A Watchdog for Water Mains

E-mail Melanie Martella

Out of curiosity, I googled "water main break" (for reasons I will explain later) and was astounded at just how common they are. Frankly, if you look at the sheer volume of water main breaks causing havoc and water damage, you'd think the nation's water pipes were made of spun glass. They aren't of course. Some are merely old, tired, and fragile. But sometimes, just sometimes, the cause of the broken pipes is a natural disaster.

A severe earthquake, for instance, can cause structural damage to both buildings and buried pipelines and if there's one thing you don't want, it's to have your water system break down. People still need water to drink and for sanitation, and firefighters need water to put out the fires that, too frequently, follow in the earthquake's wake. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine are developing a water pipe monitoring system to keep an eye on the pipelines and identify when and where breakages and damage have occurred. While the impetus is to keep the water system going post-earthquake, the same monitoring system could be more widely applied to municipal water systems. And none too soon, since the EPA notes that about 240,000 water main breaks happen in the U.S. every year. (On my road in New Hampshire, the main culprit seems to be frost heaves wreaking havoc on cast iron pipes. Yet another reason to hate winter.)

The researchers, Masanobu Shinozuka and Pai Chou, have created CD-sized sensors that stick to the outside of the pipes to sense changes in vibration or sound that may betoken pipe trouble. The data are transmitted wirelessly to a central location for analysis. GPS provides location information. The article "Watching over the water system", lists the current scope as follows: "Initially, the sensor network will cover about one square mile of the local water system; eventually, it could encompass more than 10 square miles—the largest of its kind to date. A small-scale pressurized water pipe network designed and built by UCI researchers has confirmed that this type of damage identification works well."

As currently designed, the system will supplement an existing SCADA system, increasing the density of coverage—important for events that cause many breakages simultaneously.

If they can figure out how to make the sensors work underground and how to power them effectively, they'll increase the usefulness of the system. I wish them every success, and not just because I am a huge fan of technologies and projects that help to husband our precious water supply.