More innovation, less leaks
The UK general public are a fickle lot. When it comes to water leakage, they are usually only interested either during heatwaves or when it comes to likely increases in their water bills.
It was encouraging then to notice the spate of messages posted by water companies on Twitter (I confess to being an avid user) thanking customers for their vigilance in reporting leaking water mains brought on by the cold weather.
On a deeper level, though, it does beg the question of whether UK companies are still sufficiently geared up to handle water leakage – in particular when it comes to spotting and rectify the early telltale signs of impending leaks.
This is not to knock the huge progress that has already been made in leakage management in the UK in recent years. Thames Water, Severn Trent and Yorkshire Water are all just some of the examples of water companies that have undertaken massive programmes of mains improvement, with a dramatic reduction in leakage as a result. However, even with this investment, many leakage management programmes still tend to focus on resolving leaks that are likely to cause immediate problems, due to the need to conserve costs and balance manpower resources across other activities.
Though leakage can never be totally eliminated, it is still possible for it to be more tightly controlled.
What is needed is greater innovation, involving not just the application of new technology, but also looking outside the water industry to identify best practices used in other industries to meet the same or similar challenges.
One example of where this is already happening is Project Neptune, a joint partnership between Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, ABB, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and seven UK universities. Represented by the trident of Neptune, the Roman god of water, the project has set itself a three-pronged goal of improving the monitoring, control and optimisation of water supplies.
Working together, the project partners have developed an automated leakage management system which combines up-to-the-minute pipeline data with artificial intelligence to continually monitor network performance.
Its success has already been proven in 16 DMAs throughout the Yorkshire Water catchment, with leaks now able to be spotted and repaired at a much earlier stage. The immediate benefits include the ability to better allocate repair teams and minimise disruption caused by repair works.
The longer terms benefits of this will include better control of water supply and improved energy efficiency through the reduced need for production and treatment of replacement supplies.
With press attention already focusing on the need for greater protection against future water shortages, it's probably only a matter of time before public attention focuses on whether water companies are doing all they possibly can to efficiently manage the nation's supplies.
Greater innovation is just one way for us to ensure that we are.Tim Door