Best Practices for Water Loss Protection, Mediation & Asset Management

water on the road

By Barry Hales & Howard Hodder

When it comes to saving water and making better use of it, is there really anything to debate? Water is critical. It is beyond important; we can’t survive without it.

In America alone, more than 6 billion gallons of water are lost each day due to apparent and real loss issues, says the Urban Land Institute in its “Infrastructure 2010 Investment Imperative.” That’s a shocking amount of waste, especially for a resource no one can live without. Water leaks typically occur underground and, therefore, are not always obvious. In fact, our own leak detection investigations conducted over the past five years indicate that 90 percent of leaks are not evident without a proactive leak detection system or program. According to “Understanding America’s Water and Wastewater Challenges,” published in May 2017 by the Bipartisan Policy Center, an estimated 1.7 trillion gallons of water per year is lost due to aging and leaking infrastructure. These leaks have created a $2.6-billion issue known as non-revenue water (NRW). And NRW can no longer be ignored.

Let’s begin with defining what NRW is and where the solution is hidden. Sixteen percent of water loss is “apparent” and occurs due to items such as metering inaccuracies, theft, or billing inaccuracies. Utilities across the country address this issue by installing and implementing automatic meter reading/advanced metering infrastructure (AMR/AMI) smart systems. These metering system upgrades represent the majority of capital expenditures combating NRW. While we admire these efforts and agree with the need to accurately measure and bill for water usage, the majority (84 percent) of water loss occurs within the transmission and distribution infrastructure. It is water that never gets to its intended point of use.

We call these losses “real losses.” Monitoring infrastructure, identifying leakage, and resolving the issues on a timely basis should be the centerpiece of an effective effort to address NRW within today’s utility networks. In other words, the goal should be “hunting, not hoping.”

An effective NRW program must begin with the premise of “reducing leak run time.” Given the fact that 90 percent of leaks never show themselves on the surface, permanent infrastructure monitoring is foundational to the solution. Robust technologies, combined with proven methodologies, are available to the utility in search of a proper stewardship program.

Leak repair in progress

Leak repair in progress on a DMA within a large utility system in Tennessee.

District Metered Areas (DMAs)

Today’s best practices are grounded in validated, historical data collected from sensors throughout the utility’s system. The practice is referred to as District Metered Areas (DMAs), and the knowledge derived from data empowers utilities to make quick and reliable decisions. What is measured, improves. And in this case, a water asset management program enables utilities to continuously monitor the day-to-day status of water networks as the first step to minimizing the risk of aging pipelines.

The monitoring equipment works to highlight system anomalies and generates real-time data that analyzes pipe condition and system integrity. Unfortunately, leaks are a continuous issue. They are a daily occurrence, not a yearly occurrence. And data-driven solutions like DMAs and continuous monitoring provide utilities with the knowledge and power to make informed decisions through data-backed deployment strategies. This, in turn, enables utilities to confirm the effects of operational characteristics and perform prioritized leak detection and mitigation efforts, which ultimately increases system integrity, reduces leak runtimes and drives down NRW on an ongoing basis.

custom project group interactive dashboard

McKim & Creed creates a custom project group interactive dashboard for each water asset management project. The dashboard is made available to utility personnel during each project for progress tracking and information. It displays the progress map of the survey areas covered as well as a few key project statistics

Investigative Leak Detection: Initial and Pinpointing

Investigative leak detection services are essential to an operative water asset management program. Leak detection service offerings help utilities evaluate the integrity of their water network by locating and pinpointing leakage on an ongoing, routine basis. If the utility doesn’t know where its leaks are occurring, then it can’t fix them. And when those leaks aren’t fixed, they add to the 1.7 trillion gallons of water leaked each year and can, in many cases, lead to catastrophic pipeline failures.

Effective water asset management programs use a combination of visual, acoustic, and correlating techniques, among others, to pursue leakage. A typical leak detection survey is conducted in two phases: the initial survey and the pinpointing phase. An initial inspection of the service area determines the best approach and equipment to use for the most accurate and timely results. All valves, hydrants and service connections should be inspected as needed for adequate coverage based on pipe material and infrastructure environment. This ensures a thorough initial investigation of the suspect area for any indications of leakage.

Any “areas of interest” may be investigated initially with manual sounding equipment—like a listening stick or ground microphone technology—as well as various forms of other listening devices like acoustic noise loggers. These devices help identify areas to further investigate and narrow down the source of any potential leakage.

Once an area is initially inspected, then comes the pinpointing phase. At this time, all suspect leak locations are subjected to further detection practices. This phase of the inspection utilizes tools such as computerized acoustic noise correlators, for instance, to pinpoint suspected leaks to a precise location. Recurring and proactive investigative leak detection is the simplest, yet potentially most impactful, best practice in water asset management for reducing NRW.

Heat map in GIS

Heat map in GIS to help visualize problems across a service area.


The information gleaned from the DMA, investigative leak detection services and pinpointing can be downloaded into a geographic information system (GIS). When this essential data is catalogued for analysis in a GIS, utilities can forecast, plan and budget for necessary infrastructure improvements; improvements that can directly impact NRW. And for utilities that don’t have a GIS, an efficient time to gather the data necessary to build and populate their mapping and asset database is while leak detection services are being performed.

Visualization of utility assets in GIS

Visualization of utility assets in GIS.

The most important component of any asset management system is the data. Of course, there are the hardware and software components, as well as the end users’ processes and expectations, but the most important—and often most costly—element is the data. Without the data, the other components are lifeless. And without quality data, analysis results and decisions made upon those results become incomplete and incorrect and can potentially lead to other problems.

3-D imagery of DMA analytics

3D imagery of DMA analytics brings visibility and transparency to system networks, virtually
bringing the data to life.

Methodologies such as subsurface utility engineering (SUE) can be deployed to assist with the designation of water assets for collection via survey methodologies such as global positioning system/Global Navigation Satellite System (GPS/GNSS). This compilation of spatially accurate inventoried assets, along with the population of feature attribution and condition assessment information within a GIS and asset management solution, provides the ultimate tool and work processes for a water utility. Along with providing the ability for tabular analysis and reporting, GIS provides the user the capability to visualize results through things like dynamic dashboards and heat maps.

Collectively, GIS and asset management deliver the greatest return on investment (ROI) by deploying an approach that provides the information and platform necessary to successfully plan, operate, maintain, and manage assets throughout their lifecycle. This approach saves time, money and, most importantly for a water utility, the resource itself.

Barry Hales is regional manager of the Water Asset Management Division of McKim & Creed, a nearly 600-person, employee-owned engineering, geomatics and planning firm with offices in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Texas.

Howard Hodder is an associate vice president of geomatics with McKim & Creed, a nearly 600-person, employee-owned engineering, geomatics and planning firm with offices in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Texas.

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