The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Water sensors can help you maintain a dry basement

A garden hose directs water being pumped out of a flooded basement after heavy rain. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Climate change is causing a big divide in the United States: The eastern half of the country is getting a lot wetter and the western half is getting a lot drier. If you’re a homeowner, and you live east of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about how to prevent water infiltration.

Keeping your basement dry is one of the most important things a homeowner can do. Damp basements are breeding grounds for mold and other health hazards.

We live in a house that was built in the 1880s, although we’ve fixed it up and added onto it in the nearly 30 years we’ve lived here. Over the past several years, Sam placed several electronic water sensors around the house. Some of these sensors are in places where you might expect to see a water problem: near the sump pump pit and water heater, under the air-conditioning unit and beneath the kitchen sink.

The water sensors he installed are manufactured by SimpleSence and Moen. They each cost around $50, but are slightly discounted in multipacks. The installation of these items is pretty simple. On the other hand, it’s hugely frustrating if the software does not cooperate.

More Matters: Retiree considers selling townhouse, buying larger single-level home

There are pluses and minuses to each system. It took several attempts to get the SimpleSence Original Water Leak and Freeze Detector to work. The Moen Smart Leak Detector setup was easier. The Moen detector uses a CR123A battery while the SimpleSence uses AAA batteries. The Moen detector batteries need to be replaced every six months or so, while the SimpleSence detectors seem to last longer. Battery life can vary depending on a variety of factors, but if you install these detectors in hard-to-reach places, remember to change the batteries twice per year.

Both the Moen and the SimpleSence detectors are WiFi enabled and connect to your smartphone through a downloadable app. Both apps work pretty well and let you know the battery level for your device. That’s important, since you’ll want to replace the batteries before they die.

Sam also installed a water alarm by the Watchdog, which is available for $15 at many retailers. This device sounds an alarm when it senses water, but is not WiFi based. The Watchdog uses one 9-volt battery, which seems to last several years. Unfortunately, you have to test the device to find out whether the batteries are still good.

When any of the devices sense the presence of water, they sound an alarm. The alarms on the SimpleSence and the Moen devices aren’t loud enough to get your attention. On the other hand, you can hear the Watchdog loud and clear from at least one floor away. The big advantage to the Moen and SimpleSence detectors is that they send messages to your phone alerting you of leaks.

More Matters: How to respond when a new landlord raises your rent

Sump pumps have a life span of about 10 years, and they always seem to fail during a big storm. (Have you noticed that the dishwasher and disposal in your sink will typically fail the morning of Thanksgiving or Christmas?) Sam’s sump pump failed during a big rainstorm. The SimpleSence alarm alerted Sam to the leak, but he was away from the house at a business meeting, so there wasn’t much he could do about it. By the time he returned home, he had forgotten about the text message. Luckily, the Watchdog alarm was still beeping.

Fortunately, he was able to get the sump pump replaced without any damage to the home. The alarms prevented a larger problem that might have gone unnoticed for several days, or even weeks, as the sump pump is located under the basement stairs.

None of these devices will let you know the size of the problem, whether you have a few drops leaking out of a failing elbow pipe or something much more significant. They only let you know that they have sensed water. The text messages and beeping are your clues to check things out quickly.

The truth is, any of these devices are useful tools that will warn you of water issues. And, you should seriously consider buying one if you live in an area that’s getting wetter by the year. At $50 per device, the WiFi-enabled devices may be too expensive for some, particularly if you want to install several devices in your home. The non-Internet devices are quite affordable, but if you can’t hear the beeping (because you’re not home when the leak starts), you could lose valuable time.

It turned out that both of the batteries in the sump pump had died. Sam caught the leaking before any significant damage had occurred to the finished part of the basement. A quick call to the plumber, and we had two new sump pumps installed before lunch and a dry basement before dinner.

Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (Fourth Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, bestmoneymoves.com.

©2022 Ilyce R. Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Loading...