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Dogs to drones: How engineers plug Britain's leaky pipes

Thames water pipe diversion 3to2

Dogs, drones and smart meters are all being deployed to tackle the enormous amount of water the UK wastes.

Last week the Environment Agency piled pressure on water industry engineers to tackle the 3bn.l of water lost every day through leaking infrastructure. 

In its first major report on water resources in England, The State of the Environment: Water Resources, Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd warned that unless engineers plug the leaks England could be facing serious water shortages by 2050.

Water companies are already under pressure to reduce water waste, as water regulator Ofwat has set firms the goal of reducing the amount of water lost to leakages by 15% in the next funding period, AMP7 (2020-2025).

Although a 15% decrease of 3bn.l per day does not sound that impressive, Anglian Water optimisation project engineer Fionn Boyle explains that reducing water leakage is much harder than it seems due to the country’s ageing pipe network.

“The main issue we have is the age of our infrastructure,” he says. “We have pipes in the ground that were installed 100 years ago and are still working fine; we have pipes that were installed 80 years ago and are in terrible condition.”

Thames Water head of water networks Tim McMahon adds that only 2% of leaks in the company’s network are visible while 98%, or 50,000 each year, are underground and difficult to locate.

“It shows we do a lot more practical work on the network which people don’t necessarily see,” says McMahon.

So how are water companies trying to reduce leakage in such challenging conditions?

Boyle explains how Anglian Water is the first water firm in the UK looking at using drones to detect leakages using thermal imagery. The company is also using near-real time hydraulic models to help them better respond to leakages and bursts, and to better plan for future bursts.

“If we have a burst, which is essentially a big leak, we can see where it is quicker and then get out and find and fix it sooner,” he explains.

“The longer a leak runs, the more water will obviously come out of it. So the sooner we can respond to an incident and repair it, the better for everyone.”

The firm is also trying to educate commercial customers on how to “be a bit more gentle” with their water usage to save pipes from bursting: a sudden change in flow of just 10% within a pipe can cause a pressure wave capable of travelling several kilometres in just one second.

“Any of those points which are just about to go due to the age of them, the transient pressure waves will go along and expose that weak point and cause a burst or a leak,” says Boyle.

Thames Water has reduced leakage by a third since 2004, and was recently granted an extra £200M by its board to find and fix more leaks.

It has installed 26,000 acoustic loggers mostly in central London, to help pinpoint leaks. The acoustic loggers work by detecting noise generated by breaks in the cast iron pipes to help engineers locate the leak much quicker.

The utility firm also has the second biggest smart metering programme in the world, feeding customer usage data back and alerting engineers to anything unusual.

Snipe the water sniffer dog

Snipe the water sniffer dog

Snipe is ready to sniff out leaky pipes

But the quirkiest solution comes from United Utilities, which serves the North West of England.

Ex-military dog trainers have taught a Cocker Spaniel named Snipe to sniff out underground leaks in rural water mains. The dog can detect traces of chlorine used to disinfect water supplies, saving engineers time and helping to bring down the amount of water lost to leaking infrastructure.

United Utilities leakage manager Hannah Wardle said: “The North West of England is a notoriously wet region, and sorting the leaks from the puddles especially out in the fields can be real challenge.

“Snipe is proving to be an invaluable asset to the team and he’s already finding a lot of leaks for us.”

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