called Teflon tape) is used to seal pipe threads to prevent leaks around joints and fittings. You should typically wrap plumber’s tape three times around the pipe threads before sealing. Also note that white tape is designed for common household plumbing projects, while yellow is for gas line connections.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  10. Always Check for Leaks
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    Plumbing Tips: How to Check for Leaks

    After every plumbing project, check for leaks by running water through the system, then opening and closing all valves and drains. Even professional plumbers may miss a small leak and need to reseal a connection.

    Photo: istockphoto.com

  11. Plumbing 101
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    Plumbing 101

    With the right knowledge, you can be your own first line of defense for basic plumbing issues.

    Photo: bobvila.com

    By Donna Boyle Schwartz

What to do if you suspect a leak between your meter and home (water service line leak)

It is estimated that about 20% of homes have a main service line leak between the water meter in the street and the home. Short run pipes between the home and meter are just as susceptible to leaks as long run pipes. So don’t be swayed by the distance between the two.
Its also important to note that the water utility is responsible for any leak to the meter and the homeowner is liable from the meter onward. 

Why will an exterior pipe leak?

Here are the 3 common reasons that the pipe between your meter and home will leak.

1) Tree roots and other vegetation that have shallow and invasive roots will push up against your pipe and crack it.

2) The pH of the soil can cause your pipes to degrade. Whether copper, plastic or any other material, the pH of your soil can cause the pipe wall to weaken and break. Soil pH changes over time because of the pH of the water absorbed by the soil, fertilizer applied to your garden, and environmental contaminants runoff.

3) Soil expansion and compression will also cause your pipe to break. Having soil that is composed of sand or clay will cause “flexing” of your soil when saturated with water. Having concrete or asphalt over your water main service line does not necessarily provide protection. In fact, it may create a hard frame that restricts the movement of the soil when it expands. Thus when water seeps under the concrete or asphalt and saturates the soil, there is limited room for soil expansion. In cold climates saturated soil may freeze and cause soil contraction. Both conditions put pressure on your service line and may cause cracks or complete ruptures.

Is there a leak?

To determine if you have a water main service line leak, you should first shut off your home’s water at the House Shut-Off Valve. Then go visually check the meter. None of the dials or digital read-out should be changing. If any dial is spinning (even slowly) or the digital read out is incrementing, you have a leak.

If there is no water flow registered on the meter, we recommend you take a picture. Go run some errands and return at least 30 minutes later to compare for any changes. Many times slow flowing water does not immediately register on the meter. 

If the meter reading has now changed when compared to your previous reading (picture), you have a leak. 

Before you call a pro?

Trace the water line to see if you have an abnormally wet spot in your garden. That could be the location of the leak.

Another check is to listen for water flowing. At times if the leak is large, you may be able to hear the water flowing. So walk along the outside of the home listening for water.

If you are fit and motivated to do some work, you should dig up the dirt above the service line to try to find the specific location of the leak. 

Locating the leak yourself will save you on the cost of the plumber searching for the leak. 

What to look for in a leak detection professional?

Be sure that the plumber is a licensed and bonded; and if you haven’t found the leak make sure they specialize in leak detection.

Check BBB and social media reviews to eliminate plumbers that provide poor service.

Again if you haven’t located the leak, ask the plumber what sort of technology they use to locate the leak. Ultrasonic technology is used for both underground and in wall leak detection. The other technology used is infrared cameras that uses thermal technology to “see” a hot spot or a cold spot in the wall or ground.

As with any home project, get at least three quotes and the details of what will be done for that price. Don’t shy away from a free inspection. Some very good and reputable plumbers use this attention getting approach as a promotional tactic to get your attention. 

 

 

written by: Emilio Vargas II

Here Are The Most Common Ways You’re Wasting Water That Cost You More Than You Think

Keeping an eye on your water usage is a good way to save money and help the planet at the same time. Plenty of us have bad habits that could be costing us hundreds of dollars in water bills over the long run.

Here are a few ways that you could be wasting water without realising it, and what you can do about it.

You wait for the tap water to get cold during the summer.

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When you want a cool glass of water, do you run the faucet for a few moments until the stream is cold? Unless you live somewhere where the tap water is always icy, this little habit wastes a surprising amount of water.

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a new kitchen faucet flows at a rate of half a gallon per minute, on average. Faucets installed during the 1990s, however, may flow at closer to 2.2 gallons per minute. That means you could be pouring up to a gallon of water down the drain for every 30 seconds you leave the tap running.

A better way to satisfy your cold water cravings is to fill up a large container of drinking water from the tap and keep it in the fridge.

You have an old toilet.

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According to Energy Star, a government-backed energy-efficiency program, the one appliance that uses the most water in a home is the toilet.

Older toilets installed before 1992 can use between 3 and 7 gallons of water per flush. In comparison, federal plumbing standards now specify that new toilets can only use up to 1.5 gallonsper flush.

You plant the wrong kind of flowers or shrubs for your climate.

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If you live in a dry and arid region, planting greenery that requires large quantities of water can be a major waste of money and natural resources.

According to the gardening website GrowVeg, using grey water – i.e. water that has already been used in your washing machine, showers, and sinks – is one way to cut down your water waste. 

You hose down your driveway or patio instead of sweeping it.

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You probably don’t think twice about giving your dusty driveway or porch a quick rinse with a hose, but it’s actually a wasteful way to keep your property tidy.

Considering that a garden hose can emit between 6 and 24 gallons of water per minute, you’re much better off sweeping your outdoor living areas with a broom.

You water your plants in the afternoon.

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According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the best time to water most outdoor plants is in the early morning or evening.This is because watering in the afternoon can lead to water loss through evaporation, since it’s generally the warmest part of the day. That’s not good for your plants or your budget.

You haven’t installed a shower aerator.

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If you’ve been looking for an excuse to indulge in a new shower head, here’s one – when you install a high-efficiency faucet aerator or showerhead, you can save almost 3,500 gallons of water per year. That adds up to major savings and is better for the environment.

Read more:The best shower heads you can buy

You put off repairing leaky faucets.

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Fixing a leaky faucet is no one’s idea of an exciting afternoon, but letting leaky fixtures drip can cost you serious cash and waste water. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a leaking faucet can waste up to 3,000 gallons per year.

In fact, 10% of US homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day, the EPA estimates. To put that in perspective, that’s like taking an extra five showers per day.

You run your dishwasher when it’s not full.

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Everyone has lazy days when washing a single cup seems like a Herculean task. But running your dishwasher when it’s not full is a poor use of electricity and water, according to Energy Star.

Wait to run your dishwasher until you have enough dirty dishes to pack it full, or simply get into the habit of washing some items by hand.

You throw just a few items of clothing in the washing machine.

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Even highly efficient modern washing machines typically use 8 to 12 gallons of water per cycle, according to laundry machine maker Samsung. Although it’s not good practice to stuff your washing machine to the max, running this water-hungry appliance with just a few items of clothing inside is a serious waste of resources and money.

You leave the faucet running while you brush your teeth.