According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over one trillion gallons of water is wasted every year due to leaks in homes. A leaky faucet that drips only a single drip of water per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons in a single year. While a dripping faucet is easy to spot in a home, other leaks can go un-noticed and:
- Significantly impact a homeowner’s water bill
- Lead to the growth of toxic mold in a home
- Cause thousands of dollars in damage
Phyn, a company focused on smart water solutions, is a joint venture of Belkin and Uponor. While Belkin is a well known manufacturer of smart home solutions, including their Wemo line of smart products, Uponor is a less well known brand to consumers. Uponor is a 100+ year old manufacturer of plumbing pipes and fixtures. They are a leader in the manufacture of Pex; the plastic piping that is used in a majority of new homes built today.
Phyn Plus Smart Water Assistant + Shutoff
In 2018 Phyn released the Phyn Plus Smart Water Assistant + Shutoff. The designers at Phyn understood that a device used to detect leaks and track water usage needed to be maintenance free and extremely reliable. So, they chose high definition ultrasonic sensors for measuring flow that had no moving parts to wear out. Again, for reliability, Phyn included a shutoff valve in the Phyn Plus so water flow to the entire home can be halted when a leak is detected; minimizing the damage it might cause.
The Phyn Plus’s ultrasonic flow sensors are manufactured by Badger Meter, a world leader in flow measurement. In fact, many towns use Badger Meter’s products to monitor residential water usage for utility billing. The sensor used in the Phyn Plus is capable of sensing a leak as small as .01 gallons-per-minute. The machine learning behind the Phyn Plus’s ultrasonic sensor allows it to distinguish between normal water usage and a leak.
The original Phyn Plus had two, one-inch, threaded, male, plumbing connections which can easily be adapted to most residential water lines. Newly announced at CES 2020 is the Phyn XL series which includes the Phyn XL 1.5” and Phyn XL 2”. These two new products extend Phyn’s sophisticated technology to larger homes, new construction and light commercial properties with supply lines up to 2”.
Phyn Plus is installed on the incoming water line to the home so when the shutoff valve closes it turns off the flow of water to the entire home. The Phyn Plus’s enclosure is weatherproof so it can even be installed outside of the home. It is important to note that Phyn Plus needs to be installed within fifteen feet of an electrical outlet and that it requires a connection to a 2.4 GHz, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi network. To simplify placement of Phyn Plus it includes two internal WiFi antennas but there is also a port to connect an external WiFi antenna in the case where there isn’t a strong enough WiFi signal where the Phyn Plus needs to be installed.
Once installed, the Phyn Plus is connected to the home’s WiFi network using the free Phyn app. The Phyn app is available on both the Apple and Google Play app stores.
While Phyn Plus can be installed by a homeowner, professional installation is recommended. Phyn offers installation through the Uponor Pro Squad, a network of specially trained plumbers. When installed by Uponor Pro Squad, Phyn offers:
- A home protection guarantee where Phyn will cover a homeowner’s insurance deductible (up to $3000) for damages where Phyn Plus didn’t detect a leak
- An extension to the two year warranty on Phyn Plus to three years
In addition to automatically shutting off the water in a home when a leak is detected, it will send push notifications to phones with the Phyn app installed and optionally send SMS text messages to selected individuals.
Phyn Plus has several other features to help homeowners avoid plumbing problems:
- Phyn Plus runs daily plumbing checks to detect more difficult to find plumbing problems. By shutting off the Phyn Plus’s built in valve for a few minutes the pressure sensor can detect much smaller, pin-hole leaks.
- Phyn Plus’s pressure sensor is also used to detect high water pressure; which can damage plumbing fixtures over time.
- Phyn Plus can warn a homeowner of the potential for a frozen, burst pipe before it happens. By combining measurements from Phyn Plus’s pressure sensor and temperature sensor it can detect the formation of ice crystals inside the pipes in a home and will notify a homeowner before they grow to the point where a pipe could burst.
The sensor chosen by Phyn measures the pressure in a plumbing system 240 times per second. Pressure changes as a fixture is turned on, during the flow of water to the fixture, and as the fixture is turned off are precise enough to develop unique signatures. Through these signatures, and machine learning, the Phyn Plus can even learn to attribute water usage to different fixtures in a home. For example, a homeowner will be able to see how much water is being used for showers, washing clothes, or watering the lawn. And, while some other competing products charge a monthly subscription fee for this type of usage monitoring, Phyn offers it for free.
Again, through machine learning, the Phyn Plus will notify a homeowner if it detects abnormal water usage. If a homeowner starts filling a bathtub and gets interrupted by a phone call it could result in a flooded bathroom and thousands of dollars in damages. Phyn Plus will notify the homeowner when it detects any abnormal water usage.
