It starts with tiny cracks, fissures in buried water pipes that eventually burst and flood city streets, causing millions of dollars in damage.
That’s the scenario Sriram Narasimhan, a University of Waterloo civil and environmental engineering professor and Canada Research Chair, is trying to end with a novel monitoring system to identify vulnerable municipal water pipes before they become financial and environmental liabilities.
His project, which received just over $500,000 in Strategic Partnership Grant funding this year, could be a game-changer for infrastructure maintenance.
Until now, cities have had to wait for leaks to become apparent – often in the form of floods – before taking action to fix them.
Narasimhan and his multidisciplinary team of professors and graduate students from civil engineering, computer science, math and earth sciences – as well as industry and government partners including C3 Water and the City of Guelph – are enhancing a monitoring device that uses sensors to continually collect data.
Their additions to the device are designed to identify leaks in a general region of a water system so inspection teams can be sent out to investigate.
“The advantage is it’s a lot cheaper and it’s permanent,” says Narasimhan. “We’re able to predict where a small leak is happening so the municipality can take preventative action.”
That capability will dramatically improve an existing device, now in limited use, that can be fitted to water hydrants in about half an hour without even taking them out of service. It currently only monitors water temperature and pressure.
“We really wanted to make it do more,” says Dennis Mutti, president of C3 Water, one of four companies behind development of the One Water device.
Waterloo expertise sought out by industry partners
The group sought out Narasimhan for his expertise in areas including acoustic listening and vibration analysis, and has high hopes for a much more sophisticated prototype that could be on the market in about a year.
Mutti says there are enormous savings to be had by reducing the amount of water lost or wasted in municipal distribution systems, either by identifying small leaks before they get much worse, or detecting already significant leaks that nobody knows about.
The hardware itself looks deceptively simple, but Narasimhan’s work is a testament to the project’s internal complexity. His research barely touches on water at all, focusing instead on how to extract meaning from measurements and clarity from data.
“It’s not enough for us to measure things,” he says, stressing that deep knowledge of a water system’s physics is essential. “We want to be able to make meaningful, actionable decisions with that information.”
Narasimhan’s research has other potential applications, too, from detecting cracks in roadway overpasses and bridges to ensuring that kilometres of airport baggage conveyor systems function at capacity.
He isn’t surprised that industry partners come to Waterloo Engineering for help on projects.
Not only are researchers willing to work together in interdisciplinary teams, Narasimhan says, they have access to leading-edge equipment, labs and technician support. What’s more, the University’s reputation opens doors.
“There’s a level of credibility here,” he says. “At Waterloo we have such a strong engineering school that municipalities and industrial partners approach us to solve the world’s problems.”
After working with Waterloo researchers on several projects, Mutti readily agrees with that assessment.
“With the University involved, we have independent validation that this device is working,” he says, while also stressing the value of an intellectual property policy that makes it easy to do business. “It’s huge.”