Top 4 Ways to Control Water System Leaks

Top 4 Ways to Control Water System Leaks
The harsh reality is water systems, by nature, leak and no amount of maintenance will prevent that.

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There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A violinist, late for an audition, inquires of a New York cabbie, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” To which the cabbie responds: “Practice, practice, practice.” 

In some respects, the same might be said of the water system manager who asks, “How do I prevent leaks?” The obvious response is “Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.” 

But it’s really a trick question. The harsh reality is water systems, by nature, leak and no amount of maintenance will prevent that, says George Kunkel, water efficiency program manager for the Philadelphia Water Department. 

“I would use the word control, because we’re never going to have a leak-free water network,” he says. “You don’t prevent them, you try to manage them.” 

As one of America’s earliest-developed cities, the age, physical condition, and efficiency of Philadelphia’s infrastructure requires continuous inspection and maintenance, states an article on Phillywatersheds.org. The city’s mains range from 6 to 93 inches in diameter, with 3- to 6-inch laterals. “Material type, construction technique, location, break type, maintenance history, age and other factors dictate the service life of the infrastructure.” 

Kunkel, who oversees 3,144 miles of water mains and is the editor for the American Water Works Association guidance manual Water Audits and Loss Control Programs, says there are four pillars to controlling water loss: 

  1. Active leakage control
  2. Speed and quality of repairs
  3. Pressure management
  4. System rehabilitation 

“Active leakage control tries to promote an approach where water utilities have some on-going surveillance that they use to find out where leaks are occurring, and then take action to pinpoint them so they can be repaired,” he says. 

The most common method is acoustic leak detection, which involves the use of sounding or listening devices. 

“Another way to detect leaks is using flow measurement to monitor the supply of water into a small zone, called a district metered area,” he says. “We key on what the flow is during the nighttime hours (when customer usage is at its lowest).” Referred to as night flow analysis, leakage is quantified across a defined area. If after a period of time – say several weeks – there’s a trend of increased flow, leaks likely are occurring. 

Speed and quality of repairs suggests breaks be properly repaired, but largely focuses on the residential side of water systems. 

“What a lot of people don’t realize is customers typically own a portion of the service connection pipe that runs from the water main into their property,” Kunkel says. “If a leak occurs, they have to make arrangements for the repair. What happens is leaks on service pipes owned by the customer tend to run a lot longer.” 

Pressure management recognizes that the amount of water coming out of a leak increases with force. “Water distribution networks have to be pressurized to push water across the system,” he says. “But there’s an appropriate range for any system.” Kunkel says pressure should be between 40 and 80 psi. Pressure above that range can have detrimental impact on the water system – more is not better. 

System rehabilitation is the long-term effort that water utilities should have in place to continually resolve and upgrade their systems. “If utilities are doing something in each of the four pillars, they probably are being a fairly proactive water utility,” Kunkel says. Unfortunately, due to budget restraints and growing populations, 60 to 90 percent of the nation’s utilities are forced to wait and react for a break or complaint.

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