Mapping the Future: SiteMap® and the Evolution of Leak Detection

Mapping the Future: SiteMap® and the Evolution of Leak Detection

Houston, we have a problem. Water leaks have become the leading cause of 311 calls in the city of Houston since 2021, with a monumental 30% increase from 2022 to 2023. “Our biggest problem is the aging infrastructure,” says Erin Jones, who is the department’s public information officer. “We’re continuing to make a long-term investment to replace these water lines, there’s just over 7,000 miles of them. So, it’s very hard to replace them all at once.” These repairs and upgrades come at a cost: a 72-inch water line project in Montrose is costing the city $36 million.

This is just one example of thousands of where leak detection could save municipal water systems a lot of money by corralling non-revenue water (NRW). If those leaks were discovered sooner, they could have been fixed before becoming a $36-million-dollar problem. This is far from the only example: pipe leaks and non-revenue water loss throughout the world cause hefty price tags, city droughts, and in rare cases, flourishing foliage. 

SiteMap® (patent pending), powered by GPRS, is changing the way we detect and interact with leaks, detecting them early, and without intrusion. Learn more below about how leaks are affecting our world, and just how SiteMap® is helping solve a problem that has been worsening for decades. 

By combining advanced mapping capabilities with innovative leak detection techniques, SiteMap® is poised to revolutionize how we detect and address leaks in underground infrastructure.

Underground pipe bursting

The Texas-Sized Problem

As with most things, the history of leak detection is said to date back to ancient Rome. Rudimentary methods of detection evolved over time, and by the 1800s, the very first gas leak detectors were created, which used a process of flame ionization and catalytic combustion to detect gas leaks. Water line leak detection has evolved in a similar fashion, where early techniques expanded and changed to meet modern requirements. 

Leaks in utility lines are a problem throughout the world, with some leaks even proving fatal, especially gas leaks. Rarely does a leak offer a sunny side, except for with the case of the trees of Austin Texas. Austin loses an estimated 21 gallons of water per person every day, mostly through leaks in the city’s water distribution system. Last year that totaled 8.6 billion gallons lost. Those leaks waste more than water; they drain energy and cost money. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that the leaks may be drought proofing some of Austin’s trees

A team of University of Texas (UT) researchers have recently taken a look at the rings in trees close to leaky city infrastructure versus trees farther away. The group is headed by Jay Banner and looked specifically at trees along Waller Creek on the UT campus. Banner directs UT’s Environmental Science Institute.

Through a process of isotope testing, Banner determined that a good portion of local Austin creeks owe much of their flow to water from leaky pipes. He found that 25% to 50% of the water in Waller Creek, which flows through the UT campus and downtown Austin, appears to come from Austin’s problematic leaks. 

“The trees in the urban watershed were much less sensitive to drought than the rural watershed trees,” Banner said. “It’s actually a positive consequence of urbanization.” However, this doesn’t mean that the leaks are a good thing, as much of the city struggles with the consequences of Texas’ failing water lines. With tools like SiteMap®, these issues and their solutions could come much easier, with less risk and even ultimately less cost. 

The Pity of Mexico City

Mexico City Monument

Texas isn’t the only place where waterline leaks are wreaking havoc. Mexico City is slowly running out of water, with some scientists left to wonder if the city can be saved at all. The ashy sidewalks and streets are beginning to lean, crack, and slide. Many building foundations have sunk dramatically while others have a visible lean, resulting in cracks in the surrounding pavement. It’s not just the common urban assets that are showing signs of something amiss, it’s the historical, culturally significant assets that are also showing the proof of a growing problem. Two of the city’s most iconic structures seem to be disappearing into the earth’s crust, being swallowed whole by the very ground that supports them.  The Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Metropolitan Cathedral (which was built from the stones of the Aztec temple that once stood there) are slowly sinking. 

The cathedral has set a crude system of monitoring. Solano-Rojas, a professor of geological engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, watches a glass-encased box that’s connected to the ceiling by a taut wire. At the center hangs an odd looking weighted point. This point charts a line indicating how the cathedral has shifted over the centuries, with the worst section dropping by some 8.2 feet.

Parts of the city, which is home to nearly 9 million people, are descending into the earth by as much as 15 inches annually. These issues are all driven by a deepening water crisis with roots that go back some 500 years. Many neighborhoods have run out of water, with more trailing closely behind. 

At the center of the city’s struggle is its reliance on underground water. As the underground aquifer drains and the ground above it settles, and then the city sinks deeper and deeper. “There’s one solution: Stop taking water from underground,” utters Solano-Rojas. “But that’s not going to happen,” he speaks solemnly. 

But this isn’t a new problem, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. “It’s a historical problem,” explains Elena Tudela Rivadeneyra, who is a professor of architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the co-founder of the Office of Urban Resilience. The office develops strategies to help cities weather climate change. “Ever since we decided to dry out the lake system that we had here – and that started [shortly after the Spanish arrived] around 1608 – we started having a difficult relationship with water.”

Draining the lakes and building over where they once flourished created two major issues. First, it diminished the limited local water supply. This resulted in requiring the city to import much of its fresh water. A significant portion of this water must be pumped at great expense from more than 328 feet away, up the sierra where the city sits. Second, as the city grew and consumed the remaining water, the subsidence began. The problems developed from there, slowly causing nearly irreparable damage. 

