Guest Column | April 30, 2020

Danish Utility Increases Leak Detection During COVID-19

By Frederikke Roervang Mikkelsen and Jesper Elkjaer Christensen,
The Danish Water Technology Alliance*


While many people have been working from home, the Greater Copenhagen utility HOFOR has invested in tools to boost their efforts related to leak detection. With simple guidelines and new equipment, the employees have found the silver lining of an otherwise bad situation by collecting data for asset management. 

Leaks are a bit like humans. Some shelter in place while others cannot contain themselves and burst out. The leaks that are fine with sheltering in place can stay hidden for decades while silently flushing out water that could have been used in a much better way. Wasting water is generally a critical issue, but it is particularly problematic in areas such as California, where water is a scarce resource in nature.

Finding leaks does not only reduce water loss, it also provides useful and instrumental insight to pipe replacement planning, and this is one of the reasons why the Danish utility HOFOR has decided to ramp up the leak detection efforts amid the corona crises.

“When we suddenly had employees with spare time on their hands, we decided to strengthen the focus on leak search as this is one of the key activities where we can perform our duties and still follow the guidelines of the government in terms of safety and physical distance,” says Kim Roar, Team Leader at HOFOR.

In order to maintain a safe working environment for their crew, the utility has implemented the following simple guidelines.

  • Increase personal hygiene
  • Sanitize tools more frequently 
  • Implement virtual meetings with colleagues
  • Keep social distance to curious neighbors — but keep a positive an instructive dialogue about what we are doing and why.
  • Stand on opposite side of the pit when talking to contractors to avoid getting too close

A Wise Investment In Asset Management

Over the years, the listening stick for leak detection has undergone quite the transformation. Advancing well beyond the iron rod or oak stick of old days, today’s tool is a highly professional iron rod with a microphone, a small converter with noise filters, and a headset so you can listen for leaks on valves. This equipment is one of the simple but effective tools HOFOR has invested in for the newly formed leak detection crew.

If they find a potential leak, the new crew will call for the experienced leak detection unit to narrow in the leak and order a contractor to do the repair accordingly. The experienced crews have correlators and tracer gas to pinpoint the leak more precisely — a process that requires a higher skill level and more training.

According to Jesper Elkjaer, Senior Technical Advisor of the Water Technology Alliance in North America, the setup for the newly formed leak detection crew at HOFOR is a profitable investment in asset management, which easily could be adapted to the U.S.

“Many utilities across the continent are still changing pipes without any data on leakages and pipe history — that is by far one of the most expensive ways to fight leakages,” Elkjaer explains. “In California, where you have the flow meters by the curb, you can use these tools to listen for leaks; and with the many measurement points accessible, you will get an even more dense measurement than in Denmark.”

Furthermore, Elkjær explains that the collected leak data, within a relatively short period, will be able to tell you where to replace pipes, where to intensify your leak detection, and where to ease up and have confidence in the pipes.

Over the years, this approach to asset management has become widely used in Denmark, and HOFOR has found that it has helped them create a focused strategy for asset management, which has had multiple economic benefits.

“A few years ago, we had the idea that the age of our pre-World War II pipes were the main reason for our leaks. However, we kept experiencing more leaks after we started replacing them. With a structured collection of data, we found that these pipes were actually the sturdiest ones and the pipes from the ’50s and ’60s were the ones that leaked, and we have been wasting time and money changing perfectly functioning pipes,” says Kim Roar.

Training In California Has Been Swapped With The Backyard In Copenhagen

The leak detection company Leif Koch is one of the Danish companies that specializes in training leak detection crews in Denmark and North America. They, too, feel the consequences of COVID-19, as leaks do not seem to lay off, and now they are as busy as ever.

“Actually, we were supposed to go to California shortly to give leak detection training locally at a utility. Unfortunately, that has been postponed due to the international travel restrictions, so for now we just try to keep up the good work here in Denmark. It is not without challenges, but leaks don’t pay much attention to pandemics,” says Joergen Koch, Chairman of the Board at Leif Koch. 

Leif Koch training session in California, prior to COVID-19 restrictions

With small groups, frequent sanitation of tools, plus respectful care and respect, however, the employees at Leif Koch are still able to test equipment and keep the classes up and running at the test field located in the headquarters’ backyard just outside Copenhagen.

*The Danish Water Technology Alliance (WTA) is a Danish outreach program providing specialized know-how on innovative water technology solutions. The Alliance is a part of The Trade Council at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and the partners include public Danish water utilities, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, and leading technology and service providers.

The main goal of the WTA is to build bridges between the North American and Danish water sector with the aim of sharing Danish know-how and foster collaboration. Through local visits, the WTA provides specialized knowledge about Danish solutions, covering the whole water cycle from water distribution, water resource management, wastewater treatment, and sewer systems.