How to plug your water supply’s (money) leaks

Wed, 2015-06-03 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


When the water supply is short -- as it is now in regions around the world due to drought -- many fingers get pointed at groups that appear to be the biggest water wasters. But at least some of those fingers should be pointed at municipal water departments themselves.

Studies show that water departments waste both water and money. A substantial amount of water simply vanishes in the distribution system due to infrastructure that’s well beyond its useful life. And technology that’s supposed to help is obsolete shortly after it’s installed.

Council partners are behind a variety of projects designed to help struggling municipal water departments turn the tide.

Internet-enabled water pipes
A stunning amount of water is simply lost somewhere between the time it’s purified and when it reaches homes and businesses. In the U.S. alone, some 2.7 trillion gallons of water are lost each year due to water infrastructure that barely earns a passing grade from civil engineers.

Council Lead Partner IBM is working with AT&T and Mueller Water Products to connect pipes, valves and other components to the Internet, helping cities pinpoint leaks early. Sensors are added to water pipes to listen for the distinctive signature of a leak. When one is detected, the sensor uses a wireless network to alert water managers. It also collects data that over time helps managers know where to concentrate their modernization efforts.

Because the sensors attach to existing infrastructure and use a wireless network, as opposed to a hard-wired connection, the system is designed to be easy to deploy. Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta have already used it in limited tests.

Making technology last
Another issue for municipal water departments is that they often outgrow new technology shortly after installing it. A study sponsored by Council Associate Partner Badger Meter found that utilities outgrow their automated meter reading and advance metering infrastructure solutions after only 8.2 years. Those systems are typically bought with 20-year lifecycles in mind.

The study looked at about 11,000 metering projects completed over the past 30 years. Technology has evolved rapidly and that’s the key issue. Something that seems state of the art when it’s installed can quickly seem old when technology continues to improve. There can be strong business cases for replacing systems earlier than forecast. Given the advances, some new metering systems can quickly feel like two-year-old tablet computers.

Badger Meter recommends that utilities stop lying to themselves and consider the actual lifespan when installing new systems, rather than defaulting to a mythological 20-year lifespan few achieve. To extend the investment further, utilities also need to proactively plan for potential upgrades, rather than waiting until after their current systems are obsolete.

Technology is making another leap
One of the biggest advances in metering systems is turning the data networks into two-way communication channels. When automated meters were first installed, they only needed to report usage or detect leaks. Now, with water supplies so critically tight, the meters may be needed to help manage the flow.

True two-way meters could help drive water conservation efforts that look something like the demand-response programs that some electrical utilities are using. In addition to growing populations and shrinking water supplies, pollution and climate change are likely to strain supplies even more.

As a result, the world’s smart water market is forecast to grow more than 15% by the end of the decade.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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