Through the Phyn app a homeowner can leverage the sensors in the Phyn Plus to monitor how much water they are using on a monthly, daily, and even on an hourly basis.
The Phyn Plus integrates with Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT. Alexa and Google Assistant integration allows a homeowner to use voice commands to turn their water on/off and to make inquiries about their water usage.
IFTTT integration allows homeowner’s to integrate Phyn Plus with third party automation processors/hubs and connected security systems. This allows a homeowner to, for example,
- Automatically turn off the water in their home when their smart home system detects they have left the home and neither their connected dishwasher or clothes washer is running
- Automatically turn the water in their home back on when they arrive
- Automatically turn the water off in their home when a water sensor attached to an integrated alarm system detects a leak. While the Phyn Plus would eventually detect this leak, a water sensor, for example, placed underneath a tank style hot water heater could detect a pinhole leak in the water heater sooner.
Phyn has now also released the Phyn Smart Water Assistant. It is a DIY solution aimed at consumers who want Smart Water monitoring but, may not be quite ready to jump into the deep end with a solution requiring a plumber and cutting through the main water supply line to the home.
Phyn Smart Water Assistant
The “Plus” in Phyn Plus refers to the included shutoff valve. This valve is omitted from the company’s new Phyn Smart Water Assistant. A second key difference between the two products is that the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is designed to be installed by a homeowner. It easily is installed, under any sink that uses industry standard 3/8” plumbing connections. It is important to note that, unlike the Phyn Plus, the Phyn Smart Water Assistant also requires that a pressure regulating valve (PRV) be installed on the home’s main water supply line, unless the home gets water from a well. Many, but not all, homes have a PRV installed during construction but it is important for a homeowner to check before purchasing a Phyn Smart Water Assistant. The PRV helps to isolate the home from pressure changes caused by events outside the home and allows the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to associate any small pressure changes it measures with the use of water at different fixtures in the home.
To install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant a homeowner would:
- Plug in the Phyn Smart Water Assistant and connect it to the home’s WiFi network using the Phyn app installed on a smart phone
- Turn off the water supply lines valves at the sink where the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will be installed
- Unscrew the existing flexible hoses that connect the faucets to the water supply line valves
- Screw the two Phyn Smart Water Assistant pressure sensors to the water supply valves
- Screw the flexible lines, removed in step three, onto the Phyn Smart Water Assistant pressure sensors
- Turn the water supply line valves back on and check for leaks
- Mount the Phyn device to the side of the sink cabinet
- Plug the Phyn Smart Water Assistant into an outlet under the sink
Phyn provides a video that demonstrates the complete installation process. While the process may be very simple, the challenge for many homeowners will be that, with the exception of the kitchen sink where a garbage disposal is installed, most homes don’t have power outlets under their sinks.
If you decide to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant under your kitchen sink, you have to remember that many homes have dual, side by side, kitchen sinks and a garbage disposal installed. With all this plumbing beneath a kitchen sink it may be challenging, though definitely not impossible, for a homeowner to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant there. If a homeowner wants to install the Phyn Smart Water Assistant below a different sink in their home, they will probably need to contact an electrician to install an outlet beneath that sink because there are specific electrical codes that must be followed for outlets in a potentially wet location. Fortunately, the hourly rate for an electrician to make a house call is significantly lower than the hourly rate for a plumber.
The Phyn Smart Water Assistant uses the same pressure sensing technology as the Phyn Plus to measure water flow in a home. It also uses the same machine learning to:
- Differentiate between leaks and normal water usage
- Assign that water usage to specific fixtures in a home.
The obvious downside of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant, when compared to the Phyn Plus, is that it doesn’t include a shutoff valve. There are two potential solutions to this problem.
- Install an app controlled actuator that clamps to an existing, manual, shutoff valve in a home. When the homeowner receives a notification from Phyn that a leak has been detected they can use the actuator app to turn off the water supply to their home
- Install an actuator that clamps to an existing, manual, shutoff valve in a home that can be integrated with a smart home hub or directly with IFTTT. Then uses the Phyn IFTTT channel to trigger the actuator to shut off the water supply to the home.
A number of different water valve actuators are available on Amazon for prices under $100.
The Phyn Smart Water Assistant is being sold exclusively through Best Buy Stores. However, Phyn provided me with an evaluation unit to test.
Hands on with the Phyn Smart Water Assistant
Installation of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant wasn’t difficult but certainly took longer than the manufacturer’s 20 minute estimate. The actual installation process went very smoothly but working in the confined space, inside a cabinet, underneath a sink is a bit of a challenge.
The Phyn app makes the installation process as easy as possible. The app provides both step-by-step instructions and an installation video to help with the process. The app also provides a complete list of all the tools you will need so these can be collected beforehand.
