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Stanford researchers propose new underground water leak detection method

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Researchers at Stanford University in the US have proposed a new way to locate water leaks in underground ageing pipeline networks. The improvement could save time, money and billions of gallons of water.

An estimated 20-50% of water is lost to leaks in North America’s supply system, a major issues as utilities tackle with ways to sustain a growing population in an era of water scarcity.

“People talk about reducing the time you take showers, but if you think about 50% of water flowing through the system being lost, it’s another magnitude,” said study author Daniel Tartakovsky, a professor of energy resources engineering in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Tartakovsky and co-researcher Abdulrahman Alawadhi from the University of California, San Diego, have proposed a new method to quickly and accurately interpret data from pressure sensors commonly used to detect leaks.

The method can also be applied to other industries that use pressure sensors for leak detection, such as in subsea oil and natural gas transmission networks. It targets water leaks in transmission mains, which are typically routed underground.

Building upon a technique known as the water hammer test, the researchers have proposed a new way to assimilate this data into a mathematical model to narrow down the location of a leak. While the current method is computationally expensive, as it force analysts to make many simplifying assumptions, the new method removes the need for assumptions.

As Tartakovsky explains: “We proposed a method that is fast enough that you don’t need to make these assumptions, and so it’s more accurate – you could do it in real time on a laptop. It’s something utilities can use with existing computational resources and the models they already have.”

By improving speed and accuracy, the method saves money, both in terms of time and labour, as well as the cost of wasted water. The new method could be used, for example, to constrain the location of a leak to just a 10m section of pipe.

“In cities, it’s harder because pipes are under buildings and you have to break asphalt and things like that, so the more accurate your prediction of the location, the better,” Tartakovsky added. “For operators who routinely use water hammer tests, the cost of this is zero – this is just a better way of interpreting these tests. We are not selling it or patenting it, so people could just use it and see whether they get better predictions.”

The research was published online in the journal Water Resources Research.