A recent study found that the integrity of the metro is consistently compromised. When Mexico City began modernizing its municipal water supply during the 1940s the population was much lower, sitting around a few million. As that number bloomed into the 22.5 million people living there today, the water infrastructure failed to keep up with the rising demand, and was continually torn up by subsidence.

These days, the city loses some 40% of its water supply due to leaking pipes. 

When discussing the city’s water crisis, the term “Day Zero” is often thrown around to describe the presumed date when the city will run dry. Many have set it for late June, though the situation is complicated. 

“I don’t think a Day Zero is going to come,” says Solano-Rojas. “Day Zero has already happened.”

Unveiling the Invisible: The Power of SiteMap®

Data Control SiteMap

At the heart of SiteMap® lies the ability to transform the invisible into the visible. By leveraging the amazing accuracy of GPRS and sophisticated mapping technologies, SiteMap® creates dynamic, interactive maps of underground utilities. These maps provide utility managers with invaluable insights into the location, condition, and connectivity of underground infrastructure. When GPRS’ pinpoint leak detection services provide regular water loss surveys, those reports, that include photos of the leak locations, other nearby utilities, and depths, are all made accessible 24/7 via SiteMap®.  

Enhancing Efficiency and Accuracy

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States loses an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. SiteMap® offers a proactive solution to this pressing issue. By accurately mapping underground pipelines and conduits, it enables utilities to identify potential leak hotspots before they escalate into emergencies, such as those seen in Texas and Mexico City. This proactive approach not only minimizes water loss but also reduces costly repair expenses and service disruptions.

Cost-Effectiveness and Sustainability

There are approximately 2.2 million miles of water lines in the US, and a water main break happens every two minutes. Leak detection costs can quickly escalate, causing disaster and a hefty price to fix the disaster. However, SiteMap® offers a cost-effective alternative. By streamlining data collection and analysis, it reduces the risk for labor-intensive fixes and excavation. Moreover, by enabling utilities to prioritize maintenance efforts based on comprehensive spatial data, it maximizes the impact of limited resources, fostering sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Our water loss specialists have the equipment and expertise to locate your leak and provide insights into your water distribution system. GPRS utilizes a variety of industry-leading equipment and methods, including acoustic leak detectors, leak noise correlators, video pipe inspection, ground penetrating radar, and electromagnetic locating to provide a complete picture of your subsurface infrastructure and find your pressurized water leaks.

Types Of Leak Detection 

GPRS Feild member detecting a fire hydrant for a leak

SiteMap® is so effective and accurate because the data comes directly from GPRS, which is a leader in all things subsurface. Never before has Visualizing The Built World®, including the subsurface, been so simple. Your Project Manager can accurately map any pressurized water system, fire loop, or sanitary and storm sewer systems, and other utilities if needed, and provide you with a complimentary PDF and .KMZ file, delivered via SiteMap®. Every GPRS customer receives a complimentary SiteMap® Personal subscription as part of their package. There are many types of tools used for this advanced detection, such as: 

Acoustic Leak Detection

GPRS Project Managers are experts in acoustic leak detection for pressurized water lines. They use specialized microphones, headphones, and control units, plus complementary technologies to pinpoint water leaks by listening to amplified sound waves in a wide variety of pipe materials.

Leak Detection Correlators

These algorithm-powered tools utilize radio waves via a dual sensor system to process and digitally display leak vibrations. These vibrations correlate to potential pressurized water system leaks. This is used in conjunction with acoustic devices and provides pinpoint leak detection in water and fire suppression infrastructure.

Ground Penetrating Radar

The tool our company was founded on, GPR, in concert with other complementary technologies, is used to identify buried objects and underground utilities. Our Project Managers provide 99.8% accurate field-verified utility maps, delivered via SiteMap®, PDF & .KMZ files to all GPRS utility locating customers.

EM Locating

Electromagnetic (EM) locators are preferred by One Call contractors to locate public utility lines. GPRS utilizes them with GPR and other technologies as part of our Subsurface Investigation Methodology (SIM) process to detect live AC power or radio signals along conductive utilities.

The Path Forward: Embracing Collaboration and Innovation

As we navigate the evolving and sometimes sinking landscape of leak detection, collaboration and innovation will be key drivers of progress. Governments, utilities, technology providers, and research institutions must join forces to harness the full potential of SiteMap® and other emerging technologies. There’s a lot at stake, from  the water supply of full cities to single reservoirs. Water is a finite resource, and it will take an overhaul of technology and collaboration to preserve our water, and the cities it pumps life to. 

Investment in Research and Development

We’ve only evolved from the methods used in ancient Rome because somebody invested time (and money) into improving these methods and the technology used. Without such investment, we would struggle to evolve, lying stagnant in a still, stubborn bog of ignorance. 

The future of leak detection depends on continued investment in research and development. Governments and private sector entities should allocate resources towards exploring new technologies, refining existing methodologies, and conducting field trials to validate performance. By supporting innovation in leak detection, we can unlock new opportunities for  sustainability and resilience in underground infrastructure management.

In the journey ahead, challenges will undoubtedly arise, but with determination, ingenuity, and a shared commitment to progress, we can overcome them. Together, let us map a sustainable future, where leaks are detected and addressed swiftly, where resources are conserved and protected, and where the invisible becomes visible through the power of technology and collaboration. Let us be like Austin trees, let us use our situation to flourish, overcoming even the strangest of challenges. Don’t sink with the past, flourish with the future and the innovation yet to come. 

Are you ready to evolve? Contact SiteMap® today to learn more.