Sashan Rodrigo discusses the impact of unaccounted losses in piping systems

Leaky pipes have posed a problem ever since piping systems were installed to supply water to homes and businesses. While a seemingly simple concept to think about, piping water from point A to point B is quite a complex process – and repairing these systems is both time-consuming and expensive.

Most piping systems that supply water are located underground, which means repairing pipes requires municipal councils or utility companies digging and inherently utilising many resources to do so. Consequently, a lot of water is lost to leaking pipes and isn’t accounted for, which is a component of non-revenue water (NRW).

NRW occurs due to the difference in water supplied by the distributor and what is received by the end consumer. It can be the result of physical losses such as through leaks, or apparent losses including theft or meter inaccuracies.

In England and Wales for example, approximately three billion litres (660 million gallons) is lost to leaks every day – that’s the equivalent of 1,180 Olympic size swimming pools.

In developing countries, the average NRW is estimated to be 35 percent while Colombo’s amounts to 46 percent. Comparatively, the NRW in developed countries is approximately 15 percent on average.

This is a great deal of water that’s essentially going to waste; and it’s a problem for distributors as the cost of treating water to comply with drinking water quality standards is quite high. While leaks are only a single component of NRW, they can be perceived as a significant contributor to losses in revenue and water, and a solution is needed to stem this.

One solution that is picking up steam in a bid to address these losses is the use of sensors and smart technology. In the UK, sensors have been used at various intervals in the past and recently, as a result of the lobbying of industry regulator Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) – which plans to reduce leaks by 16 percent in the next five years – the market for sensors has exploded.

For instance, one of the UK’s largest water management companies is rolling out approximately 102,000 sensors with 46,000 already being installed. While this only covers about 10 percent of their piping network, it is an improvement and helps with pinpointing where leaks occur.

So how do these sensors work and can they be applied to cities such as Colombo?

For starters, there are several types of sensors. Some pick up on vibrations that travel through pipes when leaks occur while others such as acoustic loggers listen for the characteristic hum from leaks.

There are also AI systems in development with the aim of analysing and accurately pinpointing where leaks occur with a degree of accuracy as high as 90 percent.

The other technology that is in use is based on the narrow band IoT (NB-IoT), which enables pipe sensors to transmit signals frequently to a central server using a small amount of bandwidth, thereby preserving the battery life of the sensor. Additionally, NB-IoT can cover a wide geographical area at a lower cost.

These technologies can be referred to as smart technologies as they make use of big data and analytics to reduce inefficiencies. In the long run, they save money for utility companies by increasing accuracy.

While the investment in smart technologies and installation of the sensors can be rather high, they can assist in saving money and reduce the incidence of NRW in the long term. While smart technology and sensors are used in certain aspects in
Sri Lanka, they’re not used to detect leaks as yet.

For example, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has developed a water flow management calculator that informs users about how much river water is needed to maintain and bolster the health of an ecosystem. The tool is used by the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka in river basin planning and water master plan preparation.

There is a case to be made for utilising technology to assist with fixing our ageing pipe system and reducing the occurrence of NRW. Specifically, Colombo has pipes that are nearly 70 years old and in desperate need of maintenance.

However, as anyone who has lived in the commercial capital knows, the city is continuously changing with new buildings coming up regularly. Therefore, the maintenance of these pipes will be costly but sensors coupled with smart technology could assist municipalities in identifying specific locations where leaks will arise or are already occurring.

Colombo already has a burgeoning technology industry with plenty of firms involved in big data analytics and the ability to manufacture sensor technology within the country. This could reduce the cost of having to import the sensors and also help locally owned businesses during the downturn.

In the long run therefore, smart technology could be an option for cities such as Colombo to reduce leaks and water wastage in piping systems.