Dogs, drones and smart meters are all being deployed to tackle the enormous amount of water the UK wastes.
More from: Water Resilience | Avoiding Shortages
Last month the Environment Agency piled pressure on water industry engineers to tackle the 3bn litres of water lost every day through leaking infrastructure.
The Agency’s first major report on water resources in England, The State of the Environment: Water Resources, contains a warning from Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd that, unless engineers plug the leaks, England could face serious water shortages by 2050.
“We need to change our attitudes to water use. It is the most fundamental thing needed to ensure a healthy environment, but we are taking too much of it and have to work together to manage this precious resource,” she says in the report.
“With demand on the rise, water companies must invest more in infrastructure to address leakage instead of relying on abstraction and the natural environment to make up this shortfall.”
Water companies are already under pressure to reduce water waste, as water regulator Ofwat has set them the goal of reducing the amount of water lost to leaks by 15% between 2020 and 2025.
Transient pressure waves will go along and expose that weak point and cause a burst or a leak
Although a 15% decrease of 3bn litres per day does not sound that impressive, Anglian Water optimisation project engineer Fionn Boyle explains that reducing leaks is much harder than it seems due to the country’s ageing pipe network.
“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?
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
Anglian Water is the first water firm in the UK to look at using drones to detect leaks using thermal imagery. The company is also using near-real time hydraulic models to help it better respond to leaks and bursts, and to better plan for future bursts.
It is also trying to educate commercial customers to “be a bit more gentle” with their water use 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.
“At 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. These detect noise generated by breaks in cast iron pipes to help engineers locate them much quicker.
Thames Water also has the second biggest smart metering programme in the world, feeding customer usage data back and alerting engineers to anything unusual.
But the quirkiest solution comes from United Utilities, which serves north west 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 them bring down the amount of water lost to leaking infrastructure.
“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,” says United Utilities leakage manager Hannah Wardle.
“Snipe is proving to be an invaluable asset to the team and he’s already finding a lot of leaks for us.”
Tackling leaks: responding to the challenge
Water industry trade body Water UK’s chief executive Michael Roberts has defended the water companies’ records.
He told the BBC: “Let’s not forget that £150bn has been invested in improving the infrastructure over the last 30 years,” adding that infrastructure leakage is now a third less than it was 30 years ago.
Snipe the water sniffer dog
But he admitted there is a long way to go. “There’s a heck of a lot more to do, both as individuals and as companies,” he said.
Population growth and unsustainable water abstraction are also putting pressure on the country’s water resources.
In 2017 water was taken from 28% of groundwater and 18% of surface water at unsustainable levels, while a target to limit personal water use to 140.l per day is included in the Environment Agency’s 25 year environment plan, published in January.
Meanwhile world heritage body Unesco has warned that civil engineers face a growing challenge to provide clean drinking water to 2.1bn people around the world, threatening the United Nations’ ability to meet its Sustainable Development Goal to manage water sustainably.