Preventative Engineering: monitoring the health of water systems

The city is a living organism. People are its cells, and water is its lifeblood. This is the analogy Prof. Bryan Karney uses as the philosophical underpinning of his work in water infrastructure. Like any other organism, things get complex fast. “We have infrastructure systems that are highly deteriorated,” he says. “The challenge is, how do you detect the deterioration of systems efficiently, effectively and accurately?”

The deterioration of systems shows up as pipes that break, as systems that leak and as pumps that perform inefficiently. Systems can fail slowly, or they can experience acute catastrophic damage.

“We are trying to develop strategies to listen to systems more effectively, understanding what they are telling us about their own performance.”

In the past, Karney argues, we have paid attention to the average performance of water systems, reacting only after they experience acute damage the way an ER doctor might respond to a sudden heart attack or stroke. Contemporary computer sensing and processing abilities have grown immensely, giving researchers the ability to actively monitor the health of water systems, as a cardiac specialist might track heart health as a preventative tool.

In the ideal future, engineers and technicians will run continual, complex diagnostics that quickly pinpoint the smallest disruptions, inefficiencies and even unauthorized access to infrastructure systems, stopping small problems before they become big. It’s this kind of technology Karney and his team are helping to develop. The stakes are high.

Mohamed Ghidaoui (CivE 8T9 MASc 9T1 PhD 9T3), now a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, provided a vital connection to one of the world’s densest cities. There, the unexpected failure of infrastructure can cost billions.

“He has been the leader for us to put together an initiative that is responding to Hong Kong’s opportunities,” Karney says. “We chose to work in Hong Kong because they take their infrastructure very seriously. The failure of any single system can be particularly catastrophic. Because of the intensity of land use, repairing systems is incredibly difficult.”

The strategy Karney and his team are employing is best described with another analogy. “What we are trying to do in Hong Kong is develop something like a SONAR system for pipes,” he explains. “We’re introducing high-frequency acoustic noise, sending out waves and getting impulses back that tell us about blockages in the system, leaks or unauthorized usage.”

The project’s approach is informed by additional work that Karney is undertaking through an NSERC Strategic Partnership Grant with the University of Waterloo. There, researchers like Bryan Tolson have developed a base method for introducing innovative diagnostics to existing infrastructure systems.

Such partnerships greatly enhance research capabilities, enabling researchers at multiple institutions with different areas of expertise to participate on a single complex project. In this case, the team is approaching Hong Kong’s challenges from structural, data acquisition and geotechnical angles. Karney notes, “we are looking for correlations between various physical parameters and the deterioration and performance of assets, like pipes.”

The capital costs of a typical urban water system range around $8,000 per person – in Toronto, that would be a valuation of around $25 billion system-wide. Approximately 70 per cent of that cost is in the pipes, Karney says. That’s a large investment to bury and forget about, which is why the assessment of performance and deterioration are so important.

Inefficiencies in water systems have important economic and environmental repercussions. Better diagnostic tools being developed will allow for significant changes in operations, such as improved pump maintenance and scheduling. These new technologies have the potential to drastically lower costs and emit fewer greenhouse gases.

“No system lasts forever,” Karney muses. “They will break down. We have to develop diagnostic tools that can anticipate when our systems are going outside their zone of operation. We need to be pro-active instead of reactive.”

Karney sees a future in which we will constantly pay attention to the performance of our systems. “We are developing the technology to understand turbines, to understand pumps, to understand conduits and conveyance systems, so that they can tell us what they are doing and how well they are performing.”

Prof. Bryan Karney is a Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and is the Associate Dean of Cross-Disciplinary Programs in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering.