Out-of-this-world technology helps Green Bay spot leaking water pipes

Published: Dec. 13, 2019 at 3:25 PM CST
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Technology used to find water on Mars is doing the same thing now in Green Bay.

But here, it's being used to detect water leaks, hoping to spot and repair them before they turn into water main breaks or major problems in neighborhoods.

The out-of-this-world technology is helping save rate payers water and money.

Somewhere in the sky, far beyond what the eye can see, a satellite is floating in space, originally created to search for water on the Red Planet.

Now it's busy finding potential water leaks citywide in Green Bay's 130-year-old pipes.

"They're saying we're around 30 million gallons of water that we saved by the 57 leaks we repaired this year," says Green Bay Water Utility general manager Nancy Quirk.

The satellite started doing flyovers back in March using electromagnetic signals and a lot of high-tech science to detect where treated drinking water was leaking into soil.

It can find leaks up to 10 feet underground.

A map scattered with orange dots shows 207 hot spots -- 11 percent of the city's system -- identifying potential leaks.

"We then sent crews out to each one of these areas, and they put their equipment on hydrants and valves and did what they call a correlation. They find out where the leak was," explains Quirk.

The utility's crews found 57 actual leaks on hydrants, valves, pipes and water mains.

They were leaks the utility had no idea existed.

"These leaks had not come up. It was a slow leak. Our engineer, operations manager, told us there was one that was a crack on a 16-inch pipe that we were able to repair before it blew up," says Quirk.

She and her team of engineers heard about the Utilis Satellite Leak Detection system at a conference, and after crunching numbers realized it would cost about half as much as their old detection system.

That system used to only check 20 percent of the city each year.

This checks the whole city.

"We found leaks in pipes that could potentially have been worse if conditions like the winter came," says Quirk. "We will still have main breaks, but we've minimized the amount we'll have because we proactively repaired this summer and fall."

The system is only looking for leaks in the city's pipes, not individual homes, but it did lead to finding leaks in a few residences, too. It's up to the homeowners to fix those problems.

Quirk says other communities, including Ashwaubenon and Howard, are interested or already trying the system, too.