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The Big Drip: How Water Leakage Costs Communities

By 3p Contributor

By Michael Kanellos

The water burbling down the hillside amid thick, green foliage certainly looked like a stream.
In reality, it came from a broken water pipe leaking 280 gallons per minute, said Carl Alexander, the GIS director at White House Utility District (WHUD), a municipal water utility north of Nashville, Tennessee, that serves roughly 33,000 homes and businesses.

Over a year, the sylvan pipe break dripped 1.47 million gallons or enough for 2,239 homes in the region. Put another way, WHUD was spilling $300,000 a year down the drain.

“Our water treatment plant was having to run one hour a day just to feed that leak,” Alexander said. “Without us [knowing] there was a problem in that area, we would have never been able to stumble upon it.”

Leakage, or non-water revenue loss, is a chronic and growing problem for water utilities. On average, a utility should expect to lose around 10 to 15 percent of its water on the voyage from the treatment plant to the faucet. Unfortunately, the total is often much higher, thanks to aging infrastructure, small budgets, stretched staff and the challenge of patrolling hundreds, and often thousands, of miles of underground pipes spread across square kilometers of ever-changing terrain.

Chicago at one point was losing 60 percent percent of its water to leakage. The U.S. suffers 240,000 water main breaks a year. Globally, the World Bank estimates that we collectively lose 32.6 trillion liters a year -- or nearly enough to fill China’s Three Gorges Dam to the brim every year with clean, treated water.

Water losses mean more than just higher bills. Water utilities are often the largest consumers of power in their area, consuming 30 to 40 percent of the regional total, so leakage directly leads to excess energy consumption, unnecessary emissions and increased chemical consumption.

The problem gets even worse in emerging nations where drought and the booming growth of megacities are stressing on water supplies. Approximately 45 percent of the global population live in dry lands, defined as regions that get 600 millimeters of rain a year or less, said Alon Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University. The problem of leakage in these regions goes far beyond money.

So, what can be done? Cue the big data story. Algorithms can’t be used to dig holes or replace pipes, but they can be employed to pinpoint leaks -- saving time and labor.

WHUD segmented its service territory into 39 sub-districts and cross-referenced water inflow with sewage outflow. In a clever twist, the utility didn’t track daytime use. Instead, it compared inflow and outflow between 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. when any large water consumption would likely be leakage (or, perhaps, an illegal grow operation).

WHUD recovered $900,000 worth of water in 2015 and 2016. It also avoided $200,000 worth of system upgrades and freed up its data manager, who was trying to track leakage with spreadsheets, to tackle bigger problems. The utility even found another “stream” in someone’s backyard. The property owners had built a little bridge over it and made it part of the landscaping.

“It was taking our water analysts almost all day, six hours, to calculate all of the information needed for our DMA zones. Now it takes less than 10 minutes," Alexander said. “We are seeing $30,000 in savings just by optimizing his work flow.”

Cities around the world have seen similar results. Maynilad, the utility for Manila, Philippines, has cut water losses from 67 percent to 32 percent — this is across over 7,000 kilometers of water distribution pipes. And over 95 percent of its customer base now has 24-hour service. Halifax in Nova Scotia saves 38 million liters a day. Vitens, a water utility in the Netherlands, now says it can find a sizable leak two minutes after it begins. Some states have begun to require reports on water losses.

Stopping leaks, of course, won’t solve all our water problems. Water utilities, and consumers, are going to have to adjust their attitudes toward water. In Europe and the U.S., water is generally used without much thought. The technologies for increasing supply will also need to be improved and lowered in price.

Last year the California Public Utilities Commission noted in a report that California, among other places, will have to rely more on recycling, desalination and other sources of “new” water. Software also can’t be viewed as a magic bullet on its own: Data generated by pumps and other pieces of equipment piles up quickly, so to take advantage of it requires training and buy-in from the organization.

Taking on leakage, however, is an effective way to start to rethink our approach to water.

Image courtesy of the author 

Michael Kanellos is the Industry Champion of Water at OSIsoft.

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