With water scarcity issues looming in the U.S. Southwest and Southeast, as well as many portions of the world, fresh drinking water is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity. In fact, some have called it “the next oil.”

But while the value of water is being recognized across the globe and investors continue to see opportunities in the sector, trenchless technologies have yet to gain a strong foothold within the water market.

“The global water rehab market has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar business segment,” said Andrew Fulford, product manager of Insituform Technologies. “According to Global Water Intelligence, the rehab market in the United States was $2.9 billion in 2007, and that figure is projected to increase to $5.3 billion by 2016. Every day, pipes are failing and cities are losing money due to leaking pipes. You will see more and more cities doing rehab as pipes age and deteriorate.”

The market has been touted as the next growth area for trenchless for quite some time. While there has been growth in this area, it has yet to achieve the impact and the market share that trenchless has achieved in the wastewater sector.

“There have been a few advances that we have taken advantage of recently, but trenchless has not been a radical addition to how we do business,” said Alex Margevicius of the Cleveland (Ohio) Water Department. “Virtually all new water mains going in today go in as open-cut. In new housing developments, they generally go in before final pavement anyway, so there is less incentive for trenchless. For main replacements, open-cut is preferred by the contractors as well. There is no major clamor for trenchless. I think trenchless is a tool to fit some specific needs, but not a wholesale change for us.”

There are many other reasons for the lag in the trenchless market. For starters, there are considerations when dealing with potable water lines that simply don’t exist on the sewer side. These include working in a pressurized pipeline, limited access points (i.e., no regularly spaced manholes) and the need to set up a bypass system while repairs are being made.

“Water issues in some ways are more difficult than sewer,” Margevicius said.  “You can a sewer while it is still in service. This is not nearly so easy for a water main. Even if you could, simple televising won’t give you a good condition assessment of water mains. Their problems are different. External corrosion is one of the principal causes of failure. Its detection requires dewatering the main and is extremely expensive. Other problems with water mains, like compromised joints or imminent fracture/fatigue failure, have no good detection technology yet. We also have to use methods and products that do not jeopardize the potability of our product, which is not a concern on the sewer side.”

Focus on Management

There has been a movement in the United States toward an asset management approach in the water and wastewater sectors. Put simply, utilities are taking a more business-like approach, including gaining a better understanding of asset condition and planning for repair and replacement.

“There is an increasing importance on understanding the condition of buried infrastructure,” said Mike Higgins of Pure Technologies, a company that specializes in condition assessment and monitoring equipment for water pipelines. “The days of bury and forget about infrastructure are gone. To most effectively manage complex pipeline systems, water and wastewater managers are implementing comprehensive condition assessment programs.”

Additionally, he said, monitoring the pipelines is becoming more common. “Another major shift in the industry is the ability to continuously monitor the condition of major water transmission mains for corrosion or other structural problems. In some cases, a significant population can be left without water if a major transmission main fails. Pipeline monitoring systems can be deployed to track the condition of these critical assets to identify and repair problem locations.”

Margevicius said that Cleveland is using new techniques to find potential problems before failures occur. “We have found eddy current technology to locate imminent failures in large diameter concrete pipe to be very promising, and will be ramping up that program,” he said.

Once problems are found, Margevicius said, the city has incrementally increased its use of trenchless rehab techniques. “Old cast iron water mains were initially installed with no internal lining to speak of, and hence suffer from internal corrosion and tuberculation, which can lead to water quality problems and reduce the main’s carrying capacity and its ability to deliver water, especially during fire-fighting events. One time-tested technique used widely to rehab tuberculated pipe is cleaning and lining, which is essentially a trenchless rehab process.

“The Cleveland Water Department has rehabbed water mains this way for more than 60 years, initially focusing on the larger transmission mains, and in the last 30 years or so, focusing on the smaller distribution mains. We spend upward of $6 million a year on this program. We continue to use cement mortar for the lining material, but there has been some movement in the industry to look at other lining materials, including structural liners.”

Future Trends

One of the major issues facing the water sector in the coming years and decades is sustainability, both in terms of funding and supply. In some cases, unaccounted for water represents a large percentage of the total volume of treated water. Creating a distribution with minimal loss rates saves money by conserving treated water and helps to protect source water supply — and it creates an opportunity for trenchless construction and rehab.

“Identifying and eliminating water that is presently leaking from a water system is becoming an increasingly important task for water utilities,” Higgins said. “Some water agencies have water loss rates as high as 50 percent or more. This means that some agencies are collecting, treating and pumping twice the water that they need to. For agencies that are at or near the water production capacity, an excellent way to increase their ability to meet their water demands is by eliminating water loss.”

Trenchless lining in combination with conservation practices is one possible solution to reducing water loss. “Any type of conservation measures are always a positive thing,” Fulford said. “However, it is important to not lose sight of the main causes of water loss in the first place — leaking pipes. According to the ASCE, over 7 billion gallons of clean treated water is lost daily due to a deteriorating pipeline infrastructure. The U.S. Geological Survey says this costs us $2.6 billion a year. What is the point of re-using and recycling water if it only leaks out of pipes on its way to the customer? Leakage needs to be addressed first. Only then can we effectively save water using other methods.”

With President Obama’s stimulus plan putting infrastructure spending in the spotlight, more and more attention has been paid to water infrastructure in the mainstream media. Additionally, high-profile incidents like the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis have heightened the public’s awareness of the importance of infrastructure.

“People are definitely taking notice due to the increased media coverage of issues like water main breaks, problems with water quality, or non-revenue water caused by leakage,” Fulford said. “Customers are demanding a safe and affordable water supply and will continue to do so for years to come.”

Margevicius has also noticed a change in the way customers view water. “If anything, customers are savvier and more demanding these days,” he said. “They want reliable delivery, they want good water quality, they want top notch customer service and they want reasonable rates. Our challenge is to meet all those expectations. If you fail to do so, you will lose the support of your customers.”

The current state of the economy also presents a challenge for water utilities to meet the demands without placing additional burdens on local government and ratepayers. Again, however, trenchless may help meet these needs by extending the life of existing assets.

“Many customers are definitely tightening their belts, but water and wastewater rehab will always be a priority since it directly affects the health and well-being of taxpayers and residents,” Fulford said. “Customers also have to consider the cost of rehab vs. the cost of not doing anything and waiting for failure to occur. A water main break can cost a city thousands of dollars. Regular maintenance and rehab can prevent this at a fraction of the cost of emergency repair.”

While trenchless technologies continue to evolve to meet the needs of the water sector, it has still gained acceptance — albeit more slowly than some would have anticipated or preferred. However, given the need to repair water pipes throughout the country, the future looks promising.

Said Fulford, “There is a great deal of opportunity in the water rehab market for companies that are developing needed technologies. Cities and towns have a lot of needs that need to be addressed, and trenchless technologies are the right choice for many of those needs.”

James W. Rush is editor of Trenchless Technology.

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