As soon as the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is installed you can perform a plumbing check to validate there are no current leaks in your home. First you need to manually shut off the main water valve to your home. Then, you initiate the check with the Phyn app. After a short period of time the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will report back as to whether it detected any leaks in your home.
Very soon after installing the Phyn Smart Water Assistant you will find “water events” appearing in the Phyn App’s activity monitor. This is a log of the water usage in your home with Phyn’s machine learning algorithms best guess as to what fixture in your home the water was used at. Over time the Phyn’s machine learning algorithm will learn to associate these water events with the fixtures in a home. However, a homeowner can also speed up the learning process three ways:
- If the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning hasn’t correctly associated the water usage event with the correct fixture then the homeowner can edit the event and change it. For example the Phyn Smart Water Assistant might think water from a toilet being flushed was from a faucet being turned on. In that case the homeowner can edit the event so the machine learning algorithm learns that the water usage signature is really associated with a toilet being flushed.
- If Phyn Smart Water Assistant correctly identifies the fixture where water was used then the homeowner can press the small, grey Phyn icon to the right of the event in the app; turning it blue. This confirms to the Phyn Smart Water Assistant that it correctly identified the fixture.
- The user can edit the water usage event to correlate it with the specific fixture in the home where water was used. For example, a homeowner could edit an event and change it to the master bath toilet instead of simply associating it with a toilet in the home.
The Sense Energy Monitor, that I’ve written about previously, and the Phyn Smart Water Assistant use the same underlying signature technology to respectively identify the devices using electricity and the fixtures where water is used in a home. However, how a homeowner helps the machine learning attribute a signature with a specific device/fixture is very different. In the case of Sense it can take weeks, or even months, before a homeowner receives a notification that Sense has identified a device that uses electricity in their home. The homeowner then sets up notification as to when the device turns on/off to help figure out which device it is. Finally the homeowner uses the app to provide a label for the device.
For example, after setting up notifications for a newly identified device the homeowner might notice the reception of a power on notification when a new load of laundry was placed in the clothes dryer. The homeowner can then validate that they received a notification that the device turned off when the dryer finishes its drying cycle. The homeowner can then use the Sense app to label that device “the dryer” and turn off receiving notifications when the device turns on/off. The weeks, and even months, it can take for Sense to identify devices has lead to frustration among some Sense users.
The Phyn Smart Water Assistant, on the other hand, starts identifying water usage activity immediately and logs this activity in the Phyn app. A homeowner can then either help the machine learning algorithms learn to associate usage with the individual fixtures in their home or simply give the machine learning algorithms time to learn it on their own.
In either case it will take time for the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to learn to correctly associate water usage with the fixtures in a home. A user can expect for the Phyn Smart Water assistant to take a solid month before real improvement in detection can be noticed.
It should also be noted that it can be challenging to train the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning algorithms. Background water users, such as an ice maker, can be difficult to identify. Similarly a dishwasher or clothes washer is going to cycle on/off multiple times and someone may flush a toilet at the same time one of those appliances is running. While the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will eventually learn to properly identify these “overlapping” events but you can help the process along by editing the water events in the Phyn app. If you do take the step to help the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning algorithms by editing water events, it is very important to correctly identify the fixture being used. Otherwise the Phyn Smart Water Assistant will learn to associate that water event with the wrong plumbing fixture.
After a few weeks of training, the Phyn Smart Water assistant got better at identifying the correct fixture where water was use. Not perfect, but better.
I integrated Phyn with my existing smart home processor using IFTTT. The integration was very simple and it allowed me to:
- Create my own, weekly plumbing checks. I would close my existing motorized water shutoff valve, trigger Phyn to perform a plumbing check through IFTTT, and after a suitable delay open the motorized water shutoff valve again.
- Create an IFTTT applet that would trigger my smart home processor to close my existing motorized water shutoff valve if the Phyn detected a water leak
Performing these actions through IFTTT isn’t as failsafe as having a Phyn Plus. However, it does get you close to the same functionality if you already have a motorized water shutoff valve installed, or an actuator attached to your existing manual shutoff valve.
Areas for Improvement
While the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is a good product, because it is new to the market there are lots of ways it could be improved.
1) Unfortunately, the Phyn Smart Water Assistant doesn’t include any way to directly trigger a smart home processor/hub, or an alarm panel, without making a trip through the Internet, to IFTTT, and back. So, an Internet outage could defeat the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s ability to trigger an actuator to shut off the water supply to a home. A simple set of dry contacts, which would close when a leak was detected, could be wired to a smart home processor/hub or an alarm panel and directly trigger a water shutoff valve to close. This would allow owners of the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to have the same assurance that a leak wasn’t causing damage to their homes as owners of the Phyn Plus.
