News Feature | December 14, 2017

Water Companies Admit To Using Divining Rods For Leak Detection

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Water companies in the U.K. are using a questionable method for leak detection.

Ars Technica reported: “Ten out of 12 water utilities in the United Kingdom admitted that their technicians use divining rods to find underground leaks or water pipes, according to an investigation by science blogger Sally Le Page.”

“Dowsing is a centuries-old technique for locating underground water. Someone searching for water holds two parallel sticks — or sometimes a single Y-shaped stick — called divining rods while walking in an area where there might be water under the surface. The branches supposedly twitch when they're over a water source,” the report continued.

As Le Page put it in her original report, “In 2017, U.K. water companies still rely on ‘magic.’” There is no scientific evidence to support the use of divining rods for leak detection, she added.

“Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance. You’ll be just as likely to find water by going out and taking a good guess as you will by walking around with divining rods. And it’s not for lack of testing; there was even $1 million up for grabs for anyone who could provide rigorous evidence that you can find water using dowsing techniques,” Le Page wrote.

In one study cited by Le Page, a randomized, double-blind trial, researchers found wholly negative results, “adding to doubts whether dowsing in this context can yield objective information.”

Le Page is an Oxford Ph.D. student and science video producer.

“Le Page began asking water companies about the practice after her parents told her that they saw a water technician holding ‘two bent tent pegs’ to decide how much of the road needed to be closed off. Le Page was incredulous and started asking water companies if this was an actual practice they used,” NPR reported.

In response to Le Page’s inquiries, one company tweeted: "We do have some techs that still have them in the van and use them if they need to. However, we prefer to use listening sticks and other methods."

The Guardian reported that the disclosure from various companies “has prompted calls for [water regulators] to stop companies passing the cost of a discredited medieval practice on to their customers.”

To read more about methods employed by utility staff visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.