Los Angeles

LADWP Tries New Programs to Catch Leaks Before They Break

Every time a water main breaks in Los Angeles, it’s inevitable that those affected question why the DWP can’t seem to get ahead of the breaks and fix them before they happen.

On average, a break happens about three timesa day according to the LA Department of Water and Power, but new technology is helping it to stem that flow of leaks.

The work is constant for DWP workers. On a recent tip from a customer, workers arrived to North Juanita Avenue in East Hollywood to find standing water outside an apartment complex.

Turned out that water was seeping up through the ground from a leak far beneath it.

"It’s not efficient to just come out and start digging in the street to see if you can find it," said DWP Water Utility Superintendent John Cox. "If the water is surfacing then we have to dig. We don’t want to just let it run, especially in the water conservation mode that we’re now."

But before they can dig, they have to pinpoint the location of the leak. That’s where technology the department has been using for two years now comes into play: wires are dropped into line to "listen" to the water so workers can minimize the amount of pavement they have to rip up to get it to.

And that’s just one piece of technology, there are two more that are part of a pilot program to listen to pipes for possible leaks — even before customers call them in.

"One of them is called a hydrophone where it actually listens to the water itself," Cox said. The hydrophone is placed inside a pipe and gathers data over a period of days or weeks.

"There’s another technology that just listens to the pipe itself, where it actually attaches to the outside of the pipe," he said.

According to the agency, its leak rate is 15 leaks per every 100 miles of mainline in the water delivery system. It’s a number that’s better than the industry average of 25 leaks every 100 miles.

Cox said DWP has dramatically reduced leaks over the last decade from a total of 2,031 in 2006 to 1,146 in 2013. And the department touts its numbers on water loss, too, at 3.5 percent — less than half the industry average nationwide. Part of that is due to the leak detection programs.

DWP says it replaced 150,000 feet of pipe last year, but admits it’s far below where they want to be.

"If you do the math we have about 7,200 miles of pipeline in the city," Cox said. "That works out to be a 300-year replacement, that’s not sustainable. We really need to ramp up and do closer to about 300,000 feet a year."

Cox says the department is on target to do just that, possibly within the next five years as new technology helps to stop breaks before they happen and pinpoint leaks to priorities the aging pipes.

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