Researchers investigate pipes to reduce non-revenue water

From left: Dr Lim Jen Nee Jones, Dr Daniel Kong Lean Yew and Dr Puspavathy Rassiah

From left: Dr Lim Jen Nee Jones, Dr Daniel Kong Lean Yew and Dr Puspavathy Rassiah

Malaysia has been beset by a spate of water disruptions recently, with the frequency of such occurrences increasing at an alarming rate. Some of the factors behind these are structural, which require long-term strategies such as addressing regular incidents of pollution at water treatment centres and educating the public on sustainable practices. However, there are pressing issues that can be addressed swiftly, that will, to some extent, alleviate the water crisis.

Non-Revenue Water (NRW) is a term that is used to describe water that does not reach the intended recipient. Statistics from 2017 by the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources shows Malaysia's NRW rate at 35%. This translates to 5,929 million litres of water per day (MLD), which is more than enough to satiate the water demands for Selangor (3,316 MLD), and Johor (1,320 MLD) respectively.

The four common materials used for pipes are ductile iron, mild steel, High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and PVC-O. The main stakeholders here are the water authorities and key decision-makers who advise the former on the choices to make on piping.

However, it is baffling that for a matter so profound, so little has been done in the way of empirical research that would help point towards the right materials to be used for pipes in the right areas, and at the right cost.

A team of academics at Monash University Malaysia are researching the different materials used in piping with respect to their mechanical properties, transportability, corrosion resistance and a host of other criteria.

The team consists of four academics: Dr Lim Jen Nee Jones, Associate Professor Tan Boon Thong, Dr Daniel Kong Lean Yew from the School of Engineering and Dr  Puspavathy Rassiah from the School of Business.

Tan says the objective of the research is to give a systematic and comprehensive evaluation of different options to satisfy specific needs so that stakeholders can make better-informed decisions.

"The feeling in the industry is that the choice of materials used in piping is not very objective and is just based on anecdotal, and historical evidence," said Tan.

"Right now, once a design is out, the tendering process then begins. The design is essentially fixed from that point on. Whoever gets the contract does not have any choice but to follow the design. The decision-makers, in this instance, are typically the consultants hired by clients or developers who would advise them on the design based on general guidelines provided by water authorities."

Tan emphasises that the objective of this research is to guide the decision-makers using a more systematic and objective approach to selecting the pipe rather than historical or anecdotal evidence. He says many factors determine the durability and longevity of pipes, based on materials used.

"For instance, in a high-salinity environment like the coastal areas, corrosion becomes an issue. Hence the ideal choice would be HDPE. PVC-O is a new option that has only been in the market for a few years. However, there are circumstances where available sizes are limited for certain types of pipes," explained Tan.

Associate Professor Tan Boon Thong

Associate Professor Tan Boon Thong

The expertise of the research team comes to the fore in instances where all four materials are suitable to be used. Typically, the only criteria such as cost, expertise, familiarity with the contractors and designers were taken into account, which could be limiting. As water concessionaires vary from state to state, the research team's two-pronged approach involves firstly collecting and analysing data from all the different water authorities in different states.

The importance of feedback from stakeholders is underlined by the researcher's plan to gather data from participants of various water-related conferences. This will capture a large variety of people in the industry from the suppliers to the contractors, to the water authorities, to the consultants, and these hard data and subjective evaluations will help point to options that best suit the local context.

"We then do a cost-benefit analysis, where we use a mock design of a pipe system, over certain terrains and get a detailed analysis of the cost. We can gauge how many connections, how many joints, how many elbows, and all the accessories. So we can get a detailed analysis of the cost, of the material, and the installation costs," added Tan.

"And then we try to extend the analysis to 10 or 20 years so we need to get some ways to estimate the maintenance cost of the piping so that we can present an actual picture of the cost-benefit analysis over a 20-year period."

As the research is in the early phase, the team is still deciding the mechanisms on how to weigh each criterion, as it involves various aspects such as cost, the quality of the water, the durability of the pipe, the maintenance cost, transportation costs of the pipe, and environmental impact.

"We are getting different stakeholders to provide their input on how to weigh all the criteria because some may be more important than others," Tan said.

Tan drives home the sanctity of research conducted by those in academia, as it is geared towards an impartial outcome: "A university can give a more objective approach to it, rather than a company. We want to try to be as independent as possible. It is of maximum value to the society, and industry, if an objective evaluation is done and then decision-makers like the water authorities and consultants can see which options are better".