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Water is an amenity that millions of people worldwide take for granted on a day to day basis. However, delivering that service remains a hugely complex and constantly evolving task. Indeed, as urban populations continue to grow the stress on water infrastructure increases. As such, water companies are faced with the need to optimise processes and upgrade their maintenance efforts to keep their networks operating at full capacity.

However, when it comes to finding these operational improvements, leaks continue to present one of the most significant threats to the smooth running of water infrastructure. For example, Thames Water loses an average of 179 litres of water per household every day through leakage. What is more staggering – is that it’s estimated that across UK water companies lose 3.3 billion litres of water every day.

The Victorian pipework that’s still in use today makes leaks inevitable. Locating them is an even bigger challenge. Whilst larger leaks can be easer to detect and respond to rapidly the more significant challenge lays dormant in smaller leaks. These leakages are more difficult to detect and therefore cause massive amounts of water to be lost – often going on for weeks or even months. When leaks remain undetected, the financial implications can be catastrophic for water companies – Thames Water was fined £120 million last year due to their inability to efficiently deal with leaks.

Other factors, like rising temperatures are also causing an unprecedented increase in leak instances. The fact is that operators cannot simply replace all of their existing pipeline networks. This has caused a surge in demand for new approaches and new technologies to prevent leakages and burst pipelines happening so frequently.

It is predicted that replacing all the pipes in the UK could come to close to £100 billion. And that’s not even taking into account the huge disruption that would be involved in making that happen. The key to solving this challenge lies in digital technologies like Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) which will allow water companies to digitise their pipeline infrastructure and detect and monitor ruptures and leaks in existing pipes.

Through the use of DAS technology — which harnesses optical fibre cables installed parallel to the water pipes and ‘listens’ to the distinct acoustic signatures and vibrations generated by a leak — there’s huge potential for water providers to enhance the efficacy of detection and location. As a solution that praises alerts in real-time, with a high-rate of confidence, DAS allows operators to act rapidly when faced with a leak event. Alarms can be raised within minutes, even when it is only a minor leak, with fast responses resulting in minimising loss of water, environmental damage, and of course, financial repercussions.

In this way, enabling the digital and data-based monitoring of pipelines has the potential create a step-change in the maintenance operations of water companies – extending the life of the pipeline networks that run the length and breadth of the country.