The burgeoning market of water infrastructure repair

Water municipalities worldwide are cash-strapped, and many are desperate to find sufficient water supplies for their burgeoning populations. One answer to both problems is to reduce non-revenue water that leaks out of Victorian-era pipe networks or streams through broken meters that fail to record it.

Estimates put non-revenue water at 60 per cent in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where desalinated water is some of the most expensive in the world. Parts of post-Soviet Eastern Europe lose 80 per cent of water, mostly to leaks. Even the best water companies, like Tokyo, Japan, lose some 3 per cent of their water through leaks and billing errors. Many Asian countries lose more than 30 per cent of their treated drinking water.

Smart water meter sales have grown rapidly in the last few years, and major global players like Veolia and Siemens have meters and networks for sale. But drinking water companies are undermanned and often undertrained, and hardly equipped to deal with a deluge of complicated new data. What they need is actionable knowledge: where they should deploy their repair crews and how they should run their networks to minimize leaks and blowouts. Fixing a major burst in hours rather than days can save millions of dollars in property damage, while finding small, persistent leaks that never appear on the surface can save enormous water revenue over time.

Stepping up to this challenge are a number of small companies that make life easy for water operators while saving them a great deal of money. In some cases simple solutions reap big rewards: i2O Water, a British company, replaces manual pressure adjustment in a pipe network with dynamic systems that change pressure based on rapid feedback from the low-pressure points of a system. The company claims that pressure can be reduced some 20 per cent, which in a linear relationship also reduces both leaks and blowouts by 20 per cent without a single length of pipe having to be replaced. The strategy is applicable worldwide outside of the U.S., where pressure requirements for firefighting render it unusable.

The players tend to compliment, rather than compete, each others’ strategies. TaKaDu, a rapidly growing startup out of Israel, uses sophisticated algorithms to watch the output of smart meters, sending operators timely alerts about leaks that would take weeks or months for an operator poring over pressure graphs to discover. Redzone Robotics automates pipe inspection for both drinking water and wastewater networks, using a combination of clever robotics and Lidar imaging.

Water operators are just waking up to the kinds of whole-system awareness that factory operators and traffic controllers implemented decades ago. Until recently, underground infrastructure was largely forgotten as soon as it was placed in the ground. That’s rapidly changing as operators realize how much money they’re losing to leaks. There is a growing opportunity for small companies with innovative infrastructure monitoring strategies, not to mention novel trenchless methods for infrastructure repair. Innovation has slowed in repair and there is little new intellectual property, but tough, fast-curing new lining materials like polyurethane are moving into drinking water from the wastewater industry, and in replacement projects more companies are deploying flexible, crack-resistant HDPE, a black plastic pipe material with major lifespan cost and performance advantages over traditional materials.

Lux Research sees a market in the tens of billions worldwide for infrastructure monitoring and repair, with healthy growth rate of 10 per cent. While major markets like China and India focus on new pipe laying, they are just the next generation of customers for an infrastructure repair market now dominated by established economies. Many developing nations, with networks dating back to colonial days, are also finding ways to repair their pipes as they grow their services.

Brent Giles is a Senior Analyst leading the Water Intelligence Practice at Lux Research.

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