Water supply in the UK – 5 facts about our water and the network behind it

The UK water supply network provides people in Britain with some of the cleanest drinking water in the world
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Water supply in the UK and the complicated network which keeps the United Kingdom’s taps on is amongst the best in the world – something which we as a nation do not appreciate as much as we perhaps should.

We go to our kitchen or bathroom and out comes clean, purified water which is ready for us to do anything with. That is no accident – it is the result of high standards, technology, investment and a little bit of help from the British climate.

To celebrate the UK water supply network, we have put together a series of five facts about the pipes, mains, sewers and treatment plants which provide some of the best tap water around – as well as analysing some of the future challenges that the industry will need to overcome to remain world-leading.

1) Drinking water in the UK is amongst the safest in the world

The water which comes out of our taps in the UK is ranked as the seventh safest to drink in the world. Only Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany and Scandinavia have better quality water.

Mother nature is part responsible for that. The north of England and Wales and the whole of Scotland are home to dozens of freshwater lakes which provide much of the country’s drinking water.

You might have also noticed that the UK suffers from its fair share of rainfall. Whilst that may frequently ruin the weekend, it does mean that natural water supplies are constantly being replenished by uncontaminated rainwater.

The main reason that we enjoy such safe drinking water however is because of wastewater management. State-of-the-art treatment plants remove virtually all pollutants from water before it is allowed to enter the public supply network and all components within the network itself must meet rigorous standards such as WRAS approval to ensure that they do not contaminate supplies.

2) The UK water supply network could stretch to the moon and back

Water reaches our homes through thousands of miles of underground pipes. Water companies in the UK are responsible for 215,277 miles of pipes, enough to stretch 8.5 times around the equator. When you add sewers to the total, it surpasses 434,000 miles and could take you to the moon and back.

Maintaining such a vast network is a challenge. Nearly 2,954 million litres of water were lost per day to leaks during 2019-20 which may seem like an eye watering figure, but it is actually the lowest leakage level since records began in the mid-90s.

The water industry knows it must go further and faster. The regulator Ofwat has said that leaks must be cut by 16 percent before 2025, the first staging post on a broader target to have halved the amount of water lost on the supply network from current levels by 2050.

To achieve this, water companies are adopting the latest technology and innovation to find leaks more quickly. The sooner a damaged pipe on the network is detected, logged and repaired, the less water that is lost to leakage.

Amongst the techniques being adopted for leak detection are smart pipes capable of data capture, noise loggers which listen out for leaks, satellite technology, thermal imaging drones, and sniffer dogs.

Once a leak has been found, a rapid emergency repair can be carried out using a pipe repair kit. Pipe repair kits enable any user to permanently fix leaking pipes of all types and sizes in under 30 minutes without the need for any formal training.

They speed up significantly the whole repair process compared to using heavy pipe repair clamps, hiring a specialist contractor or replacing the leaking section of pipe.

3) Water availability in the south east is less per person than in a desert

One of the biggest challenges facing the water supply network in the UK is ensuring that supplies do not run out. Population density in the south east means that there is less water available per person than in desert states such as Syria and Sudan.

Climate change threatens to reduce supplies even further by bringing longer, hotter summers to the UK, resulting in more drought. An increasing population will further stretch resources, leading to fears that taps could run dry by 2050.

The water industry is already planning for this. Infrastructure projects to help improve supplies in the south east include new reservoirs such as at Havant Thicket near Portsmouth and Anglian Water’s 310 mile pipeline, which will bring water from North Lincolnshire where supply outstrips demand to Essex where increased resources are desperately needed.

4)The average person in the UK uses 141 litres of water a day

Not many hours of our waking lives go by where we do not use water in some format. The average person in the UK uses 141 litres a day for tasks including washing, drinking and cleaning.

Showers are the biggest users of household water, accounting for 25 percent with toilets next on the list with 22 percent. Homes in which the occupants spend less time showering and which have installed devices to reduce the amount of water needed to flush the lavatory can make a serious saving on their water bills.

Speaking of bills, 16 percent of household energy bills are made up of tasks involving water. Based on the average energy bill in the UK, that means that households are spending £228 every year heating and using water.

5) Over a third of households in the UK have hard water

The geology of the UK means that 36 percent of households are supplied by hard water – otherwise known as water with a high mineral contact, rather than something to do with Bruce Lee.

In areas of the UK such as the south east, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the Humber region with porous, sedimentary rocks like limestone, chalk, flint and sandstone, rainwater can penetrate the ground and absorb minerals including magnesium, calcium and iron. This makes the water hard.

Where less porous, metamorphic rocks like granite are found, rainwater cannot penetrate the ground and so it remains soft. Areas of the UK which have soft water include the south west and north west of England and Scotland.

North east England, the Midlands, Manchester, Liverpool and parts of eastern Wales have water somewhere between soft and hard which is officially classed as medium-to-hard.

What does all this mean? Well, hard water is good for your health. Companies who sell bottled water boast of the high mineral content of their product because of the contribution which calcium and magnesium make towards a healthy diet. Drinking hard water from the tap means you are ingesting the minerals you need to stay fit and healthy.

There is of course a downside. Hard water has the opposite effect on pipes and plumbing systems. The minerals in hard water lead to limescale; build up of limescale causes reduced flow in water and heating pipes; this in turn leads to reduced efficiency of systems and so energy bills increase as appliances have to work harder to heat homes.

To avoid the build up of limescale, households in areas with hard water will soften their water with specialist products which help to remove particles of calcium, magnesium and iron at the point where a private pipework system connects to the public supply at the mains.

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