Detecting Underground Leaks as the Value of Water Rises

From watershed to water glass, water flows so freely into American homes and work places that it is easy to take for granted all of the steps involved in delivering clean water. The ease of supply also hides a fragile and “at risk” delivery system. Attention to the delivery system is urgently needed to fix aging infrastructure and automate the control and monitoring. A cornerstone of any utility distribution network automation project begins with implementation of Automatic Meter Reading (AMR), or Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). AMR, dating back to the 1990’s, supports one-way communication of water consumption from the meter to the utility.  Newer and more advanced than AMR, AMI systems support two-way communication between the meter and the utility. AMI systems are very common in electrical “Smart Meter” networks, and are recently making their way into Water and Gas distribution utilities.

Before reaching our faucets, water must be collected, processed, treated and tested. The water is stored  and then pumped throughout cities and neighborhoods. Water density and high quantity demands of customers make the delivery of water more stressful on the distribution system than other utilities. In addition, aging infrastructure causes even more vulnerability to water delivery. If the infrastructure is not properly monitored, all of these factors combined can lead to system damage, broken pipes, and leaks.

It is easy to think the system is working well since we can see the water filling up our tub or sprinkling our lawn. But, we cannot see the leaks that are present as water is transported underground. One in every six gallons of water pumped by United States utilities is lost in transportation. Over 16% of the energy, human labor, and natural resources put into delivering clean water to Americans is lost, and it is hard to tell where the leaks are occurring. A leak could be anywhere and could be due to many reasons including a main-line crack underground, an improper connection of pipes, or even worse, abandoned water lines pumping water directly back into the ground.

Unless leaks become severe enough to flow above ground, finding exactly where they are occurring has been difficult. These unseen leaks are actually the bulk of the problem, wasting many gallons of water when going undetected for long periods of time. This is where modern leak detection systems come in. By remotely monitoring water flow from the utility reservoirs through the network and comparing that amount to the metered water delivered to the homes and businesses, technicians can track how much water is lost in the distribution system. AMR or AMI systems, when combined with leak detection systems, enable the utility to trend unaccounted water losses and identify the locations of water leaks within neighborhoods and branch lines.

Business leaders would gasp if they were told that 15 to 40 percent of their product is lost in delivery. Yet, this is the reality with many water utilities today. With remote meter reading and leak detection sensors, utilities can get a handle on their water leakage challenges by finding where the leaks are occurring. The extreme cold of the north this past winter that froze pipes and left homes without access to running water, and the severe drought that rendered the west with water shortages make us appreciate the value of water.  As stress of the water infrastructure becomes more pronounced, it will be more crucial for utilities to identify leaks when they occur to reduce wasting a critical natural resource through the use of automation technology like AMR/AMI and leak detection systems.

Phone: 312-602-4000
222 W. Adams
Chicago, IL 60606
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