Water Loss Management: A Brief History

The 4th of December 2021 is World Water Loss Day. This event was initiated in 2019 by the International Water Loss Association (IWA) to “raise awareness of the enormous problem of water losses from drinking water distribution systems and the need to get more serious fighting it.”

According to IWA’s estimates, water losses from drinking water supply networks worldwide amount to 346 billion litres every day. Reducing water loss by at least 30% provides sufficient savings to supply treated water to 800 million people!

Water companies worldwide employ various strategies to detect, manage, and reduce water loss. Over the past century, pipeline leak detection technologies have evolved from analog tools to more sophisticated and digitally-enabled equipment. Utilities in Australia and abroad have taken great strides to lessen wastage and provide better services to their respective customers – but it’s always a work in progress.

World Water Loss Day is a perfect opportunity to look back at the early beginnings of water network management - and how far it has come.

Read more: Expert Water Loss Management in Australia and New Zealand

The Aqueducts of Rome and the Plight of General Frontinus

There are extensive accounts on water networks built by earlier civilisations in Egypt and India, but the Roman Aqueducts are perhaps the most popular. The engineers of the Roman Empire constructed an extensive series of pipes, canals, bridges, and tunnels across their territories from 312 BC to 226 AD. With gravity and the natural terrain, the aqueducts channelled water from springs and lakes into the cities.

These networks provided water for drinking, irrigation, and hundreds of public baths and fountains. . Public and private entities funded construction, and rulers like Augustus, Caligula, and Trajan ordered aqueducts to be built. According to National Geographic, aqueducts remain in present-day Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, and North Africa.

However, managing an extensive water supply network came with plenty of challenges. Firstly, expansion required thorough planning and years of construction. Bridges with rounded stone arches were built to traverse European valleys, while several kilometres of brick-faced concrete pipes and canals ran throughout the empire. Central Rome itself had 11 systems that supplied fresh water from lakes as far as 90 km away.

With such an expansive network, key officials were assigned to handle regular inspection and maintenance of the infrastructure. Perhaps the most detailed records of early water loss management systems can be found in the accounts of Sextus Julius Frontinus.

Frontinus was a prominent military general, civil engineer, and senator during the late 1st century AD. In his report entitled De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae (On the Water Management of the City of Rome), he detailed the condition, problems, and corresponding solutions of the water system circa 96 AD.

Interestingly, the issues he identified 2000 years ago are not too different from modern-day concerns of water utility companies in our cities and towns. For instance, Frontinus reported extensive water loss that resulted from older pipes and canals. He also noted that trees were particularly harmful since “their roots dislodge the vaulted coverings and sides of the conduits… and deny access for maintenance.”

As such, ordinances were raised to prohibit landholders from planting trees, shrubs, and brambles at a certain distance from the aqueducts. Roman engineers performed visual inspection and repairs on conduits above ground, ensuring that the masonry was sound. However, they noted the difficulty of identifying underground leaks, a problem that all water utilities still face in 2021.

They also reported water loss due to theft, particularly on Aqua Appia and Anio - two of the oldest aqueducts in the City of Rome. “The conduits of Appia and Anio had fallen into disrepair through long use, and their waters were being fraudulently diverted by private individuals,” said Frontinus. While water theft from supply systems is uncommon in Australia and New Zealand, it is prevalent in developing countries. De Aquaeductu documented the proposed laws to punish water theft and address Rome’s increasing water demand at the time. They even built several castella or settling tanks to help remove sediments from the water supply. This is akin to water treatment and filtration plants that we have today.

The Rise of Modern Water Loss Management and Leak Detection Technologies

Let’s jump to the 1800s. Centuries later, detecting leaks in buried pipelines remained a challenge to water utilities worldwide. The period coincided with the Industrial Revolution when the population in major cities and water demand continued to rise rapidly.

In 1878, New Jersey professor Alfred Mayer invented a listening device called the topophone. The wearable instrument enabled the user to determine the source and direction of sound waves.

AM Mayers topophone has two sound receivers attached to a shoulder rest. (Image from New York Public Library) The topophone was not initially intended for leak detection and water loss management. It’s first portable iteration was designed for navigation at sea. A navigator stationed at the pilot-house or bridge of a ship would wear the earphones connected to two sound receivers.

Then, the device would help them identify the exact location of potential hazards, especially when the waves were higher and visibility was low. The volume and quality of the sound enabled the sailors to know the exact location of steam whistles, fog horns, and whistling boys floating in the ocean.

Over the subsequent years, the principle behind this invention was adapted to various applications. Other inventors would devise microphones that helped users narrow down the location of a leak during inspections. The technology was refined further, with water utility engineers making it more suitable for commercial applications. They recorded baseline acoustic fingerprints for various pipe materials and used them for comparison with leaking pipes.

The topophone spurred the rise of modern leak detection and listening devices. A Physics professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, Mayer also published papers like “The Determination of the Law Connecting the Pitch of a Sound with the Duration of Its Residual Sensation.” His findings remain a solid foundation for the water loss management technologies that we have today.

Read more: Learn about implementing smart water networks.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Water Loss Management

This World Water Loss Day and beyond, water utility companies should rethink the effectiveness and sustainability of their leakage reduction strategies. In addition to improving customer service and alleviating waste, there should be a greater emphasis that water is a precious and finite resource. This is especially relevant given the impact of climate change on our environment.

As such, investing in real-time monitoring solutions like smart water metres, acoustic monitoring technologies, and transient pressure monitoring devices may be viable for long-term asset management. When combined with highly skilled field teams, Internet of Things (IoT) and integration with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), water professionals can now rapidly identify leaks and provide timely repairs that lead to better customer service, environmental and financial outcomes.

At Aqua Analytics, we believe in learning from history and maximising the potential of technology in addressing water loss and finding leaks. We help water utilities in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia implement projects that deliver insight and impact to reduce water loss and leakage in distribution networks.

Please call us at 1800 264 262 (AU) or 0800 345 697 (NZ) or visit our contact page for more details.

Originally published on 1st December 2021

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