Say hello to the latest weapon in the battle to detect and fix leaks across the United Kingdom’s pipe network – sniffer dogs.
The noses of highly trained dogs are already put to good use by the police and other security services to protect us. Now, water companies in the UK are turning to man’s best friend to help reduce the vast quantities of water lost to leaks.
In 2019-20, just over 2.95 billion litres of water were lost per day to leaks. The industry regulator Ofwat has told water companies that they must reduce leakage levels by 16 percent before the end of 2025 as part of a bigger target of halving the amount of water lost to leaks by 2050.
Technology such as noise loggers, smart pipes and thermal imagining drones are already being deployed to help reach those targets. More innovative solutions are needed however, which is why several of the UK’s water suppliers are turning to sniffer dogs.
Leak detection sniffer dogs are trained to hunt out the smell of treated water through the elements it contains, such as a chlorine. When they detect the smell, they can then pinpoint exactly where it is coming from and will show their handler by lying down.
Sniffing out chlorine is relatively straightforward for the sensitive nose of a sniffer dog who has been trained to look for it. Tap water contains one part chlorine per one million parts water; a dog’s nose can detect one particle of odour from a scent of one billion.
Once a sniffer dog has identified the source of a leak, the water company responsible for that part of the network will carry out further investigations. If necessary, they can then perform an emergency pipe repair to prevent any more water escaping.
Without the nose of a sniffer dog, these leaks may otherwise lay undetected for many months and years, losing vast amounts of precious water.
The dogs are walked along major trunk mains which are buried underground in rural areas. Because of their isolated locations, leaks on these types of pipe are among the hardest to identify as there are often no signs on the surface.
Sniffer dogs can cover up to 12km per day and the leak detection dogs are trained by CAPE SPC, the UK’s only canine-assisted water leak detection team.
CAPE was founded in 2016 by Ross Stephenson, who previously spent 10 years in the Royal Veterinary Corps and did tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, training dogs to search for buried improvised explosive devices.
Mr Stephenson now works with some of Britain’s biggest water companies – although the undoubted stars of the show are springer spaniels Denzel and Kilo, who head out into the field with Mr Stephenson’s business partner, Luke Jones.
The team of Mr Jones, Denzo and Kilo have started a month’s trial with Yorkshire Water to show the company the benefits of using sniffer dogs for leak detection.
Earlier in 2020, Denzel and Kilo worked for United Utilities in the north west of England. Kilo scored a big success during their time in Cumbria, detecting a leaking pipe near the Lake District village of Bassenthwaite which was losing 72,000 litres of water a day.
In 2019, Mr Stephenson and another dog, Snipe, worked alongside Thames Water to detect leaks. Snipe had earlier teamed up with Denzel in parnership with Scottish Water in late 2018.
With the UK having 346,455km of pipelines, the companies responsible for this vast network need all the help that they can get in monitoring it and detecting leaks – especially on pipes in rural locations which are difficult to access and assess, such as the trunk mains which sniffer dogs can survey.
Should the industry hit Ofwat’s targets of a 16 percent reduction by 2025, then that would save enough water to meet the needs of every person in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.
Leak detection and pipe repair has never been so important. In July, a report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that unless “urgent action” was taken to cut leakage levels, then parts of England would run out of water by 2040.
Sniffer dogs can play a small yet important role in helping to turn the tide in the war on leaks and lost water.