Preserving our Vital Resources: How Advanced Leak Detection Technologies Support Water Conservation

Though often undervalued, water is not a given in this country.

By Wayne D. Morgan

Though often undervalued, water is not a given in this country. In fact, by 2025, water demand is expected to outpace supply by 50 percent. Facing water scarcity, it's now up to us—utilities and municipalities—to adopt and implement technologies to more effectively manage and conserve water supplies.

To ensure water is available for future generations, American Water has developed comprehensive water preservation and efficiency strategies utilizing leak detection technologies. These technologies support conservation and consumption changes that can significantly impact overall supply.

Approximately six billion gallons of water are lost through the distribution network (from ground to tap) each day through leaks—often caused by corrosion or valve problems. Not only do leaks account for lost water (as well as the resources it takes to treat the water), but they can also allow contaminants into the system that can endanger public health.

American Water uses advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and continuous acoustic monitoring (CAM) technologies to detect hard-to-find leaks in a timely manner and better manage water loss. AMI involves a two-way communication device that automatically collects and transmits consumption and interval data from smart meters to a computer network. The utility then analyzes this data to uncover irregularities that likely signal a leak, meter tampering or water theft.

Once a leak is detected, CAM sonically detects the sound of water escaping a pipe. Sophisticated vendor software displayed via website interprets changes and the magnitude of sounds to rank the possible source locations and to identify the exact location of the leak. The leak can then be repaired, or the infrastructure replaced, as required. In the end, using these technologies to find leaks and better record water usage improves customer service, conserves water and keeps rates down.

Technology in Practice: Acoustic Leak Monitoring</p>

American Water has been working with Itron, Fluid Conservation Services (FCS), Gutermann, Aclara and Datamatic among others to develop and test new low-cost acoustic leak detectors (MLOG, Permalog and Zonescan) using AMI systems.

American Water's first pilot program used Itron's MLOG and an AMI system by Aclara in Connellsville, Pa. in 2005. Within the first year, non-revenue water dropped by more than half, from over 25 percent to less than 12 percent—saving about $175,000 in annual water purchase costs. The average cost of repairing leaks found before they surfaced amounted to about one quarter less than surfacing leaks, resulting in fewer emergencies. All told, the savings "paid" for the installation of this technology in less than two years.

With a water system dating back to the 1880s, pipe deterioration in Irvington, N.J. had led to non-revenue water loss of over 23 percent. American Water integrated an acoustic monitoring program there using the MLOG device and an Itron fixed network system. In nine months, 24 leaks were identified and repaired—resulting in a savings of an estimated 250,000 gallons of water per day.

These are just two examples of communities where American Water's use of leak detection technology has provided significant benefits.

The Role of AMI in Conservation Efforts

West Virginia American Water, a subsidiary of American Water, recently announced the implementation of an AMI project in Fayette County, W. Va. that is 82 percent financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) economic stimulus funding. This program, which will serve about 12,000 customers, involves deploying FCS Permalogs that are part of a Datamatic mesh network AMI system.

This new system, which will be in place by the end of 2010, will provide a leak survey every night. The monitors will be activated automatically at night, when there are fewer other noises to detract from the leak sounds. Sophisticated algorithms detect the sound of the acoustic signature produced by a leak. The meter communications will operate on a radio frequency, transmitting information back and forth between the meters and to hubs. The data gathered at the hubs will be transmitted to a home base via the Internet. West Virginia American Water staff will then study the data, prioritize the identified leaks by their estimated size and dispatch service technicians to fix them.

Over time, the project is expected to decrease the amount of lost water in the Fayette district by nearly one-third. That saved water will reduce the amount of chlorine and other chemicals needed in the water treatment process; the amount of waste residuals created during this process; the carbon dioxide emissions, fuel use and tire wear on the vehicles used to transport the chemicals to the water treatment plants and carry away the waste residuals; and the electricity used to pump the water throughout the system. The domino effect also includes, among other things, the need for fewer vehicles—which further reduces emissions of pollutants connected to the manufacture of the tires, fuel, vehicles and other related products.

Residential Conservation Efforts

The effective use of technologies that protect water supplies and manage non-revenue loss also promotes the importance of conservation among customers. Public awareness programs are crucial for educating customers about how to use water more wisely, and AMI data can serve as a communication tool for informing customers about their current water use patterns. With the average household using 26 percent of water for toilet flushing and 35 percent towards outdoor use, there is tremendous opportunity to reduce consumption.

One way households can do their part is by installing water-efficient products certified by the Environmental Protection Agency under the WaterSense label, such as low-flow toilets and front-loading washers. Technology aside, homeowners can also regularly monitor their appliances, toilets or faucets for leaks. Outdoors, customers can also reduce water usage by growing drought-resistant plants, limiting lawn watering and manually controlling their sprinkler systems.

In light of what many see as a water crisis, states across the U.S. are putting strict water use restrictions into practice. Thus, adopting water conservation methods and technologies that support water preservation and management is an area of increased priority. By investing in such technologies and systems now, communities can significantly reduce consumption and ease the strain on our nation's water supplies.


About the Author:
Wayne D. Morgan, president of West Virginia American Water, has more than 25 years of experience in the management, operation, planning, design and construction of water and wastewater systems. West Virginia American Water, a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Water, is the largest investor-owned water utility in the state, providing high-quality and reliable water services to approximately 600,000 people. Founded in 1886, American Water is the largest investor-owned U.S. water and wastewater utility company, providing drinking water, wastewater and other related services to approximately 15 million people in 32 states and Ontario, Canada. More information can be found by visiting www.amwater.com.

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