Guest Commentary: Undetected Leaks and Bad Irrigation—How to Pinpoint the Problems to Increase Efficiency

April 17, 2015

Over the past 20 years, the US government, local government, and private businesses have combined to spend billions on products and infrastructure to create efficient and improved water systems to reduce waste and save money. However, the fact remains that according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), more than 2 trillion gallons of water are lost every year.

After all of the investments, why are we still wasting water? While there are several reasons, for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on two: Undetected leaks caused by an aging infrastructure decades away from being replaced, and faulty irrigation systems and procedures incorporated by millions of property and commercial owners.

Much like they do for energy, these owners and property managers must start monitoring their water use on at least a weekly basis to ensure efficiency. There is technology to do this even down to the hour, and there are many principles and procedures to guard against high water usage due to leaks and poor irrigation practices.

Undetected Leaks
According to The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. With millions of pipes buried underground, some date back to the Civil War era and often are not examined until there is a problem or a water main break. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the AWWA.

While the country waits for the costly but necessary upgrade, in an era where communities are raising water rates and/or placing major restrictions on usage, the constant breaks (the ones you see) and underground leaks (the ones you don’t) are costing both local water departments and property owners big money.

For property owners, here are some tips to make your property more water-efficient by pinpointing problems you may not otherwise detect underground:

  • Instead of auditing water usage by comparing against the previous month’s water bill, compare usage against a bill that may be 12–24 months old. An undetected leak may have occurred several months ago. Unexplained sudden increase in water use, consistently high use or water use that climbs at high rate for several billing cycles could be indicative of a leak.
  • If you have multiple buildings that are relatively the same size, compare water usage to see if one uses more water per square foot or per unit.
  • Use technology that monitors water usage at the meter on an hourly basis to note trends and spikes that may indicate a leak, such as abnormally high usage at 3 a.m. when a building is empty or should be “quiet.”
  • Use technology that will instantly alert you when water spikes above a preset limit. Pipe leaks may occur anytime, anywhere and if it’s at night, thousands of gallons may be lost before a leak is detected.
  • Tour the property monthly. Look for wet spots and alligatored, heaving, or cracked paving—clues to underground leaks.
  • If you suspect a leak, check your water meter and write the usage down. Turn off the water and after a two-hour period when no water is being used, check the meter again. If the meter does not read exactly the same, you probably have a leak.
  • Check water pressure on each building. Excessive pressure (more than 80 psi) can increase the chance of leaks and may damage fixtures.

Other clues of an underground leak:

  • Clear water running in storm drains when it hasn’t rained recently
  • An area that is green, moldy, soft, or mossy surrounded by drier conditions
  • Sinkholes or potholes that suddenly appear

To monitor potential money-draining leaks in and around your building:

  • Inspect vacant and unoccupied space for leaks and running toilets.
  • Inspect cooling towers for valve malfunctions and leaks. Install meters on make-up and blow down lines to ensure optimal performance and potential sewer credits.
  • Check basements and crawl spaces for leaks. Leaks here can also cause structural damage. A clue may be uneven floor grade or leaning of a structure.
  • Check for foul odors coming from floors or walls near drains or sewers.
  • Check fountains’ supply lines and valves to make sure water is not being wasted.
  • Inspect restroom fixtures on a regular basis. Toilets can account for more than one-third of the water you use inside the building. A faulty valve in one toilet can cost you 200 gallons per hour! Replace high flow fixtures with low flow. Consider metered valve, self-closing, and infrared sensor fixtures.

Outdoor water use varies greatly depending on upon geographic location. According to the EPA WaterSense program, some experts estimate that 50% of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems.

Here are some tips to make your property more water efficient when irrigating the grounds:

  • Easy things: repair broken sprinklers, pipes, and fittings.
  • Schedule irrigation cycles to water deeply and less frequently. For the summer, two to three days per week is better than daily quick run times. Longer irrigation cycles encourage deep rooting and increase soil moisture for all plants.
  • It’s not necessary to water the lawn every day. Instead, test your lawn by stepping on it and if it springs back, it doesn’t need water.
  • Use indigenous plants to create a water-smart landscape that is both beautiful and efficient. Native plants require little water beyond normal rainfall.
  • Install rain/freeze sensors. After all, how many times have we all seen irrigation systems on when it rains?!
  • Adjust sprinkler pattern to match planting area. There is no need to water the pavement.
  • Raise sprinklers that are blocked by plants to give the area even water coverage.
  • Shut off zones that are watering mature shrubs and trees.

With an aging infrastructure, there are many things out of our control when it comes to pipe breaks and underground leaks. However, with a sound conservation plan that continually monitors a property for signs of leaks and optimizes its irrigation system and landscaping, water efficiency can greatly increase. In our experience, simply using the technology to monitor real time water usage will conserve 14% on average each year. However, like owners and managers frequently do for energy use, it takes a commitment to save water. In doing so, your green conservation program can put you in the black.

About the Author

John Lie-Nielsen

John Lie-Nielsen is the CEO of WaterSignal and a member of the AWWA. He began looking for ways to measure and manage water usage eight years ago following 30 years in technology and real estate. He holds three US Patents and has a patent pending for WaterSignal.

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