You would think that of all the leaks in the country, the one that pops up on the street where a water systems professor lives would be fixed pretty quickly. But as Vanessa Speight will tell you, sadly that’s not the case.
“It comes off the sidewalk and flows down the street,” says Prof Speight, a drinking water quality expert at the University of Sheffield. About a year ago, he first reported the problem to his local water company. Despite efforts to locate the source of the leak, the company remained withered.
“It has probably been six different times that they have dug their way,” adds Prof Speight.
In England and Wales, just under 3 billion liters of water are lost every day due to leaks, equivalent to 1,180 Olympic swimming pools.
How can engineers spot leaking pipes and repair them to avoid the kind of problem that Professor Speight pointed out on her way?
Technology, water companies increasingly claim, is the answer.
Up and down the country, companies are connecting tens of thousands of sensors through their networks of pipes and fittings in an effort to detect leaks. Sensors have been around for years to some extent but, thanks in part to industry regulator Ofwat’s push to cut losses by 16% over the next five years, the number of devices deployed is currently booming.
United Utilities, one of the UK’s largest water companies, is rolling out 102,000 sensors to its network in the North West of England. The company has already installed 46,000. A huge number, but Hannah Wardle, network delivery manager, explains that it covers only 10% of the company’s pipeline network.
The sensors use accelerometers, the same technology that detects motion on your smartphone. In this case, however, accelerometers detect vibrations that may be associated with a leak somewhere along a length of pipe.
Other sensors are also being implemented, including acoustic loggers, which listen to the characteristic hum created by a leaking pipe. United Utilities is working with Fido Tech to perfect an artificial intelligence (AI) system trained on thousands of these records. The system is now able to locate leaks with greater than 90% accuracy, assigning them a low to high probability score.
“For most of the high-probability escapes we are successfully finding a flaw in the back,” says Ms. Wardle.
This ability to delve into the actual source of a leak is the holy grail of pipe maintenance. Ms Wardle says United Utilities’ system isn’t perfect yet, but with more data and testing her team hopes to improve it further.
The other technology that helps make water pipes smart is Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) communication, a means of transmitting signals from thousands of remote sensors that uses only a small slice of bandwidth to to do it. This means that pipe sensors can send much more frequent updates to a central server without draining the batteries, which should last for years.
United Utilities plans to start using such sensors later this year, but some companies are already rolling them out, including Southern Water, which has started installing 700 NB-IoT acoustic logger sensors around its network in Southampton. .
They are designed to “wake up” every morning at 02:00, record audio from a tube and transmit it to a central system. If a leak is heard, the system can roughly calculate where it might be along a length of pipe, based on how fast the sound travels through the pipe material.
“The data is sent to the software … which compares it to neighboring loggers to see if two loggers have heard the same noise.
“It will pinpoint the location of the leak,” says Paul Chandler, UK sales manager at Gutermann, the company that supplies leak detection devices to Southern Water.
More technology for business
Mr. Chandler says the NB-IoT signal, which connects via nearby 4G phone antennas, gives the sensors an expected battery life of five years or more.
Phil Tapping, head of regional operations losses at Southern Water, says gradually more and more of these devices will be deployed across the company’s network.
Not far away, SES Water, which serves Sutton and East Surrey, is also increasing its reliance on leak detection technology. In this case, the company uses sensors that measure water flow and pressure in the pipes. For example, a drop in flow can indicate that a leak has been generated, causing water to escape from the system.
SES already has hundreds of these sensors, but is updating all of them, about 500 devices, to use NB-IoT so that data from them can be transmitted every 15 minutes rather than once an hour.
“It’s like a heart rate monitor on your network,” says Daniel Woodworth, network strategy manager at SES.
Once again, the AI will analyze the increase in data volume produced by these sensors to automatically detect evidence of leaks. The system is expected to launch later this year, says Woodworth, who hopes SES will have a better ability to spot leaks before customers report them.
Water scarcity is a growing problem in the UK, says Prof Speight. Efforts to improve Britain’s leaking pipes using big data and artificial intelligence represent the “next generation” of solutions to a centuries-old problem, he adds. However, he notes that the age of the country’s network is under increasing scrutiny.
“It’s not in great shape in many cases and it’s time to really think about a full-scale replacement,” says Prof Speight.
“Nobody wants to face the cost of this, but it really has to be done at some point.”
Mr. Woodworth, while enthusiastic about the new sensors his company is using, agrees that a long-term solution is needed that involves renewing the pipe infrastructure.
“We can’t keep putting patches on our network,” he says.