2) Similarly, the Phyn Plus doesn’t include a way, other than through IFTTT, of integrating water sensors. These could be placed in locations where there is the highest probability of a leak occurring. They could speed up the process of a leak being detected and the water being shut off to minimize damages. Some locations that are at the highest risk of a leak occurring are under a clothes washer, dish washer, toilets, and under tank style hot water heater.
3) While not required, I tried to speed up the Phyn Smart Water Assistant’s machine learning process by identifying as many water usage events as possible. However, it takes several minutes for water usage events to show up in the activity monitor. While Because of this delay I found that I had to keep a separate written log that I would later reconcile with the data in the activity monitor. It would have been much simpler if water usage events had immediately shown up in the app so everyone in my family could have just pulled out their smart phones after using water and updated the activity monitor directly. I think this would also provided more accurate training of the Phyn’s machine learning algorithms then trying to reconcile a written log later in the day.
4) There are lots of fixtures that rarely get used in a home – laundry sink, guest bath, outdoor hose connections, etc. Once Phyn has identified the commonly used fixtures in a home it would be nice to get a notification when a new, unknown, fixture is detected so the homeowner can help to integrate use of this fixture into Phyn’s machine learning algorithms.
5) There are fixtures in a home that use water in the background, such as an ice maker built into a refrigerator, a whole house humidifier, and a whole house water softener; to name a few. It is very difficult for a homeowner to help train Phyn’s machine learning algorithms to recognize these fixtures because the homeowner doesn’t know when they are actively using water. Instead of just relying on homeowners to train Phyn to recognize water usage, a hybrid approach that combines a similar approach to the one that Sense, might be better. For example, if Phyn’s machine learning algorithms developed a recognition signature for a fixture that the homeowner hadn’t trained it to recognize, then it could start sending notifications to the homeowner when this fixture turned on/off. Then homeowner might notice, for example, that the furnace was running every time there was a notification. Then this usage could be associated with a whole house humidifier that is connected to the furnace.
6) One thing that Phyn doesn’t offer to owners of the Phyn Plus or Phyn Smart Water Assistant is a community for users that allows them to:
- Share water saving tips
- Collaborate on product enhancements and suggestions
A community would allow Phyn users to go beyond simple usage data to fulfill the overall goal of Phyn; to help people save water.
7) Because the Phyn Smart Water Assistant isn’t installed on the main water line coming into a home it can only estimate the amount of water being used while the Phyn Plus can provide a precise measurement. This makes it more difficult for a homeowner with the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to really understand how changing behaviors can help them save water. For example, how can a homeowner use the data from the Phyn Smart Water Assistant to tell if it is better to hand wash dishes vs. running a partial load of dishes in the dishwasher when they can only see a range of water usage in the Phyn app? An add-on, ultrasonic, flow sensor that clamps to the main water line coming into the home and provides precise flow measurements to the Phyn Smart Water Assistant would solve this problem. This could be offered as an optional accessory to the product for people who want the added accuracy and are focused on using the product for optimizing their water usage; not just as a leak detector.
8) The water usage information that is provided by the Phyn Smart Water Assistant is very useful. However, to be more proactive at saving water the product really could use programmable notifications. For example, it would be great to create a notification so if the shower in the bathroom used by a teenager lasts longer than 10 minutes you can knock on the door and tell them they are clean enough. Or, if it is the winter time and any water is detected flowing from an outdoor hose spigot you can get a notification and immediately check out what the problem could be.
9) I’d like to see integration with local water utilities. Then a Phyn Plus or Phyn Smart Water Assistant user can simply enter their zip code and the cost of water can be integrated into the usage reports in the Phyn App.
10) The Phyn Smart Water Assistant and the Sense Energy Monitor each provide one piece of a homeowner’s use of outside resources. I would really like to see:
- The development of a similar product for natural gas usage
- A partnership so a homeowner can understand the total cost of activities in their home. For example when washing clothes, how much water was used, how much did the electricity cost to run the clothes washer, and how much did the natural gas cost to heat the water.
11) The Phyn app doesn’t support landscape mode. While this isn’t a big deal on a phone it is a pain on a tablet; especially when the case for your tablet has an integrated keyboard.
Overall the Phyn Plus and Phyn Smart Water Assistant are valuable resources for a home. Clean water is becoming more, and more, of a valuable and scare resource. It is also becoming more, and more, expensive. A plumbing issue, as simple as a leaking toilet flapper valve, can waste up to 200 gallons of water in a single day. A dripping faucet can waste up to 3000 gallons of water in a year. Not only can these devices from Phyn protect a homeowner from extensive damage to their home from leaks but they can help save a huge volume of a valuable natural resource; clean, fresh water.
In addition, CEPro has identified water and plumbing integration as one of the top five technology trends for 2020. Phyn Plus and the Phyn Smart Water Assistant can be valuable tools for integrators to take advantage of this trend.