Hello, I’m Ed, and I’m writing a guest blog for the lovely Sharon. I’m flattered to be asked so I’ll try not to bore you, her readership!
When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them “I’m a leakage technician” and they invariably glaze over, not having a clue what I mean. Which leads me to say “I detect water leaks for Severn Trent”. Which usually prompts one of two responses:
1) Oh. Severn Trent…
2) How hard can that be? You see the water coming out the ground so you dig a hole!
Well I’ll give you an example of “how hard”, and it’s from the Hollywood family comedy, Enchanted. There’s a scene where the heroine has been magically transported from a fantasy world (no, not the life of a Premiership footballer’s wife) to modern day New York. She’s fascinated by being able to get a glass of water from this amazing thing called a tap, and asks the hero of the story where it comes from. He replies “I don’t know,” and I swore. Yes. I actually swore.
It’s one of the things that annoys me since I started in the industry five years ago after five years as a stay-at-home Dad. We really don’t know where our water comes from, how it gets to that magic tap, or how hard people behind the scenes actually work to ensure it gets there. If you’ve ever been without water from your tap you’ll know it’s annoying, but it’s not often you’ll know why it’s not coming out of your tap. Because it’s not really magic.
Why it’s not coming out is where my colleagues and I come in. I’ll not bore you with the whole supply from ‘raw’ reservoir water through the treatment process to that nasty bill we all get. This is just about when it’s not going where it’s supposed to go.
Back to “See the water coming out the ground so you dig a hole”…
Water doesn’t like coming out of the ground. Water, like pretty much everything else in the world, likes gravity best. It will do everything it can to be underground. Seriously, just try pouring a glass of it onto your lawn and see how keen it is to leap back into that glass. So when there’s a leak on a water pipe, it will only make itself shown when it’s under a lot of pressure and has nowhere else to go. A bit like some of our managers.
The trick with finding leaks is to get to them before they’re visible, and that often means before water stops coming out of your taps. There are twenty-nine thousand miles of pipes carrying drinking water in the Severn Trent region alone. That’s a lot of pipes to maintain, and some of them have been sitting under our towns and cities since Victorian times. They crack, they split, they rust. They age.
When a normal mains water pipe first bursts, it happens a few feet underground. It isn’t under a great deal of pressure and (as I said about water liking gravity) it won’t always head for the surface. The water squeezing out of the pipe soaks into the ground around it, maintaining the pressure in the pipe, but the ground will start to erode.
We know it’s there somewhere though. Like we can have meters for the water coming into our houses, whole areas have meters on the water mains. This meter information is sent to the office on a daily basis. When a meter suddenly starts showing increased usage, our staff know there must be a reason for it, so they send us in to have a listen.
“Listen?” you may ask.
Water is also noisy. Just turn a tap on a to a little stream and you can’t just hear the water as it hits the basin, you can hear the gentle hiss as it works through your pipework. Now imagine that noise multiplied a few decibels, and you’ll know the kind of noise we listen for.
We listen for it on the metal fittings on the roads, pavements, verges and fields all across the area we’ve been sent into, using a ‘listening stick’.
It’s literally just a steel rod with a wooden cap that the sound travels up from the ground. In short, a loud noise on something like a fire hydrant or a valve will mean there’s something suspicious nearby. A similar noise on two or more nearby fittings means it might well be a leak.
It can take quite a long time, testing each of those underground fittings in turn. Especially if we’re in a rural area where the pipes track across miles of fields, or a built-up area where there are possibly up to ten thousand stoptaps. Without going into lengthy detail, once we’ve got a point we think is a leak the complicated technological equipment comes out and we pinpoint where the leak is. Once that’s done, it’s now time to get the plan to fix it underway.
And that’s where it gets very annoyingly complicated. If any of you are old enough to remember the wonderful Bernard Cribbins song, Hole In The Ground, you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s not just about getting the leak fixed. It’s about making sure the Highways Agency, Council, and other utilities are taken into consideration. Do we need traffic lights? How many properties will be without water, and for how long? Is there a gas main near our water pipe? Are there electricity lines overhead? Does the road need closing? Seriously, if you’ve ever seen someone from the water companies sitting in a van and it looks like they’re doing nothing, the chances are they’re either sorting out the multitude of considerations for a job input, or waiting for a supervisor or manager to get back to them for the relevant permissions, specifications or contact details. All of which can take ages!
We do this in all weathers. On a hot, sunny day it can be a joy to do in a beautiful place like Dovedale or Bakewell. In the driving rain it’s not so much fun, especially if you’re roadside on the A6 through a busy town like Matlock with the passing traffic splashing you. Snow? Yes, that’s our busiest time, and it’s also the time when it’s harder to find what you’re looking for, assuming you can get to where you need to be at all.
I hope, having read this, that it might have been a brief and not too boring insight into a job that hardly anyone outside the industry knows about, working in a business that is often criticised without really understanding the massive complexities and technical issues that go into something we quite simply take for granted until there’s a serious enough problem that we can’t make a cuppa or give the kids their fourth bath of the week. The water’s there because there’s hundreds of dedicated professionals on the ground making sure, whenever possible, that the water is always going to magically be there for you when you turn it on.
The next time you’re stuck in your car listening to the traffic news detailing a “road closure due to a burst water main on such and such street” maybe give us guys that prevented this from happening on a hundred other roads a thought. It’s a thankless task, but we generally don’t mind because what’s also often forgotten is that we’re all water customers too!
Thank you for your time. I’m off to make a cuppa.
Oh hang on, the bloomin’ water’s off….
Thanks so much Ed for sharing! I hope we can all appreciate our water supply more!! 😉
If you enjoyed Ed’s post you can read more of his writings on his website – www.unluckysun.com
If you are interested in a career in the Water industry you can find out more here: Severn Trent Water
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