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With an eye toward conservation and cost-reduction, Utah’s water utilities look underground

Leaky water pipes spew millions of gallons of clean water into the ground in Utah. Data can guide repairs to these leaks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A leaking water connection is replaced by a public utilities crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

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

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While many Utahns look up and hope for rain to end the water crisis, local utilities are turning their attention downward. They’re not burying their heads in the sand -- they’re looking at ways to save millions of gallons of water lost from their own systems.

Leaks and breaks can spout clean drinking water into the ground without a person being able to see it, wasting some of Utah’s precious water supply.

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

Sophisticated equipment run by utility crews can detect leaks underground, but even then, the only way to know for sure whether water is being lost is to dig up the land around the pipes, a costly endeavor for utilities.

Oftentimes, the choice on where to look for the leaks comes down to the age of the pipe. The idea makes sense at first -- the oldest pipes should be the first to fail -- but utility managers know that a lot more goes into pipe stability than age.

Some leaks can be easy to repair once workers dig down to them, senior water operator Lorenzo Terzo said, but others can require a lot of work, particularly the larger mains that have worse breaks.

Each crew member also has different tasks, some of which can be physically demanding, that must be done no matter the weather conditions

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

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

Using big data

Most utilities have decades of information on hand, including how old the pipes are, but also what the pipes are made of, how acidic the surrounding soil is and what types of pipes have failed in the past.

Fracta, a company out of Silicon Valley, works with utilities around the world to use data to help utilities make better decisions on replacing or repairing pipes.

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

Most utilities are sitting on a stockpile of underutilized data, Wojcik said. They know the age of the pipe, when the pipe was installed, where and when pipes have failed and the landscape composition surrounding the pipes.

Old pipes aren’t necessarily bad pipes, Wojcik said. An old pipe made of good material in good soil can last longer than others, so identifying pipes at higher risks can actually save utilities money, since they wouldn’t be digging up infrastructure that could have served the community for several more years.

“This allows them to, on their own time, replace pipes that are showing the worst condition,” Wojcik said. “When you do a proactive replacement or repair, it is much more affordable than doing an emergency repair.”

A water main breaks every two minutes in the U.S., the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates, and 6 billion gallons of water each day -- enough to fill 9,000 Olympic-size swimming pools -- is lost to those main bursts and leaks.

The software cannot perfectly identify every problem, Wojcik said, but it sets a priority list for utilities. Crews can then inspect those lengths of pipes rather than inspect pipes just based on age.

Since Fracta uses a machine-learning program, the company is able to continuously input more data from its customers -- more than 130 utilities around the world -- and the software can improve its own understanding of how and where pipes fail, making it more accurate as time goes on.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dustin Whitaker at work as a leaking water connection is replaced by a public utilities crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

Fracta has worked with cities for years predicting 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

Granger-Hunter Improvement District (GHID) started working with Fracta earlier this year as a way to begin addressing water loss in the utility, general manager Jason Helm said.

“I wouldn’t say we’re cutting edge,” Helm said, “but we’re certainly looking for some solutions.”

About 10% of the utility’s water goes unaccounted for, Helm said. Some of that can be attributed to routine system flushing for hydrant use by fire departments, but a lot of that is also coming from leaks and breaks.

“There’s some work to do,” Helm said. “I think we all recognize that.”

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

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dustin Whitaker at work as a leaking water connection is replaced by a public utilities crew in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

The Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities methodically scans all water main lines to search for leaks, but it is also using existing data to home in on the areas most likely to have leaks.

Geographic information system (GIS) maps can show where pipes burst or leaked, and utility employees can use those maps to show where crews may need to spend more time scanning the buried water mains, said Tammy Wambeam, a geographic information system (GIS) analyst with the utility.

While water conservation is a focus, there are other benefits that come from better identifying leaks.

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

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Solutions in practice

The Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities suggest people who are looking to conserve water in their own homes:

  • Repair leaking pipes and faucets

  • Only run the dishwasher when its full

  • Set the washing machine for the appropriate load level

  • Don’t run the water while brushing your teeth, shaving, or washing your hands

  • Store a pitcher of water in the refrigerator for drinking so you won’t have to let the faucet run to get cold water

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

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