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Going underground

by Adam Lane on Jan 6, 2013


Daniel Choi, Research Associate at Lux Research.
Daniel Choi, Research Associate at Lux Research.

Daniel Choi, Research Associate with Lux Research, looks at the new innovations helping to reduce water losses from the region’s distribution networks

As many regions of the world find themselves struggling with critically aging infrastructure, there has been a boom in pipe inspection and repair technologies. Municipalities lose enormous volumes of water through leaks and the problem is not limited to western countries with outdated infrastructure.

Until recently, estimates of Saudi water losses ranged from 30 - 60%, a critical problem in a country in which 90% of water comes from high-cost desalination. The country has since privatised its utilities to increase efficiency.

The challenge of repairing aging pipes in built-up areas has led to a number of innovative solutions that don’t require digging up the pipeline. Cure-in-place and spray-in-place repairs can sometimes be implemented so rapidly that no bypass lines need to be laid.

Pipe bursting methods can pull new pipes through the paths of older pipes, even increasing the final pipe size. Horizontal drilling techniques taken from the oil industry can install new pipelines under rivers or neighborhoods without disturbing the surface.

It would cost the average large municipality billions of dollars to replace or repair its entire underground infrastructure. While innovations in repair lower the price and inconvenience of pipe replacement, most progress in the space has turned to monitoring to determine what parts of the infrastructure actually need repair.

Traditionally municipalities have replaced infrastructure on the basis of age, but in fact there are hundred year old pipes in the world that operate well, while nearby a thirty year old pipe may be leaking. Even in leaking pipes, most of the length is probably intact, with a small section contributing to most of the problem.

Cash strapped municipalities typically operate with the bare minimum number of staff and don’t have the manpower to immediately dedicate their people to each leak.
Technology developers are stepping into that gap with a wide range of sensors and computer algorithms to help pinpoint the most problematic leaks before they become blowouts.

Companies such as Mueller Systems and IBM Smarter Water are focused on upgrading infrastructure with a network of smart meters and sensors for real-time monitoring and inspection. With a higher understanding and control over its network, cash strapped municipalities can efficiently allocate resources to minimise water loss.
Canadian startup Pure Technologies does major business in Libya, actively monitoring the major water projects there, a business that has largely recovered since recent troubles in the country.

British company i2O sells hardware and software to reduce pressure in pipe networks to the minimum level needed to supply customers’ needs. This simple improvement can reduce water losses by some 20% and have an even larger impact on expensive blowouts.

For wastewater infrastructure, which largely relies on non-pressurised lines, automated solutions like Redzone Robotics send probes into pipes to automatically build maps of pipe quality.

Beyond infrastructure monitoring, we see a small but growing number of companies marketing multiparameter sonde instruments to keep track of water quality in the distribution system.

One company, Intellitect, says they have far more success in regions such as the Middle East, which are still developing their operational monitoring strategies, than in more operationally conservative regions such as North America and Europe.

We see monitoring and control algorithms as an enormous opportunity to reduce both operational and capital expenses for drinking and wastewater systems. The large and growing crop of companies in this space, while still dominated by small start-ups, promises a healthy market worldwide in the years to come.


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