Salt Lake City Uses Technology to Stay Ahead of Pipe Leaks
Getting water from streams, lakes and reservoirs to homes and businesses is challenging for any city utility. Pipe valves leak. Water mains can break. Aging infrastructure can allow gallons of treated water to escape the system before ever getting to where it needs to go. As our series Utah’s Uncertain Water Future continues, we look at how Salt Lake City water managers are trying to maintain a sophisticated pipe system and stay ahead of leaks.
Some might say John Charles has a lonely job. He’s Salt Lake City water leak detection technician and he spends his days driving around and listening to underground pipes and valves hoping to discover the next leak in the system.
“I’ll start by going through an area, I’ll take a piece of our map and I’ll sweep back and forth through an area by listening on hydrants and valves,” says John Charles.
On this day, John is on Murray-Holladay Road with a steady stream of cars buzzing by him as he works. He uses an instrument called a stethophone to listen for leaks. It’s a cross between a big microphone and stethoscope. John waves me over when he thinks he’s found the leak and I listen through the stethophone.
“And so that sound we’re hearing is the leak?”
“That’s the break. You’re standing right on top of It,” says John Charles.
John digs into the ground directly below where detects the leak and sure enough finds a valve gushing water.
“See that’s full of fresh water. If it was full of stagnant water, it would probably be a different issue, but I know that’s fresh water running up in there. Another indicator,” says John Charles
A repair technician will be sent out to fix the leaking valve. Jeff Niermeyer is the director of Salt Lake City department of public utilities. His office on West Temple doubles as an old water works museum. He shows me a section of one of the city’s oldest pipes. It’s a hollowed out tree trunk; a design that pioneers used when first attempting to move drinking water through the city.
“They actually decided to try and make it more water tight by putting coal tar in it. This pipe is probably approaching close to 140 years old. You can still smell the coal tar. Must have been some pretty nasty tasting water is all I can say,” says Niermeyer.
A lot has changed since pioneer days. Salt Lake City is now the largest retail water provider along the Wastach Front serving the city and most of unincorporated Salt Lake County. Niermeyer says there’s approximately fourteen hundred miles of pipe in the system and technicians are able to monitor it with sophisticated real-time mapping.
“Our crews can now pull this up on an iPad, so they can get real live data of our whole system. It shows the type of main, the age of the main, the location of the main. Moving with technology has really helped us so that we have really good detail of what our system is doing,” says Niermeyer.
In 2004, the city engaged in a detailed study to find out how much water could be leaking from pipes and valves. Niermeyer says water managers found there was a portion of water that was going into the system, but not coming out.
“Our unaccounted for water was at about 8 percent in the system. If you took all the uncertainties on the bad side it may have gone up to about 12 percent, if you took all the uncertainties on the positive side, it dropped to about 6 percent. So we use this kind of this 8-10 percent of unaccounted for water as kind of our base number,” says Niermeyer.
Salt Lake City’s water infrastructure continues to age. Many pipes date back to the nineteen forties and fifties. The Department of Public Utilities doesn’t get any tax revenue from the city. The money it has to maintain and repair the system comes directly from the retail sale of water. The department spent 23 million dollars last year on repairs, maintenance and installing new pipes. Niermeyer says decreasing the amount of water lost in the system remains a top priority.
“The one thing that people say is, well are you ever going to get caught up. And the answer is no, because this system is aging just as fast as you’re renewing.,” says Niermeyer.
“When leakage occurs, water that’s been treated and pressurized fails to reach a beneficial use,” says George Kunkel.
George Kunkel is the water efficiency manager for the city of Philadelphia. He also sits on a leakage subcommittee with the American Water Works Association. Some of his colleagues have referred to him as the “Godfather of leak detection.” Kunkel says Salt Lake City is proactive about finding leaks because it employs a leak detection technician, but he questions any city that uses a percentage method to measure leakage.
“It’s really not possible to make a realistic comparison using percentages, but what we’ve also found is that there whole varieties of different methodologies to calculate and arrive at the percentage, so the percentages really can’t tell you anything about your water loss standing,” says Kunkel.
Kunkel says measuring leakage through gallons and pricing could present a more accurate picture of leakage in a system. This week, legislative auditors pointed to leak detection and infrastructure repairs as some of the best steps toward increasing conservation and reducing water waste. Jeff Niermeyer says Salt Lake City will continue its efforts to reduce water lost through leakage.