Water is our most precious natural resource, supporting not only every natural life form, but also every aspect of modern living. For the companies in charge of our water pipeline networks, managing an always-on flow of safe, clean water is a costly business. In the UK alone, there are more than 346,000 km of mains water pipelines, according to Discover Water. That’s enough to reach around the earth’s equator 8.5 times! The same research – originally released by Water UK, reports that an average of 2,954 litres (enough to fill 1,182 Olympic swimming pools) are leaked through water pipeline damage every day. Worldwide, according to the World Bank, non-revenue water loss costs an estimated $15 billion per year, and that’s before the water even reaches the end consumer. And, from 2005 to 2030, public infrastructure expenditure on water pipeline and sewage issues is expected to total $23 billion.
In the UK, the good news is that water companies are recording the lowest level leakages from pipes since the 1990s, achieving an overall reduction of 7%. This is in no small part due to the water industry’s collective commitment to cut leakage by 16% by the year 2025 – a target set in 2018 by Ofwat. As part of meeting that commitment, water companies are increasingly exploring the role of intelligent technologies including Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) along fibre optic cable networks. Constantly evolving through AI and Machine Learning, DAS is a powerful tool in the battle to optimise water leak detection and mitigate not just the financial, but the social and environmental costs of losing water.
Granted, DAS pipeline leak detection is not the only new technology being trialled. Northumbrian Water are testing the use of satellite technology in Suffolk and Essex, Yorkshire Water are piloting smart water technology, whilst Anglian Water, are trialling the use of thermal UAV integration as part of a comprehensive leak detection strategy spanning 34,000 km of water pipelines. DAS, however, as part of a modular, calibrated leak detection system, is leading the way in detecting water pipeline leaks and spills with unrivalled accuracy, speed and intelligence.
What are the main causes of water pipeline leaks and breaches?
Leak prevention initiatives are, of course, good news. Solving the problem of water pipeline losses is a pressing challenge. Unfortunately, there have been occasions where water companies have neglected their moral and regulatory duty to safeguard the environment – and in these cases penalties have been severe. In July 2021, a prominent water company was fined a record £90 million for dumping raw sewage into the sea. The total amount dumped between 2010 and 2015 was estimated at a staggering 21 billion litres. Although this is not an isolated incident (the UK’s previous largest fine being £20.3 million for a similar offence in 2013/14), it is more commonly accidental, weather, or age-related water pipeline damage that lies behind leaks and breaches.
So, what causes water pipeline damage and what can be done to reduce it? Much like oil & gas pipeline monitoring, the challenge of maintaining and monitoring water pipelines is complex and multi-faceted. One of the most common causes of water pipeline integrity breaches is ageing. In the US, for example, many water pipelines are between 45 years and 100 years old. In the UK, meanwhile, companies like Anglian Water are investing heavily in new pipeline networks to regenerate our mains water infrastructure. Yet, the reality is that many of the UK’s water pipe networks are now a century old or more – often dating back to the days of Victorian industrial revolution. Some might say it’s a wonder that these pipelines have stood the test of time for this long! But the effects of ageing and corrosion are inevitable. Now, mix in the effects of volatile weather, increasingly heavy road networks and even building or ground movement, and it all adds up to a serious strain on our water supply. The case for advanced pipeline monitoring strategies has never been more compelling.
What’s more, just as hot tapping is a business-critical threat to the oil & gas industry, theft also heavily impacts on our water networks. A study by the University of Adelaide in 2020 revealed that up to half of the world’s water is stolen annually. Whist we might assume that most theft occurs in impoverished countries, in fact the issue extends across the developed world. It is particularly rife in agricultural settings, such as large crops in need of constant irrigation. As the authors of the research point out, investments into water efficiency can achieve savings in the region of 10% to 20%. Getting on top of theft, though, could recover up to 50% of lost water – an even more significant figure that cannot be ignored.
How can fibre optic sensing prevent water pipeline theft and leaks?
Fotech’s LivePIPE II® technology is already regarded globally as a best-in-class DAS powered solution for oil & gas pipeline monitoring. The same principle - harnessing data from fibre optic sensors that run along the pipeline – is applicable to monitoring water pipelines. A Distributed Acoustic Sensor sends thousands of pulses of light along the cable, second by second, reflecting the light’s backscatter back to the DAS interrogator. Different disturbances in those light patterns - which might be caused by leaks, ground movement or deliberate interference to the water pipeline - produce unique signatures in the backscatter patterns. Intelligent algorithms interpret that data to analyse the nature of the pipeline interference, reporting only disturbances of consequence back to the Panoptes alarm server. This then alerts the water operator to not just the presence of a pipeline threat, but to the nature and severity of that threat and its location within metres. The efficiency and accuracy of Fotech’s LivePIPE II® system is evidenced in pipeline integrity field tests, which showed 100% accurate detection results – with zero false positives.
Crucially, it is this level of intelligence, reported in real-time, that has the capacity to make a significant difference to water pipeline operators. It equips the operator to adopt the optimal response – such as sending a UAV drone, security resource or repair team directly to the location. Plus, because of Fotech’s advanced Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning algorithms, data can be collated and gathered over time to identify patterns, areas of risk, and even predict future events. Speed of response is also vital. Our recent blog on monitoring pipelines in remote locations pointed out the cost of pipeline leaks, theft, and breaches to the oil industry. If we consider how much faster water flows than oil (due to water’s lower viscosity), the need for real-time, intelligent water pipeline monitoring becomes even more urgent.
Want to know more about monitoring water pipelines? Visit our pipeline monitoring section. Or, find out more about the coming launch of Helios DAS X4, our new iteration of Helios DAS designed to monitor pipelines via a dual-channel specification, with a monitoring range of up to 100km, and temperature tolerance of up to 50° C.
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