Water Line Leak Detection Methods: Classic vs Modern Solutions

January 31, 2023
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Leak Detection Services for Different Industries

Water line leak detection methods encompass a wide range of techniques, as leaks can occur in various settings such as swimming pools, dams, levees, gas pipelines, oil pipelines, water and sewer pipelines, pipes within walls, backyards, and even underground tanks for gasoline and propane.

All of these leaks have their own unique, sometimes dangerous consequences, and a variety of leak detection services are available to locate each type so the people responsible can repair it.  

Leaking gas lines, for example, can lead to fires, explosions, or injury and death if inhaled. A number of commercially available, affordable leak detection sensors can serve quite well. Other gas line leak detection services include hyperspectral imaging via satellite to inspect large areas, while dogs have been used over small spaces. Dogs have also been used for water pipeline leaks.

Water line leak detection methods can incorporate a variety of techniques. Acoustic devices are used to ‘listen for leaks’ underground. Ground penetrating radar can locate leaks over small, defined areas. Visual observation can sometimes spot surface anomalies that may also indicate underground leaks.  Stanford University is experimenting with pressure sensors. 

Leak detection services for dams and levees are highly specialized, yet not always highly effective or even practical, as a history of collapses and breaches makes clear. 

What Is Underground Leak Detection?

Underground leak detection, as we mentioned, will vary depending on what’s leaking. 

For example, to a homeowner, underground leak detection would refer to the smallish area of their own property and may be about water leaks, which are expensive in lost water and can lead to damage. It may also refer to waste pipes or gas lines, each problematic for different reasons when leaking. 

Let’s focus for the moment on underground leak detection for two water-based situations: underground water pipes, and earthen dams and levees. 

By water pipes, we’re not referring to the small network around your house, but to the vastly larger network running under your city or county that carries the water to your house and thousands of others. And by dams and levees, we mean the thousands of aging dams and levees that are made of earth (“earthen”), and in whose risk zones millions of people live. 

And let’s look at the technology used for underground water line leak detection in those situations.    

An Overview of Leak Detection Equipment

Until recently, ‘traditional’ water line leak detection methods used for underground pipe surveys were exceptionally traditional, not much had changed in over 80 years. Acoustic technology is among the most widely used; it involves technicians literally walking the ground, guided by a map, “listening for leaks” through a headset, over an entire underground system, which can be hundreds of miles long.  Ground-penetrating radar (GPR), less widely used, relies on electromagnetic waves to detect underground anomalies over defined, limited areas. 

Dams and levees present a different challenge. Leaks may start slowly, as simple seepage. Seepage can lead to “piping”, an increased flow, and erosion. Methods to detect leaks in dams and levees may also include ground-penetrating radar, as well as laser scanners, and seismic sensors.

Pros and Cons of the Traditional Leak Detection Sensor

All these leak detection methods have significant limitations. Most are only practical over small areas, and offer only a snapshot in time; regular inspections are rare. Most traditional methods require some kind of leak detection sensor.

“Listening for leaks” uses a sensor to detect the noise moving water makes, amplify it, and deliver it through headsets. But acoustic sensors over expansive systems are simply impractical. It can take years to cover everything, and the results are out of date before one walkaround is completed. The human hours are expensive, and so is the investment in equipment. And if the pipes are not made of metal, the sound will be limited, and sensors will not be as effective. 

Pressure sensors can be installed within the pipes, but this is not always practical. And again, they only assess the area where they’re installed.  

The Role of Satellite-Based Water Line Leak Detection

Satellite-based leak detection is the newest addition to the technology of leak detection services. It is, in many ways, a breakthrough in an area that truly needed one, and may prove to be the practical, affordable, effective technology that many industries had been seeking.

Satellite leak detection services use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) on the L-band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Many of the limitations that constrain traditional methods are overcome with satellite leak detection. Rather than inspect pipes for leaks, satellite-based leak detection locates and analyzes soil moisture and relates it to pipe systems. 

The “L-band” wavelength penetrates the ground, even pavement, up to approximately 10 feet (three meters), and works in all weather, at any hour. From an orbit of nearly 400 miles, it can detect leaks over huge areas at once, larger than most cities. It can resurvey the same area multiple times a year. The pipe material does not matter, and no ground crews are needed. There are no capital investments in sensors, which eventually become ‘old tech’. And the satellite can detect leaks in areas that are inaccessible or unknown to ground crews.

Satellite-based leak detection has so far proven itself the first real breakthrough in leak detection services in over 80 years. It has already begun to transform the science of leak detection, and it will continue to do so as the technology advances.  If you want to learn more about traditional leak detection methods as well as innovative solutions, explore ASTERRA’s solutions or contact us.

Please contact us to learn more about ASTERRA’s solutions.

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