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Why do we need to invest more in drinking water?

Listen to the full interview

Why do we need to invest more in drinking water?

In the latest episode of the Urbanista, we sat down with Magnus Lundin, Business Director, Potable Water Solutions at Uponor Infra. He gave us some fascinating insights into water network management, and some of the challenges of getting fresh water all the way from its source to our taps.

Watch the full interview!

If you work in the water utility industry, you won’t want to miss this episode. Today on the Urbanista we have a very special guest. A guest that knows a thing or two about the challenges that the water utilities and water network managers face on a daily basis.
So, who are you and what do you do?

- My name is Magnus Lundin. I’m working with Uponor Infra. I’ve spent many years at the company and at the moment I’m responsible for drinking water solutions inside Uponor, which includes a wide assortment of programs.

There are many challenges water utilities are facing at the moment. But can we start with Urbanisation? We know that cities are growing faster than water networks can handle, some of the assets are getting older and these are difficult financial times and money is an issue. Which is the problem that you have been hearing about most of all?

- It’s a variety of challenges. We had the privilege a few years ago to carry out a deep interview with a number of utilities in the Nordics. We asked about the challenges they see and how they find solutions for them. Obviously the answers depended on the size of the utility itself, but in particular they talked about the urbanisation that is happening and that has been happening for decades. Clearly they see the impact of urbanisation, not only that people are moving into cities but within a city we can see movement away from certain areas and into other areas. At the same time, they need to both renovate the system that they have as well as build completely new living areas. It’s a mixture of challenges.

Let’s start with the big Nordic cities. These cities are growing and growing. How is the infrastructure in these old cities managing?

- It is a challenge in many areas. More people are moving into already populated areas where the infrastructure is old and needs to be renovated, or perhaps the existing system cannot cope with an increased population.

Since the buildings and street design are already well established, are there problems using standardised pipes and other solutions, or is there a need for customisation?

- Yes, solutions are customised. But lifetime is also very relevant. When we develop very populated areas the lifetime of the product is very important. Historically a combination of polyethylene, polypropylene and PVC, but now we see the trend moving more toward the first two. Also, metal is used in certain areas, depending on what the area had been used for historically. Polyethylene has a very long lifetime, more than 100 years, so it’s a good choice so long as the design of the product is also as it should be.

How about in the case when a new area is being developed, how does the cost compare to renovating an existing area?

- It depends a lot on the area. Many areas being developed nowadays are heavily contaminated and that can be a challenge itself, to be able to put new water pipelines into very contaminated soil. This situation is quite common in the bigger cities and in former industrial areas which may have been closed down and now have new residential areas. Those places quite often have problems with contamination in the ground. But there are solutions for those problems. It can be handled.
In these places, normal plastic pipes are not always the best. They should be with a barrier layer, so in that respect, certain plastic pipes with a fully welded seam are very good or a ductile barrier.

What kind of pollutants are we talking about?

- Oil, diesel, or different kinds of petrol components. We need to be sure the pipe is suitable so the chemicals can not penetrate it.

How about the water sources. Have you seen problems with the water source quality?

- What the customers have said is that the water itself is not affected so much. But because of climate variations like dry periods and low rainfall, the stability of the water has been affected. So, the preparation of the drinking water needs to be different from what it used to be.
In Sweden for example, the majority of the water comes from surface water, mainly lakes. However, there are also a number of groundwater works. So, the majority of the waterworks themselves are actually groundwater works.

What does the preparation of the water involve?

- Groundwater, which historically has been relatively good quality very often has a low pH. It’s quite acidic. At the same time it has carbon dioxide, manganese and iron. Here we can help with certain products we have in the portfolio which have been developed partly thanks to the interview session I mentioned earlier. We mix the groundwater with an aeration process to reduce the carbon dioxide as well as certain manganese and iron components. And with this, the pH goes up, but we increase it further with an alkalisation step which is a limestone filter. This is a patented solution we have for increasing pH. This seems to get a lot of interest and we have been delivering these products for almost twenty years within our groups but not in our markets. However, we are realising that the customers are extremely interested in this process, because it’s safe, it doesn’t require any special handling techniques. There is also no risk of creating too high a pH level, because this can also be a serious problem. Limestone is a very passive product and process. Even if you have an electrical failure for example, the pH won’t go up beyond the safe levels.

Where does this alkalisation process take place?

- It’s a tank solution that can be placed either above ground or below ground. It’s a very safe technology. Nothing leaks in and nothing leaks out and we only used certified material for this process.

After the extraction of the water from its source, it then needs to be moved several kilometres to the city. Can you elaborate on the next steps in this process?

- Waterworks need to have a stable process. You don’t want to increase and decrease the capacity utilisation of the waterwork. Because of this, the waterwork is usually producing water for a reservoir tank. This is a special kind of tank which hosts the water and should be able to cope with the different needs of a city. In the morning for example, when everyone takes a shower, starts their washing machines or starts to cook food, then obviously the water needs increase. At nighttime they then go down, so this reservoir tank is used to stabilise the variation throughout the day.

Is there a limit to the capacity of these tanks?

