A few days ago we all received an email in the office to tell us that, owing to a water leak (although probably it was a burst pipe), there would be no water into our building for several hours whilst the local water company worked to fix the problem.

It wasn’t long before the toilets were unusable; and bottles of mineral water were placed in all the kitchens as the water dispensers and coffee machines all stopped working. For most of us, it’s unusual indeed for there to be such a break in supply – we have come to expect reliable water supplies.
(Data to support these statements / calculations were taken from an article in The Guardian and Yorkshire Water’s water usage calculator.)

How much leakage actually is there?

It’s less unusual, though, for water to be lost through leakage. In fact, over the past decade, every single day, an average of 900,000,000 litres of water was lost through leaking pipes in our homes and 2,600,000,000 litres through problems in the distribution network.
In perspective? That’s leaked water every day equivalent to:

It’s been this way for well over ten years, with a backdrop of hosepipe bans, predicted drought and increasing public recognition of the importance of prioritising environmental concerns such as conserving water. My home even has its own built-in water recycler, taking water from the bath and shower to use in the toilet (which can sometimes result in very unusual coloured water in the loo!)

Ofwat, the water industry’s regulator has given major water companies targets for leakage reduction, and yet there appears to be no discernible difference. The data from Ofwat in the chart below shows the % of water leakage as virtually unchanged over last ten years:

This surprised the Figure It Out team, as we would have expected that fixing a problem of this magnitude would be a priority and that there would be efforts being made to reduce water leakage, both from the distribution networks and from consumers’ homes.

When we started to look into it, it became apparent that considerable efforts are being made. In fact, it seems that the majority of water companies are running just to stand still. Water companies have to tackle the problem of ageing infrastructure (the networks were developed over the course of the 20th century) and without the right investment we would be seeing an increase in leakage.

The Investment Challenge

The numbers on water leakage are quite staggering:

  • £100bn would be required to replace all pipes in England & Wales and this would only reduce leakage by 50% because even new pipes have leakage problems. This is more than was spent on all infrastructure over the last 25 years.
  • There are 210,000 miles of pipes in England & Wales i.e. eight times around the circumference of the earth
  • The daily cost of water loss is £7m, equivalent to a yearly cost of water loss of £2.6bn, which is around 2.5% of cost of fixing all the pipes
  • Despite that, water bills have risen an average of £64 to £376 per year (21%) over the ten years 2001 to 2012, which is significantly below inflation which is 38% over the same period.It isn’t hard to see why water companies aren’t able to fix all the leaks. Even increasing water bills with inflation would barely have touched the surface of the funding that would be required.

How do you find leaks?

Most leaks take place below surface and are unseen and so difficult to find and so therefore fix. One approach to called active leakage control (ALC) which involves people going along roads with ‘listening devices’, detectors that workers put to their ear to listen for unusual underground leak sounds.

If you’ve ever worked in a water company, its amazing how people describing ALC always cup a hand against their ear and tilt their head slightly…

A smarter approach to fixing the problem

One more proactive approach to leak reduction is to target your investment in maintenance or replacement of pipes on those that are more likely to leak. Using existing data on pipe network (age, material, pipe diameter, location and soil type), we can apply a predictive analytics approach to determine probability of leakage, and so inform the maintenance programme.

We are currently working with Severn Trent Water (STW) supporting the development of their Investment Plan as part of the PR14 Price Review. Pat Spain, STW’s Water Distribution Strategy Manager, tells Figure it Out that:
“we optimise our investment to minimise leakage using predictive models. As well as ALC we have an extensive pressure management programme. We also use the model to identify which water mains we need to replace. We have reduced leakage by 10% over the last three years and further reductions will be needed to maintain customer supplies in future.”

What is the future of water asset maintenance?

In the past few years, the move towards using so called “smart” technology across utilities brings with it the ability to more actively manage our natural resources. Initiatives ranging from real-time sensors, smart meters and smart grids in buildings that aim to save energy, to smart parking places, intelligent cars and even smart operating systems for entire cities give us a glimpse of what our world might be like in very near future.

For the water industry, smart sensor technology is now beginning to be deployed to enable real-time monitoring of your network, and to quickly pinpoint leakage problems leading to quicker fixes and less water wasted.

Hopefully this will also send me a message to my smart phone as I approach the office telling me to get a coffee from Starbucks as the kettle in the office is out of water!