How fiber optic analytics can help address the water crisis

Tommy Langnes and Ian Setterfield, LYTT, March 24 2022

Every day in the UK, 3,113 million liters of water are lost because of leaks. That’s the equivalent of 1,245 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water lost each day. This is a significant challenge for water utilities, who are responsible for monitoring and maintaining almost 350,000 kilometers of pipes across the country. The UK is also grappling with sewage discharge issues, which are reducing water quality and compromising the health and cleanliness of public areas.

Most of the UK’s water infrastructure was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is made of cast iron, which is subject to corrosion. As such, a widespread modernization program is urgently needed.

Globally, aging water infrastructure is failing to keep pace with a growing population. In 2020, over two billion people lived in water-stressed areas, and more than a quarter of the global population lacked access to safely managed drinking water.

Water companies must invest smartly into industrial, digital solutions to establish water systems robust enough to cope with population growth. Such an opportunity is now emerging from technologies proven in the Oil & Gas sector, where fiber optics combined with other sensor information and real-time analytics have been successfully used to manage asset performance and integrity, and significantly reduce the time it takes to find and fix leaks.

The challenge

When managing the structural integrity and performance of their infrastructure, water utilities face three main leak challenges:

1. Leaks from sewage pipes: Sewage discharge can result in significant environmental damage and fines being levied. In one year alone, there were over 5,500 instances of raw sewage being spilt into UK coastal swimming water, getting water utilities into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. UK water companies have been fined nearly half a billion pounds over the last decade for regulatory violations, with the heaviest fines related to the known discharge of raw sewage.

2. Leaks into sewage pipes: Groundwater leaking into fractured sewage pipes can quadruple the amount of liquid that needs to be treated at the sewage works. Influx following rain can massively impact treatment capacity, resulting in contaminated water being discharged into storm water pipes, and from there, into the environment.

3. Leaks in water supply pipes: Damaged infrastructure can lead to increased CAPEX and OPEX costs. UK water companies spent over £4.3 billion between 2020 and 2021 on important infrastructure investment. Leaks from untreated wastewater pipes, high in nitrates and phosphates, can enter natural waterways and unbalance delicate marine and terrestrial ecosystems, threatening biodiversity and food sources.

As a result of these pressures, water utilities are spending heavily on leak remediation. However, traditional leakage prevention methods have been unable to tackle these problems effectively, driving increased demand for scalable solutions that enable targeted infrastructure maintenance.

The opportunity

Fiber optic sensing systems have long been used in Oil & Gas to provide insights from production systems, addressing similar challenges with pinpointing leaks. The technology is enhanced by its combination with cloud-based, real-time data processing software and analytics, which unlock near instantaneous visibility of underground motion, from fluids or solids, enabling operators to take fast and effective remedial action to address leaks.

The UK’s aging water infrastructure does not have bespoke fiber installed for leak detection. However, there are technologies available to enable ‘on demand’ intervention approaches that can accurately and efficiently isolate leaks. There is also technology available to take advantage of nearby existing fiber cables (dark fiber) for permanent leak detection.

Traditional intervention approaches have proven impractical, as fiber optic cables can easily become lodged in sewage and water pipes. More recently, advances in cable design and deployment have unlocked new opportunities to monitor water and wastewater pipelines using fiber. The global water system is now primed for a revolution in real-time leak detection that will deliver reduced operational costs, increase energy efficiency, and minimize water waste.

In the near future, water companies will be able to install fiber optic cables more efficiently and cost-effectively, and utilize data analytics platforms to gain unprecedented operational visibility across the complete length of the pipe, allowing them to monitor flow behavior and volumes, and accurately detect leaks. Undetected leaks, and the damage and costs they bring, will become a thing of the past.

To learn more about how LYTT can enable Water Utilities to monitor and proactively manage their systems, get in touch at [email protected]

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