We spoke to Chuck Hansen, CEO at Electro Scan about key challenges facing the water industry, the major impacts of using AI and machine learning for integrated solutions, and his company’s technology products.
What challenges are facing the water industry and what technologies, or organizational changes will overcome them?
The challenges of climate change, water quality, and environmental justice are sweeping the international water market, bringing dramatic changes to how we build, accept, and maintain our underground water assets.
As climate change exaggerates the frequency and severity of weather events, underground infrastructure can no longer tolerate poor installations, haphazard repairs, or rehabilitation projects whose work cannot be certified as watertight.
Coastal cities face the additional challenge of rising tides and an increased risk of water contamination, so the need to identify leaks in our drinking water pipelines is greater than ever, as low pipe pressures caused by leaks can allow contaminated water to enter.
Pipe standards developed by major construction firms, consulting engineers, and contractors, for the installation and inspection of new pipelines have been too lenient – in many cases, only requiring camera-based or visual inspection.
For wastewater pipelines, leaks missed by CCTV cameras may result in increased flood risk, sewer back-ups, and heightened salinity levels (extremely problematic for wastewater treatment), compromising agricultural reuse targets and goals of a circular water economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an explosion of water quality tests taken at treatment plants and pumping stations to monitor the spread of the virus. A new class of mobile water quality device is expected which can deliver data for pinpoint locations, instead of the larger areas gleaned from fixed sensors.
Finally, environmental justice is now impacting capital expenditures (CAPEX) and operating expenditures (OPEX) decisions at water utilities. No longer merely lip service by local politicians, inequalities in infrastructure between rich and poor neighborhoods are now key factors for the prioritization of water rehabilitation and replacement projects.
As climate change and cleantech solutions become better understood and mandated in corporate boardrooms, expect to see Environment, Sustainability, and Governance (ESG) private equity and venture capital funds create the first Unicorns of the water sector. But, as seen from the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), meaningful and actionable plans still need to be formulated, financed, and executed.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are becoming key components for integrated solutions in water. What major impacts and trends do you see from these technologies?
AI is a powerful tool, but it’s important to remember that the quality of results is only as good as the quality of the underlying data. Early applications have focused on legacy inspection technologies already in decline, so only gained limited improvements. While it’s a natural place to start, exponential gains were never going to be possible due to inherent flaws in those technologies.
Take, for instance, AI assessed Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) videos. While capable of delivering consistent results, the physical technology cannot tell the difference between a superficial crack, and a crack that goes through the pipe wall. Likewise, it cannot see inside the bell & spigot of a joint to tell if an open pathway for water exists or determine if a Cured-In-Place Pipe (CIPP) is suffering porosity issues. Since video itself misses 80% of leaks, so will the AI generated results.
Despite its limitations, CCTV does have its place, and we have it on our probes for pressurized pipes. So, to improve CCTV’s functionality, we developed a unique AI program for locating leaks visually. When in a pressurized pipe, we let the camera linger where there is a suspected leak. Then, we use AI to track particles suspended in the water, and automatically detect if they are being sucked out of the pipe due to a leak, and at what clock position(s).
Another application where AI suffers from low data quality is acoustic leak detection. A method used for nearly 100 years, the challenge of low water pressure, ambient noise, pipe materials / diameters, and much more, severely limit the usefulness of the data.
With recent benchmark testing showing acoustic sensors miss most leaks, have trouble delivering repeatable results, and are furthermore unable to quantify leak severity in industry accepted metrics such as Gallons per Minute (GPM) or Liters per Second (LPS), new technology was way overdue.
Utilities might wonder what the potential is for AI applied to innovative technologies. With Electro Scan’s FELL Technology, the possibilities are limitless. By measuring the electric current flowing from the probe, through the pipe wall, and back to the ground at any given point along the pipe, we get a high-fidelity ‘current trace’ of the pipe.
While this of course tells us where leaks are, it also describes, for instance, the pipe material and quality itself. So, we can apply AI here to determine qualities such as pipe wall thickness. Another application is correlating Electro Scan’s Focused Electrode Leak Location (FELL) data with CCTV data. It allows us to assign GPM and LPS leakage rates to specific joints, service connections, or pipe bends.
What products or services from Electro Scan will we need to watch in 2022?
The use of FELL to find and measure holes in pipes is causing quite a bit of disruption in the leak detection, pipe condition assessment, and lead pipe detection markets. Many utilities don’t realize the high number of leaks they are missing by using acoustic to assess water pipes, or CCTV cameras to assess sewer mains – that is, until they compare results with Electro Scan.
Beyond leak detection, Electro Scan can determine pipe wall thicknesses by measuring electrical resistance and can determine the porosity of pipe walls. It’s badly needed as an early warning of pipes most likely to burst, especially in Asbestos Cement (AC) and Pre-stressed Concrete Cylinder Pipes (PCCP).
For Electro Scan, our suite of pressurized and gravity-based tethered probes now covers the full range of pipe materials and diameters, with 2022 bringing us into the smallest diameter of pipes, and the ability to detect lead service lines.
The timing of President Biden’s US$1 trillion Infrastructure Bill could not be better for the water sector, especially given the goal of removing 100% of lead service lines. Before Electro Scan’s arrival, no commercially available solution could identify lead pipes, a task often complicated by the frequent use of copper pipes with lead soldered joints, or lead pipe coupons remaining from spot repairs of copper, galvanized metal, or plastic pipes.
Dedicating US$15 billion the US Environmental Protection Agency chose to allocate first year funding based on individual state populations. Since funding in subsequent years will focus on lead service lines that have been identified, and their severity, the race is on for cities and water utilities to use machine-intelligent tech to help identify ALL their lead service lines for replacement.
Look to Electro Scan to offer utility-authorized direct-to-the-customer updates on field work occurring in real-time.
Who in your organization has been most responsible for the success and adoption of Electro Scan technology?
Mike App, Vice President of Worldwide Operations, and Brad Weston, Managing Director of Electro Scan, deserve much of the credit for the adoption of Electro Scan’s cleantech solutions.
Mike App’s experience in trenchless technologies showed him that pipe renewal projects did not always prevent continued home flooding issues. At Electro Scan, Mike has spearheaded over 1,000 certification tests covering nearly 50 suppliers and found that some pipes leak more after rehabilitation due to poor re-openings of tap connections. This has led Smart Utilities to change their acceptance criteria for new and relined pipes.
Brad Weston’s work in England, especially in dealing with Ofwat regulatory requirements and Asset Management Plan (AMP) 7 challenges, has driven major rethinking in the UK water sector. Weston’s leadership in pressurized pipe assessment led to Electro Scan winning the 2021 PETRONAS TECH CHALLENGE for underground pipe assessment, bringing Electro Scan squarely in the middle of the environment and energy nexus, a gap not bridged by any other company in the pipeline space.