Leak detectives trace the sources of water woes

August 23, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

The men who have been hooking up microphones and headsets to fire hydrants around Westminster and listening to the sound of city water for the past two weeks are helping city government solve a problem.

The problem: Westminster loses more than one of every four gallons of water that leave the city treatment plant.

The leak detectives from Water Loss Systems Inc. are looking for breaks in the mains where water can seep into the ground without any sign on the surface.

"You can look around you and it looks like nothing's wrong," says Water Loss Systems President Richard C. Apolenis, eyeing the dry asphalt on Washington Lane.

But somewhere below his son Eric, 15, who says he does "whatever he [Mr. Apolenis] tells me to do," has heard the sound of a water leak.

What does a leak sound like? Mr. Apolenis laughs. "Like running water."

Water moving through intact mains doesn't make much noise. But when Mr. Apolenis connects the microphone to a hydrant on Washington Lane, it sounds like rushing water.

To city government, that's the sound of money rushing into the ground. The water department has filtered, chlorinated and fluoridated the water, but the city can't charge for it because it never reaches a customer's faucet.

Westminster charges in-city customers $17.15 per quarter for a 6,000-gallon minimum, $21.50 for out-of-city customers.

City officials were unable to account for 582,000 of the 2.1 million gallons of water pumped through the system daily in 1992, a loss rate of 27 percent. Some of the water leaked; some may have been inaccurately recorded by old meters at the treatment plant and in customers' residences.

Westminster is working on all three fronts, says Public Works Director Thomas B. Beyard.

Water Loss Systems has a $5,850 contract to survey water lines, check valves and pinpoint leaks. The City Council awarded a $33,600 contract two weeks ago to replace the old meters at the treatment plant. And Mr. Beyard said city officials will start replacing residential meters this year, using $20,000 budgeted for leak detection.

"Our objective this year is to get the water loss below 20 percent," Mr. Beyard says. A study conducted for the city by consulting engineers Buchart-Horn Inc. reports that typical water loss for a municipal system is about 10 percent.

When someone in the Apolenis crew hears a leak, he and his co-workers try to pinpoint it so the city public works department will know where to dig.

Water leak detection in its infancy had the reputation of being a con game, Mr. Apolenis says. But the technology has improved. To pinpoint leaks, he uses a computer linked to an oscilloscope -- a device that measures sound waves -- to create sound tracings that show distances from the leak at points along the water line.

Mr. Apolenis' father, Charles Apolenis, worked with sound correlation in his former career as an electrical engineer. He's the expert at pinpointing leaks. But even with improved technology and the man Mr. Apolenis calls "the encyclopedia," the leak detectives sometimes miss the spot.

On Washington Lane, Mr. Apolenis believes the leak is about three-fourths of the way down the dead-end street. The public works crew brings a backhoe and digs through the blacktop. The trench is about 2 feet deep when water starts to mix with Carroll County clay.

One of the city public works crew starts pumping the water out of the trench. Crew member John Robertson Jr. gets in and digs by hand. He has deepened the trench about another foot when muddy water spurts out and splatters his T-shirt.

"We were right," Eric says.

The men identify the problem as a corporation leak.

A corporation is the metal piece where the property owner's line is tied to the main. Westminster was losing about 20 to 25 gallons of water a minute from the leak, Mr. Apolenis says.

How long the system has been quietly pouring water into the ground is anyone's guess.

Water Loss Systems' contract covers 45 miles of lines, but Mr. Beyard says he wants to finish the project this year, which may mean increasing the contract to cover up to 75 miles of water mains, the maximum estimated to be under city streets.

Mr. Apolenis' final report will provide figures on how much water the city has been losing underground. The leak detection service will pay for itself in saved water, Mr. Beyard says.

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