Leaky pipes can allow contaminants into our drinking water

Leaking water pipes can allow potentially harmful contaminants into our drinking water, new research has shown.

The study, by engineers at the University of Sheffield, is the first to prove conclusively that contaminants can enter pipes through leaks and be transported through the pipe network.

The pressure in mains water pipes usually forces water out through leaks, preventing anything else from getting in. But when there is a significant pressure drop in a damaged section of pipe, water surrounding the pipe can be sucked in through the hole.

It had been assumed that only clean water from the leak would be sucked in, and that even if contaminants were sucked in these would simply be ejected once the pressure returned to normal. The new study has shown, however, that groundwater from around the pipe – which often contains harmful contaminants – can be sucked in, remain in the pipe and travel on through the network.

Dynamic pressure drops happen whenever there is a sudden change in velocity, for example when there are valve or pump failures, or sudden demands on the system, such as when large volumes of water are required for fighting a fire. As a result of engaging with the University of Sheffield research, UK water companies are now training their field staff to limit these pressure drops taking place.

UK drinking water is tested for harmful contaminants and complies with the regulations over 99 percent of the time. But any failure is cause for concern, according to lead researcher Professor Joby Boxall.

Professor Boxall says: “Previous studies have shown that material around water pipes contains harmful contaminants, including viruses and bacteria from faeces, so anything sucked into the network through a leak is going to include things we don’t want to be drinking.

The research, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, used a purpose-built test facility made up of 141m of mains water pipe maintained at pressures representative of UK networks. A section of pipe was damaged, and the leak enclosed by a box containing gravel into which dye was injected to simulate a contaminant.

When that section was subjected to a dynamic pressure drop, up to 60ml of the coloured water was sucked into the pipe. The team were able to measure the dye at the end of the pipeline, 70m downstream, proving that the contaminant remained in and was transported through the network.

Co-researcher Dr Richard Collins says: “Our research shows that contaminants that enter through a leaking pipe could be reaching consumers’ taps, and although this will be at very low concentrations, it would fail the safety tests if detected. We also believe that microorganisms, including pathogens, which enter the network in this way could attach to the inner surface of the pipe and multiply. If they are later dislodged by another change in flow, they could then reach our taps in higher concentrations.”

Professor Boxall adds: “The majority of UK water companies have or are now commissioning training versions of our experimental facility, so they can help their staff to minimise future risks to water quality as well as reduce structural damage caused to pipes.”

It is uncertain how often dynamic pressures are low enough to cause contaminants to enter our drinking water as internationally, water distribution networks are not monitored at sufficient frequency. However, the limited bespoke studies of operational networks to date, mainly in the US, have shown that these pressure drops do regularly take place.

The regulator, Ofwat, deems that leaks within the UK water network have been at an economically sustainable level for the last 15 years – which means that the cost of finding and repairing the leaks would cost more than the value of water lost.

“It’s not feasible for the water industry to stop all leaks, and most of the time, leaks don’t pose a risk,” says Professor Boxall. “This is why the water industry is now focusing on preventing the pressure changes which enable contaminants to enter the system, rather than eliminating the leaks through which they enter.”

Additional information

Engineering in Sheffield

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield is one of the biggest in the UK. With seven departments and two interdisciplinary programmes covering all the engineering disciplines, 4,300 students, 950 staff and £50M annual research-related income from government, industry and charity, it is one of the best institutions in the world to study or do research in engineering.

The Faculty has a long tradition of working with industry including Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Siemens. Its industrial successes are exemplified by the award-winning Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the £25 million Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC) and – jointly with Boeing – the new £43M Factory 2050, the UK’s first fully reconfigurable digital factory.


Pennine Water Group

The Pennine Water Group (PWG) at the University of Sheffield is an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded Platform Grant centre, sponsored since 2001, dedicated to research into water and wastewater. The PWG takes a multidisciplinary, integrated approach to improving the performance of urban water infrastructure.


Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Media Team
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852