Guest Column | September 10, 2018

The Big Drip

By Michael Kanellos

The water burbling down the hillside amid thick, green foliage, certainly looked like a stream.

In reality, the water came from a broken water pipe leaking 280 gallons per minute, notes Carl Alexander, the GIS director at White House Utility District (WHUD), a municipal water utility in north of Nashville that serves roughly 33,000 homes and businesses.

Over a year, the sylvan pipe break was dripping 1.47 million gallons a year, 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 know there was a problem in that area, we would have never been able to stumble upon it.”

Leakage, or non-revenue water 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 of its water. Manila, meanwhile, lost over 60 percent at one point. 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 people in the world live in dry lands, defined as regions that get 600 millimeters or less of rain a year, according to 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 dig holes or replace pipes, but it 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, WHUD 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. WHUD 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. “We are seeing $30,000 in savings just by optimizing his workflow.”

Other cities have seen similar results. Maynilad, the utility for Manila, 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 the 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 sizeable leak two minutes after it began. 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 many parts of the world, water gets consumed without much thought. The technologies for increasing supply like desalination and water recycling will also need to be lowered in price. These technologies right now are primarily deployed in developed nations. 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. 

Michael Kanellos is the Industry Champion, Water, at OSIsoft.