It's a prospect we all dread. Your neighbour downstairs phones: water is leaking from your flat into theirs. Cue lots of wrangling with insurers and financial worries.
Water damage is one of the biggest causes of home insurance claims in the UK – bigger than theft or fire. Leaks are often hidden too, so you don't know about them until too late. The average claim in the UK costs the insurer about £3,500.
With that in mind, it's unsurprising that insurance companies are so keen to stop leaks from ever happening in the first place. And that's precisely the promise of one internet of things (IoT) startup called HomeServe Labs and its product LeakBot.
As the name suggests, Labs is a division of HomeServe, a 25-year-old British business specialising in home emergency callouts.
LeakBot, which is patented and launched in summer 2016, detects leaks by using temperature sensors clipped onto the pipe where water enters the home, HomeServe Labs managing director Craig Foster explains to Techworld.
"For example, if you turn on a tap on the third floor, down where the water enters the property, the pipe will chill to the temperature of the water. As soon as you turn it off, it instantly starts warming up again and goes back to equilibrium," he says.
"We realised it's extremely sensitive – two or three millilitres per minute – so the temperature thermistor on the pipe can detect a leak anywhere in the house, especially when people are asleep or at work so it's quiet. When there are no leaks the two lines on the bot meet exactly."
All the other leak detectors on the market use listening devices, but LeakBot is 100 times more sensitive than these, he claims – and it's the smallest leaks that cause the most claims, as they can go undetected for so long.
HomeServe Labs has partnered with four major insurers – Covea Insurance, Aviva, RSA, Legal and General – who offer LeakBot to their customers as part of their insurance policy. It's a no-brainer for the insurers, given the £800 million they spend on insurance claims just on escaped water in the UK.
"It's usually £100 but insurers provide it for free," Foster says. "Take-up from consumers has been very strong because why wouldn't you? We post it to the customer and it literally takes three minutes to install it. It clips onto the pipe and syncs with a smartphone app, which takes you through the entire process."
LeakBot is the first product to be brought to market by HomeServe Labs. It is a logical step – LeakBot helps to detect leaks and HomeServe offers its services through the app, providing a plumber to come and fix it. "For insurers it's the fact it's an end-to-end solution that they like. We don't see other IoT projects doing that so much," Foster says.
The team has expanded from offering LeakBot in the UK to a number of other European countries and launched in the US in October 2017.
The team of 30 are based in Kings Cross and all focus on technical development, UX and product development, according to Foster, while HomeServe's headquarters is in Walsall and focuses on operations, monitoring, installation and repairs booking.
The product neatly encapsulates one of the biggest benefits of IoT: its potential to predict and prevent damage from occurring in the first place.
Inevitably, there have been challenges. Moving on from discussing with enthusiastic innovation teams to convincing sceptical chief financial officers to bulk-buy a million of the devices can be difficult, Foster admits. There are also some challenges around the technology that supports LeakBot.
"The only thing that has held us back is that the current device uses Sigfox technology which is half rolled out in the UK and not at all in the US, which means we're slightly driving with the hand brake on. However, Sigfox works wonderfully where you have coverage, for example in a nice flat country like Denmark. It also works well with this sort of use case given it has such low power consumption – five years from two AA batteries."
To help overcome this issue the team have developed a Wi-Fi version of the product, which will help to unlock US market.
But given the return on investment from preventing leaks, surely LeakBot is an easy sell. "A lot of this has been pure good luck to be honest. But when insurers see our product, it's slam dunk every time," Foster says.