United Utilities’ impending hosepipe ban demonstrates the ‘sticking plaster’ mentality the UK has towards its leaky water infrastructure, says Simon Drain, managing director of Kobus Services.
Affecting up to seven million people, the ban – scheduled to be introduced across most of the North West by 5th August – should be viewed in the context of Ofwat’s proposed leakage target of a reduction of 15% between 2020 and 2025, which is down from its current figure of 19%.
Given the fact that England and Wales loses an estimated 3.1 billion litres of water every day due to leaking pipes, I believe this challenge should be the priority for water companies rather than restricting homeowners’ use of hosepipes.
It’s sadly predictable that as soon as we get a heatwave in this country, we see hosepipe bans. I understand that the utility businesses need to do everything they can to preserve water stocks, but they’re being really hampered by old legislation that prevents them getting to the real issue – leaking pipes.
According to current law, water companies only own the pipeline up to the boundary of a property (i.e. the pavement outside). The homeowner owns the section that connects the mains supply to their house (literally a few metres underneath their front garden).
It’s this longstanding scenario that creates a problem for utility companies, who have ended up being measured on leakage on infrastructure they don’t own and therefore cannot easily manage or control.
Water companies are between a rock and a hard place here – on one hand having to manage potential fines from Ofwat for leaks, while on the other faced with homeowners or insurance companies unwilling or unable to allow them access, or fund the replacement of the leaking pipes.
Kobus is calling for a change in legislation that will transfer ownership, and therefore access rights of the total pipework infrastructure, back to the water companies. This way, Ofwat can be much more ambitious with its anti-leak targets.
Companies can achieve this through embracing new leak-detection technologies and more innovative ways of working.
Back in 2015, researchers from Nottingham Trent University demonstrated that drones equipped with infrared cameras could be used to detect leaks in water pipe systems. It’s this innovative approach that we need to adopt in the UK.
While this issue of major excavation works may have previously persuaded legislators to pass laws to enable homeowners to retain ownership of the pipes residing under their land, things have now moved on. Non-invasive pipe-pulling technology now exists to facilitate the removal of old underground service pipework with minimal disruption.
Systems such as ours would enable utility companies to undertake remedial work without the need for major excavation and costly reinstatement. It would be a win:win situation, allowing water companies to meet tough new targets while maintaining a good relationship with their customers.
Understandably, there would be concerns about access rights and the fees charged to homeowners for the work, but this could all be managed via the regulator, who would set a fair charging structure based on current market conditions.
This way, property owners can be assured that any damaged pipework under their homes are repaired, while water companies can finally get on and fix this chronic problem that rears its head every few years.
Again, while our leakage rate are by no means remarkably poor, according to data from Eureau.org, we certainly lag behind many other industrialised nations such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, who all manage to achieve distribution loss rates that are in single figures.
The UK has the technology and know-how to lead the world in minimising water leaks – all we need is the political will and legislation to enable the industry to get on with the job.
Simon Drain, managing director of Kobus Services