The street washed out with water. Parked cars sitting partly submerged. Ground floor flats flooded. This was the scene in a south London street in early January.

It’s becoming an all too familiar sight. According to data released last year, London has the largest concentration of leaks, with water pipes bursting 36,000 times over the last six and a half years.

For water providers, managing pipeline networks is a complicated business. In England and Wales alone companies are responsible for a network of 335,000km of pipes with some 24 million connections to homes and industrial properties.

The consequence of such a vast infrastructure is that water and sewage companies face a wide variety of challenges when it comes to monitoring and maintaining these networks.

Leaks are an extremely expensive problem to solve and water companies have strict regulatory targets to meet – and shareholders and customers to placate. As a result, many within the industry are turning to technology to help them rise to the challenge.

Importance of innovation

To meet targets, reduce leak failures and cut down on wastage, water companies need to both change their behaviours and innovate.

A recent report by Ofwat, the water industry watchdog, revealed that nine of the 20 water suppliers in England and Wales missed their leakage targets in 2017-18, with Thames Water being the worst offender.

Technological innovation is crucial for an industry that’s network is large in size and scope, spans the length and breadth of the country, and is suffering in part from the degradation brought about by age.

Leak failures are rarely without consequence — whether regulatory, financial or environmental — and two of the biggest challenges water utilities face is detection and location. The rate at which water providers can detect potential pipeline leaks has a direct influence on their rate of response.

Instead of reactive digging in order to locate leaks, water companies need to deploy solutions that provide proactive tracking and automated alarms at the first sign of a leak, before it becomes a full-blown disaster.

Detecting and locating leak events

A predictive and proactive understanding of pipeline activity has long been sought out by water utilities. In the event of a leak failure, it’s essential for operators to have access to reliable and actionable insights that allow them to coordinate an appropriate response.

One of the most advanced technologies that can be deployed to detect and locate leak events on pipelines is distributed acoustic sensing (DAS). This intelligent, networked solution can provide extensive support to water utilities, particularly when it comes to pre-emptive maintenance, pipeline integrity management and leak detection.

The technology converts fibre optic cables, which are run alongside pipelines, into an ecosystem of highly-sensitive, individual vibrational sensors. As a fully integrated solution — which combines cutting-edge photonics, advanced artificial intelligence and edge computing — it can monitor hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipelines and identify a wide range of acoustic events.

These acoustic events are then processed by the solution’s sophisticated AI which maps the unique characteristics of the acoustic signatures to determine the exact nature of the integrity issue, such as a pipeline failure or leak event.

When it comes to the two biggest challenges facing water utilities, detection and location, recent field demonstrations highlighted the solution’s ability to detect a leak and raise an alarm by the time only 30 litres of water had spilt from a pipe; Fotech’s DAS solution pinpointing the leak to within 10 meters.

This is a significant enhancement on current leak detection technologies and demonstrates the power of DAS-based solutions when it comes to both detecting and locating pipeline leaks.

Taking back control

By embracing digital technologies, such as DAS, and employing them in legacy infrastructures water utility companies can extract deeper insights on their pipeline networks and enhance operational efficiencies. Intelligent, networked systems will not only help companies tackle leaks, but can also improve operational tactics, promote conservation and help minimize consumption.

As leak failures become more commonplace, smart technologies are fast becoming a necessity for water providers. Under pressure from watchdogs and industry regulators, it’s vital that companies have both sufficient oversight and control of leakage performance.

When it comes to leaks, what the industry needs is networked solutions that allow water suppliers to effectively monitor pipelines in real time. By being able to identify the fundamental elements that make up a potential leak event, Fotech’s DAS technology can give companies a much-needed boost in their efforts to identify leaks before they become a major issue.