Sensor ball helps battle leaks

| Information and Communication Technology

Southern Water is detecting leaks down to 0.11 lm to detect small cracks
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Southern Water is testing a device that travels through the water network and can detect weakened pipes before they become bursts.

Supported by Pure Technologies and Water Research Centre Limited (WRc), Southern Water’s technology team is applying a “SmartBall” sensor housing system developed for use in the oil and gas industry in the pipe lines that make up its water network.

Modern sensors

The brains of the ball are housed in a small hardened globe which contains acoustic sensors which can detect tiny variations in the flow down a pipe which might indicate the smallest of leaks or even a crack that has yet to leak. The leaks that can be detected can be as small as just 0.11 litres/min, which is barely a trickle.

Other detectors can spot unevenness in pipes and pockets of air. All of this is housed inside a bright blue protective sponge layer making the SmartBall look similar to a bowling ball from a distance.

Once all of the sensors have done their work and the data is stored within the ball, this can be transmitted to surface stations placed along the pipe’s path or downloaded when the ball is recovered.

Prior to this application of the latest sensor technology, leak detection had long relied on simple techniques. Hand held listening tubes held against pipes in the hands of a skilled operative are still used. More modern acoustic logging devices perform a similar role with sensitive digital technology. However, finding where to look relies on metering the inputs to sectors of the network and comparing with meters at outputs.

“We have worked very hard on finding new ways of finding and fixing leaks with the goal of eventually reducing wasted water from our vast network to zero,” said Sarah Elliman, research and development project manager at Southern Water, “For us, innovation and collaboration go hand in hand and we are always looking for the best technology and the best partners to work with.”

Collaborative Maintenance

According to Keith Walker, Head of Infrastructure at WRc, the company’s collaboration with Pure Technologies resulted in a smooth implementation of the SmartBall project for Southern Water.

The combination of SmartBall and Sahara, a tethered tool for inspecting pipes, meant that WRc could inspect rising mains of any length with minimal disruption to service. In-pipe inspection provides the confidence to target replacement and maintenance activity most efficiently.

“Now that we’ve got the ball rolling, we’re looking forward to continuing to provide our support to Southern Water in the future,” comments Walker.

Extensive network

To understand the extent of the task being undertaken by Southern Water and its SmartBall devices, the utility company’s network of water pipes measures some 13,000 km and the company currently makes use of 135 teams of specialists, who work full time on finding and stopping leaks. As a result of the work done by these teams so far, Southern Water found itself at the top of last year’s utility company leak prevention league table in the UK.

Now, with the application of the new technology, the company hopes to consolidate its position spearheading mains water leak prevention in the country.

During a detection cycle, the SmartBall is squeezed through one of the valves on a water main and is then rushed along the pipework at mains pressure for up to 12 hours. The ball can then be grabbed at another valve or caught with a net where the pipe pours into a reservoir, so that it can be used again.

Jonathan Newell

Jonathan Newell

Jonathan Newell is a graduate of Loughborough University and has three decades of experience in engineering as well as broadcast and technical journalism.
Jonathan Newell

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