Leakage. A subject that is important to us and our customers. At SES Water we take great pride in our detection methods, practices and results. Daniel Woodworth, Network Strategy Manager at SES Water explains.

In the 1990s, we were one of the first water companies in the UK to divide up our network into district metered areas (DMAs) to help us better understand where leakage was occurring. The infrastructure we installed then means that today we have high information coverage across our network and lots of historic data about how it performs which helps us identify and address issues more quickly and effectively.

It is this focus on collecting data and understanding where our water is going within our network that has underpinned our leakage detection strategy for the last 20 years, and enabled us to meet our regulatory leakage target every single year since they were first introduced. It has also ensured we stay at the forefront of innovative methods and technologies with one of the best examples being our coveted leakage detection contract model which has been based wholly on the actual volumes of water saved since its inception in 1992.

We began establishing our DMA structures with a simple brief: understand where our water is going and reduce leakage through pressure management and improved targeting of leakage repair interventions. In 1991 we finished the programme in our East Surrey supply zone and had completed our whole supply area by 1995. With DMAs and pressure management in place we set about recording flows into each of the districts – assisted by our data logger providers – and quickly established good coverage across our network. DMAs had been designed to have single feeds where possible which greatly assists with data consistency, can be constantly monitored and, crucially, are of an appropriate size to assist with efficient leakage detection. One of the key reasons for our success over the years is that this early DMA structure has changed very little – consistency is the key to successful leakage management.

After achieving significant leakage reduction through pressure management, we needed a way to continue to drive leakage down and in 1992 came the ‘game changer’. For too long the Company’s leakage contracts had focused on the number of jobs raised or the type of job being raised as a proxy for the impact this would have on reducing the total leakage figure. We were employing far too many contractors and spending far too much money on leak detection and location, with not enough impact on actually reducing the water being wasted. That’s why the performance contract model was introduced, the concept being that contractors are only paid for the volume of water that is saved and this payment is only made once the required repair has been completed. Introducing this innovative approach was only made possible through all the network structuring and data capture that had gone before.

Managing the contract requires stable DMAs and credible data. Contractors understand that they are chasing volume rather than the number of jobs and this incentivises them to find as much water loss as they possibly can. The whole process is self-motivating and leakage technicians get out what they put in – the ‘no stone unturned’ mentality means that all leaks are prioritised, so areas are returned to low leakage levels each time they are surveyed. Another distinct advantage over the years has been the way that the detection teams chase and see jobs through to completion as they need to be paid. This keeps the pressure on repair teams and unwanted ‘dry holes’ are minimal because there is no benefit to anyone of raising a job that is not a genuine leak. Our approach benefits the whole water industry too as it promotes the training and growth of very good leakage technicians who must be at the top of their profession to reap the rewards.

We have been fortunate to work with some innovative and forward-thinking partners over the years including detection contractors, data logger companies and software providers whose commitment to the model we have chosen to adopt has made it possible. At times it can be a tough environment for contractors to operate in – relentlessly looking for volumes of water in order to make money – but the rewards for all parties far outweigh these challenges.

We have remained committed to our approach over the years but have continued to look for ways to improve our methods and processes to support our ambitions. In 2001 the now readily available leakage detection software options did not exist so we introduced our own. My predecessor was suffering – like many other leakage managers – from being unable to produce an accurate prediction of leakage on a daily basis which made it very difficult to predict the end of month or end of year position in relation to targets. The bespoke system that was built enabled, for the very first time, a daily leakage figure to be calculated in under an hour. But more than that it introduced some techniques and tools that are now commonplace in most leakage management software packages, such as notification of flow increases in DMAs, gradual increase in leakage over time and work registers for issuing areas for survey. The system was well ahead of its time, increasing our efficiency and, until it was replaced in 2016, was vital in helping us achieve our annual leakage target every year.

We have one of the lowest leakage levels in the country and have committed to reduce it by a further 15 per cent in our Business Plan for 2020 to 2025. Our long-term ambition is for at least a 50 per cent reduction by 2045 and the only way to achieve both of these targets is to build on our successful history of innovation. We have already made strong progress on implementing a new technique to condition assess the integrity of water mains, allowing us to further improve the targeting of mains replacement. Also looking to the future, our Water Resources Management Plan – which considers the next 60 years and a range of different factors that we need to be ready for – does not forecast a need for more water sources if we can significantly reduce demand. As well as more metering and customer education, tackling leakage will continue to be a key part of our efforts in this.

It is clear that the decisions made 30 years ago and our commitment to maintaining this approach since has enabled SES Water to continue to be a leading performer in leakage management in the UK. We will continue to champion our performance contract model as a shining example of the value of data and the knowledge and insight that it brings. It also demonstrates how to incentivise and reward exemplary performance and hardworking leakage technicians who, day in, day out, find the water that keeps leakage in our network under control. With a tough leakage reduction challenge around the corner we must adapt and improve further still and our performance contract will be at the heart of this, assisted by ever better data through smart networks and smart metering. For us at SES Water, with a proud record of innovation and continuous improvement behind us, this represents the start of an exciting chapter and one we are relishing the opportunity to tackle.