Applying technologies for safe and efficient pipeline excavations to meet water industry targets
Changing approaches for a leak-free future

Delivering the water industry’s leakage ambitions to safeguard future supply-demand balance is a key commitment for the water industry. Safely and efficiently repairing leaks and the associated excavation activities are a key part of the leakage reduction challenge. However, within the end-to-end process of reducing leakage, efforts are predominantly focused on improvement for detecting leaks and somewhat neglect current processes for excavating buried pipes; they are slow, disruptive, labour-intensive and can lead to unintentional damage to neighbouring assets.

A recently finalised project has identified a range of minimal excavation technologies with potential to transfer to water industry leak repair activities. Commissioned by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) and drawing on expertise from Water Research Centre (WRc), gas company SGN and water company representatives of the Project Steering Group, this collaboration signals a new approach to research in the water industry. Its outcomes will progress the advancement of current water industry approaches to meet UKWIR’s ‘Big Questions’, specifically Zero Leakage by 2050 (BQ2) and Zero Interruptions by 2050 (BQ3). The unique nature of this work, in transforming how the water industry interacts with supply chains, paves the way for a new approach to a leak-free future.

Leo Carswell, Project Lead and WRc Principal Consultant of Innovation and Technology, emphasises the unique nature of this research: “This project really sets the foundations for change and the collaboration with the gas sector via SGN provided a vision for what is possible.”

A ground-breaking project

Performing global literature reviews and expert interviews, the project considered all aspects, from pre- excavation asset location through to reinstatement, to identify current and developing technologies for minimal excavation.

Several potential scenarios were used to demonstrate how the industry may evolve over time and the technologies that could be used. The scenarios range from an evolution of current approaches benefiting from existing technologies, through to more radical visions which include the use of robotics, autonomous in pipe leak location and repair and novel lining and repair technologies.

An industry-wide workshop clarified critical issues to ensure widespread adoption of these technologies. These outcomes enabled development of a functional specification promoted by the water industry as the main guidance for defining the requirements for the application of this technology.

A clear route map has been set out to overcome the associated challenges, adopt new processes, and meet challenging leakage targets while also reducing disruption to customers. The nine identified future projects include improvement of pipe location accuracy and repair methods, as well as the potential for, and guidance of, robotic roadworks and excavation.

Jeremy Heath, UKWIR Programme Lead, highlights the importance of this approach: “‘The leakage innovation heatmap, completed just before lockdown, clearly demonstrated that there was a lack of research and development into repair solutions. The swift repair of leaking water pipes is a key requirement in reducing leakage, and therefore as an industry we have refocused our attentions into this neglected area. This report is an important milestone in surveying useful repair techniques used by other utilities which we can look to adapt and adopt. The UK Water Industry is rising to meet the challenging leakage reduction targets we have set ourselves, and it is only through wide ranging research and innovation projects, such as this one, that we will be able to successfully implement sustainable and cost-effective water leakage reduction.’

Initiating collaboration and progression
Considered evaluation and the provision of accurate and relevant technical information delivered by this project enables efficient transfer and application of minimal excavation technology for leak repairs. In order to achieve challenging targets, this project encourages active engagement by the water industry to maintain collaboration and remove future barriers to ensure significant long-term benefits of innovative technologies.

Jo Parker, Project Manager for UKWIR, shared her thoughts on the novel collaboration: “I am really excited to share a project that worked closely with the supply chain to deliver a clear route map to make excavations more efficient.”

Setting this project apart is the opportunity it provides for future progression of leakage strategy. It not only provides technical guidance but encourages continued communication with supply chains through events and workshops to keep the conversation going.

Jo Parker and Leo Carswell recently attended the Annual Leakage Conference on Thursday 17th March, where they shared details of this project. Jeremy Heath followed their presentation with an update of the UKWIR Leakage Programme and Innovation Heatmap. Also lined up are several future events, such as the UKSTT online workshop on 30th June and the seminar at No Dig Live on 14th September, which will not only promote collaboration, but also continue to drive forward the outcomes of this project and outline future steps to ensure delivery of UKWIR’s zero leakage route map.

A report of the project will be available soon from UKWIR. For project enquiries or to get involved in the solution for a leak free future, please contact UKWIR at

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