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Drinking water comes to you from the 1+ million miles of water pipes that make up America’s water infrastructure system, many of which were put in place in the early-to-mid 1900s. But with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, this system is starting to show its age. 

While quality remains relatively high, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that there are over 240,000 water main breaks per year, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water - or nearly six billion gallons per day. The wasted water could support the everyday water use of 15 million households, and results in $2.6 billion annually in lost revenues.

Despite the occasional news headline, at present the water wastage problem mostly remains invisible. That will likely soon change. Water scarcity is on track to be one of the century’s most important environmental and health issues as nearly half the global population already live in potential water scarce areas, and that population is expected to increase to up to 5.7 billion people in 2050. 

At both local and global levels, no one can afford to waste water, which means governments and water utilities companies alike need to arm themselves with tools to prevent such loss. After exploring a recent case of water wastage, we’ll explore why digital field inspection platforms are ideally suited to track leaks throughout drinking water systems.


Mississippi blues: The cost of water leaks

To illustrate this issue, let’s go to Mississippi and look at the case of Jackson’s continuing water leakage woes. A recent report based on citywide November 2021 inspections found that more than 40 percent of treated water never makes it to the customers. Because of the city’s aging pipe system, the water is lost during distribution through main breaks, leaks at meters, or other disruptions causing leakage. 

Jackson’s challenge was made worse because its water department pays to treat that water, but can’t recoup its layout: the water never goes through a meter, so customers don’t receive it, and no one is billed for it. This produces a troubling deficit, and one that keeps getting worse: in 2017, the city brought in $61 million in water and sewer revenues but had $65 million in expenses. By 2019, revenues were $49 million, while expenses were $77 million. 

Without fixing the city’s aging pipe system, this discrepancy will only get worse. But without the massive budget required for a complete overhaul, the city resorted to what it felt was the only solution: raising water and sewer rates by 20 percent across the board.


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Complex problems require digital solutions 

Despite the heavy tax levied on Jackson’s population, this was not an isolated incident. Without the ability to enhance field inspections and tactically root out leaks and disruptions, costs will continue to rise even as water becomes scarcer.

To help stop leaks, water utilities can leverage advanced improvements in mobile technology and integrate digital field inspections platforms into their daily operations. These can help field inspection teams to more efficiently collect and circulate better-quality data about leaks in several important ways, including: 

  • Systematizing field inspections. Cloud-connected in real-time, mobile inspection platforms bring field inspections – dispersed by geography or process, data, or goal – into a unified and coherent system. Armed with the same platform, field inspection teams can be dispatched knowing their collected data will be combined into one database. Field inspectors and their supervisors at the office work with the same underlying data that’s stored in one location and accessible to the entire project team, providing high-level visibility to streamline efforts for quicker repair and remediation. 
  • Overcoming access and paper limitations. Whether installed away from residential areas or buried beneath the ground, utilities infrastructure is often in remote or hard-to-access areas. Carting around paper inspections checklists or even bulky laptops for spreadsheets in remote areas increases the potential for data error, forcing teams to spend more time doing data management than data collection. Even in remote areas without mobile connectivity, however, leading digital platforms have offline data collection capabilities that store data in-app for upload and syncing until return to a network. No paper forms mean no data transcription, so there are fewer possibilities for errors. 
  • Producing better data for better work. Much more than paper or spreadsheet, digital platforms are agnostic to other media, able to incorporate other formats to give you more and better data. Maps, pictures, video, and audio files can all be attached by field inspection teams for any other team member to see, leading to better-informed decisions. And features like built-in GIS allow for the exact geo-locating of pipe weakness, cracks, and leaks for quick identification of problems and remediation, empowering repair crews to do their job more efficiently.


Keep your head above water

While the problems faced by our water infrastructure have been directly addressed by the federal government’s sweeping Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, full-scale transformation is years, if not decades, away.  In the meantime, it’s up to utilities to bridge the gap between water that’s treated and water that’s delivered – and billed. 

Utilities that embrace a digital field inspection management solution will be able to discover leaks and inefficiencies in their water delivery systems so that repair and remediation can begin. Leading digital field inspection providers like Fulcrum can play an essential role in not just finding water-wasting leaks throughout any utilities' drinking water delivery operation, but by streamlining field inspection operations so that water – and costs – can be saved.


Learn more about the use of digital field inspection management platform for water utilities by checking out a utilities customer success story.

About the author

Fulcrum is a field inspection management platform built to streamline safety and quality processes, field operations, and asset inspections, especially for mobile teams.

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