For the sake of conservation and lowering costs, Utah’s water utilities look underground

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This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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As many Utahns look up and hope the rain will end the water crisis, local utilities are turning their attention to the bottom. They’re not hiding their heads in the sand – they’re looking for ways to save millions of gallons of water wasted in their own systems.

Leaks and ruptures can squirt clean drinking water into the ground without anyone seeing it, wasting part of Utah’s precious water supply.

“Just as we ask customers to conserve water, we must do the same,” said Stephanie Duer, water conservation manager at Salt Lake City Department of Utilities.

Sophisticated equipment managed by utility crews can detect leaks underground, but even then the only way to know for sure if water is being lost is to dig the ground around the pipes, an expensive undertaking for them. public services.

Often, the choice of where to look for leaks depends on the age of the pipe. The idea makes sense at first – the oldest pipes should be the first to fail – but utility officials know that pipe stability is far more important than age.

Some leaks can be easy to repair once workers dig in them, said Lorenzo Terzo, senior water operator, but others can be very labor-intensive, especially larger pipes which have the worst ruptures.

Each crew member also has different tasks, some of which can be physically demanding, which must be carried out regardless of the weather conditions.

“It’s probably harder than people think,” Terzo said. “They think we’re just city workers looking at a hole. “

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lorenzo Terzo and Dustin Whitaker at work as a leaking water hookup is replaced by a utility crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, September 9, 2021.

Use big data

Most utilities have decades of information, including the age of the pipes, but also their composition, the acidity of the surrounding soil, and the types of pipes that have failed in the past.

Fracta, a Silicon Valley company, works with utilities around the world to use the data to help utilities make better decisions about pipe replacement or repair.

“These cities, they are not inactive,” said Tom Wojcik, co-founder of Fracta. “They try to be proactive, but again, they’re going at it blindly because it’s so hard to know which of these pipes are bad when they’re underground.”

Most utilities rely on an underutilized data store, Wojcik said. They know the age of the pipe, when the pipe was installed, where and when the pipes failed, and the composition of the landscape surrounding the pipes.

Old pipes aren’t necessarily bad pipes, Wojcik said. An old pipe made of good material in good soil can outlast others, so identifying higher risk pipes can actually save utilities money as they would not dig infrastructure that could have served the community for several more years.

“This allows them to replace, at their own pace, the pipes that are in the worst condition,” Wojcik said. “When you do a proactive replacement or repair, it’s much more affordable than an emergency repair. “

A water pipe breaks every two minutes in the United States, American Society of Civil Engineers estimates, and 6 billion gallons of water every day – enough to fill 9,000 Olympic-size swimming pools – are wasted from these major splinters and leaks.

The software can’t pinpoint every problem, Wojcik said, but it sets a priority list for utilities. Crews can then inspect those pipe lengths rather than inspecting the pipes just for their age.

Because Fracta uses a machine learning program, the company is able to continuously capture more data from its customers (over 130 utilities worldwide) and the software can improve its own understanding of how and where. pipes fail, making it more precise as time goes on.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dustin Whitaker at work as a leaky water hookup is replaced by a utility crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, September 9, 2021.

Fracta has worked with cities for years to predict pipe degradation, but it is also rolling out a new program to help identify where there may be existing leaks, Wojcik said. It is a similar program to the original, but the algorithm is much more complex and uses even more data.

Local progress

The Granger-Hunter Improvement District (GHID) began working with Fracta earlier this year to begin tackling water loss in the utility, said chief executive Jason Helm.

“I wouldn’t say we’re on the cutting edge,” Helm said, “but we’re definitely looking for solutions.”

About 10% of utility water goes unaccounted for, Helm said. Some of this can be attributed to the routine flushing of the system for the use of hydrants by the fire departments, but a lot of it is also due to leaks and breakdowns.

“There is work to be done,” Helm said. “I think we all recognize it.”

And GHID is far from the only utility to use data to reduce water loss.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dustin Whitaker at work as a leaky water hookup is replaced by a utility crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, September 9, 2021.

The Salt Lake City Utilities Department methodically analyzes all water mains for leaks, but it also uses existing data to locate areas most likely to have leaks.

Geographic Information System (GIS) maps can show where pipelines have burst or leaked, and utility workers can use these maps to show where crews may need to spend more time analyzing pipelines. groundwater, said Tammy Wambeam, Geographic Information System (GIS) analyst. with the utility.

While water conservation is a goal, there are other benefits that come with better identification of leaks.

“If you can find the leak before it hits a road, it’s cheaper to fix and you don’t have to worry about flooding people,” Wambeam said.

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Solutions in practice

The Salt Lake City Department of Utilities suggest to people looking to save water in their own homes:

  • Repair leaking pipes and faucets

  • Only operate the dishwasher when it is full.

  • Set the washing machine for the appropriate load level

  • Do not run the water while brushing your teeth, shaving or washing your hands

  • Keep a pitcher of water in the fridge for drinking so you don’t have to run the faucet to get cold water

  • Install low-flow fixtures and fixtures, such as shower heads and toilets

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