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Early warning for leaky pipes

Wireless sensors that ?listen? for leaks in water pipes could help cities save on water resources, energy and money.

Municipalities in Canada and around the world lose a significant amount of treated water due to leakage.

Municipalities in Canada and around the world lose a significant amount of treated water due to leakage.

Leaky, aging pipes pose major headaches for municipalities in Canada and around the world. A significant amount ? in some cases up to half ' of the treated water that enters a distribution network may dribble out before it reaches taps in our homes and buildings. Such losses strain limited water resources, waste energy and money, and increase health risks due to the possibility of intrusion by contaminants.

Devising efficient leak detection and management strategies is becoming a high priority for water utilities worldwide. Although many leak detection methods have been developed, questions about their efficiency, effectiveness and economic viability have impeded their wide scale deployment. As a result, many Canadian municipalities lack an effective strategy for leak detection and management.

To address this problem, the NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research (NRC-CSIR) in Regina, a part of NRC's cluster initiative in sustainable infrastructure, is designing a wireless system to detect leaks in water distribution pipes. ?Considering the staggering deficit and renewal backlog of our water networks, it is imperative that we adopt more efficient monitoring technologies and operational processes to help conserve and optimize the use of our resources ' instead of pouring money into expanding the capacity of our networks and building new water treatment plants,? says Dr. Mahmoud Halfawy of NRC-CSIR.

?Our goal is to develop low-cost technology that can be deployed on a city-wide scale to permanently monitor water pipes ? almost in real time ' and alert operators to areas with high leakage levels,? he adds. ?Operators will then be able to take proactive measures to reduce or eliminate the leakage in a timely manner.?

NRC is also collaborating with partners in the sustainable infrastructure cluster on other projects that address the management of municipal infrastructure. NRC's partner organization, Communities of Tomorrow, fosters the development of a cluster of companies, researchers, municipalities (as ?living labs?) and other stakeholders in the field of innovative municipal infrastructure.

The first step in conserving treated water is to determine where the leaks are. ?While large pipe breaks often make news headlines, small leaks that go undetected for a long time account for most of our water losses,? says Dr. Halfawy. Today, many municipalities locate leaks using devices that detect leak-induced noise. These devices are used by skilled field crews during periodic leak surveys. However, given the vast geographic extent of water networks, such surveys are expensive and time-consuming, and require extensive staff training.

Several years ago the NRC Institute for Research in Construction developed a new method for detecting and locating leaks in water pipes. The patented technology, called LeakFinderRT, has been licensed to Echologics Engineering, which is currently offering the technology to municipal markets in Canada and around the world. In collaboration with Dr. Osama Hunaidi, the developer of LeakfinderRT, the NRC-CSIR project extends the technology to develop a continuous leak monitoring system.

The new system employs a wireless network of battery-powered vibration sensors attached to the pipes, fire hydrants or valves. These sensors will feature embedded software to ensure reliable and power-efficient operation. The sensors are programmed to ?wake-up? every night, when ambient noise is at a minimum, to ?listen? for and record vibration (or noise) signals. The signals are processed, encoded and transmitted wirelessly to a central server, where they can be analyzed using special software.

Municipalities in Canada and around the world lose a significant amount of treated water due to leakage.

Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear (middle) examines a component of the wireless sensor network during a visit to NRC's Regina-based sustainable infrastructure technology cluster initiative. Left: Dr. Sherif Barakat, VP Engineering, NRC; far right: Dr. Mahmoud Halfawy and Dr. David Hubble, Manager, NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research.

Over time, changes in noise patterns can be determined and the presence of new leaks can be detected. When leaks are detected, the software will correlate the signals from multiple sensors to help locate the leaks more precisely. An operator can then monitor the situation until a leak is judged serious enough to dig up and fix the pipe.

?One of the design challenges of the system is to ensure efficient deployment and communication over large urban areas, while keeping installation and maintenance requirements at a minimum,? says Dr. Halfawy. ?The current design employs a dedicated wireless network of repeaters and gateways to connect sensors to the central servers. At a later stage, we plan to connect the leak sensors to automated meter-reading systems, similar to one that is currently installed in the City of Regina ' which is becoming more common across North America,? he adds.

The low cost and ease of use of the new technology have the potential to help Canadian municipalities of all sizes to enhance their leak detection and management capability. So far, the NRC team has built and tested prototypes in the laboratory. ?We hope to see our technology in the marketplace in the coming few years,? says Dr. Halfawy. End