- The biggest tank we can produce in ‘one go’ is just over 200 cubic metres. This is something that could be produced and delivered complete to a customer. But usually, the need is much bigger than this so there might be several of those tanks. Alternatively, Uponor can actually go and do the final installation on site. The good thing is that since we weld everything together, it becomes physically one tank in the end without any joints and will be a safe product for many years to come.

How do you keep the flow and pressure of the water?

- It depends on where the city is in relation to the waterwork. Very often you need to raise the water pressure to a high-point reservoir, like a water tower, and that means the station has to be able to increase the pressure sufficiently. It could also be that you need to increase the pressure to be able to distribute the water over a certain area. You need a certain pressure to get the water to certain consumers. You can have a massive amount of consumers in a city and for that reason you need internal pressure for the water.
The water pressure may also need to be reduced. If the consumer lives in a very low position in the city, then the water pressure will probably be too high, so that means there is also a need to reduce the pressure in those points. There is a solution for this, it’s called a pressure reducer.

Does all this change of pressure increase the risk of leakage?

- This was another issue highlighted in the interviews we did with our customers. The leakage rate differed depending on the country and the area. In Denmark, for example, the leakage rate was usually around 10% on average. Sweden, Norway and Finland usually have a higher leakage rate and some smaller cities have an extremely high leakage rate. It very much depends.

Do you have figures for the rate of water loss in those other countries?

- It differs from place to place. On average in the Nordic countries it is 15%, maybe closer to 20%. But in certain towns, particularly those which have a big network but a lower concentration of habitants, they could have closer to 40%.

That sounds like a lot of water. Is there any way to quantify that financially?

- Well, it’s not only water we are talking about. It’s chemicals for the treatment, it’s the electrical energy used in the pumping and boosting the water pressure. And especially with the electricity costs we have been facing over the last year, these losses become a substantial part of the cost structure. It is money lost with no return.
We have been discussing this with customers and obviously there are different costs for different utilities, but an estimate of the loss would be in the ballpark of €0,40-0,50 per cubic metre.

This is obviously very expensive. And the cost of running a water network, and making the necessary investment whilst still being profitable, is obviously a very difficult task. How do the water companies find a way to manage this?

- They all have their challenges, but I think the smaller utilities have the bigger challenges because their organisation is not so big and they have less taxation from the incomes. If you look at less-densely populated areas, where many people live in the countryside, there is a higher ratio metres-of-pipe per inhabitant. Where many people live in a densely populated area there is a lower demand per metre of pipe and that is easier to control. However, when people spread out then the network needs to be bigger.

What can be done to support the smaller, less-populated areas?

- Monitoring the network and knowing where the leakage is is a big advantage. Then the customer can use that knowledge to renovate the network where they have the biggest problem. This is something that is ongoing and many utilities have been installing flow meters for many years. However, once again the areas with fewer resources may do so later than other areas.

If I can tell you an anecdote now. I recently saw some roadworks where they were cleaning inside of a water pipe and as I watched, the water that came out certainly didn’t look like potable water.
How regularly is this kind of cleaning necessary to keep the system clean?

- It does happen, probably not on a regular basis and again it depends from utility to utility. It might be every five years or so and as you saw, it doesn’t look very good because of the sediment and debris, sometimes corrosion, inside the pipe. All that comes out when they carry out the cleaning of the pipe.

When this cleaning was being carried out, the entire street was dug up. This seems like an expensive way to do it.

- Yes. The cleaning itself may take only an hour or so, depending on the size or diameter of the pipe. But the preparation could be two days work. So what we propose is that when you do an excavation in order to do the cleaning, then you should also set in a cleaning chamber. This is a ‘crossing’ of the pipe where debris can enter or exit by itself. So next time you do a cleaning, you open a plug or a valve, put in the cleaning plug, and then you shoot it all out at an exit point. There are specialised contractors who can do this kind of cleaning, so once they have the entrance, they can do all the work themselves.

With regard to awareness of the water network situation. Are the flow meters you mentioned sufficient to really know where and when the leakages happen, or might happen next?

- You can get better or less good insights into leakages depending on how well you segment the network. You need a number of the flow meter chambers and you divide your network into something called district metering areas (DMA). And if you have segmented your network and you have flow meters in those areas then you can at least see in which DMA you have the leak.

We have touched on a huge amount of things which need to be considered by water network managers.

- There is also the European Drinking Water Directive which is slowly coming into force. This will also affect the utilities and what kind of materials they use when in contact with drinking water. I would say that plastic pipes and plastic chambers will be a very good choice because they already have all of the certification necessary for use with drinking water.
Every material that comes into contact with drinking water will need to be certified. This is to safeguard drinking water in the future.

Do you have any final recommendations for water utilities.

- I think a good way to handle all of the challenges is to familiarise yourself with Uponor’s assortment of drinking water solutions. Perhaps we are best known for our production of pipes and fittings, but if you see our entire portfolio, we provide solutions for the entire process from raw water to the consumer’s tap. I’m very proud of this portfolio and this is a great way to understand, when you do renovation and extension, what you need to think about. This is a big investment to make and you should expect a long product lifetime in return for this investment.

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