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Should the water industry rethink its approach to pipe replacement? With many buried assets under pressure to perform well beyond their life expectancy, a panel at Utility Week Live Online suggested a fresh approach to pipe replacement would improve leakage rates, but at an inevitable cost.

The panel consisted of Jeremy Heath, innovation manager at SES Water and project lead for the UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) leakage innovation work; Professor Nicole Metje of the University of Birmingham, whose ongoing work on the Pipebot project is exploring how buried infrastructures can be better managed using microrobots; and Jamie Jones, leakage and smart networks manager at Portsmouth Water.

They agreed a multifaceted approach will be necessary to achieve PR19 company leakage targets and the industry pledge to triple the rate of reduction by 2030.

Heath noted that recent studies suggested the life of a plastic pipe in the ground is around 150 years but across the industry some replacement rates are equivalent to 1,000-year life upon mains pipes. “It is something we need to have an open discussion about. With my UKWIR hat on I have to ask if it’s a realistic life expectancy we’re putting on the assets.”

Metje argued that in terms of pipe maintenance and replacement, cost benefits were seen when looking beyond five-year AMP cycles. She cited Hong Kong as having a more proactive approach to upgrading pipes that were not designed to be in the ground for as long as they are but admitted the costs can be prohibitive to most companies.

Jones said Portsmouth had a higher than average rate of replacement, but that had come at a cost and consequently the company has lower meter penetration than others. “We now have fixed noise loggers, but for a number of years we were trying to find and fix leaks with a hand behind our back,” Jones said. “The five-year AMP cycle does encourage short-term thinking. It takes a very strong company to consider doing anything other than the norm.”

The panel said the next wave of investment towards leakage was likely to continue to be split between fixed loggers and data points, as each showed benefits for different areas and terrains. Heath said the UKWIR work showed companies are all taking a mixed approach within their networks – especially on acoustics with accelerometers and hydrophones.

He explained fixed networks are predominantly being utilised in urban areas rather than rural where the case for return on investment is stronger.

Jones added that the benefit of finding and fixing leaks faster meant fixed networks were often cost beneficial, however in rural areas signal was a limitation. The below ground assets would require costly infrastructure to guarantee a signal and said the rollout of narrowband internet of things was improving this.