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Municipal water pipe installation
TheRockies.Life Staff

Release The…Sewer Crawlers?

Tiny robots will soon crawl through Red Deer's water pipes, ensuring the town avoids major leaks and ruptures

The itsy bitsy robot crawled through Red Deer’s water pipes. Down came the rain and washed the robot out. 

A play on a classic children’s rhyme sums up Red Deer’s plans to use robots in the near future to identify weaknesses in the town’s water mains and prevent ruptures.

Photo showing the size of Calgary water main break
Photo showing the size of Calgary water main break | City of Calgary | CBC News

Red Deer is no stranger to water main leaks. So far this year, the town has dealt with at least 20 leaks, which were small and did not cause residents’ water supply problems. 

Meanwhile, Calgary’s Bearspaw south water main, an 11-kilometre-long water main, suffered a major break big enough for a person to fit through. 

The break was so severe that hundreds of businesses and households were without water. Following the rupture, the city banned outdoor water use and backyard fires and asked people to severly limit water use

The pipe’s repair was delayed after two workers were injured, but work has since resumed. 

Why did the water main break? For now, your guess is as good as the city’s. Engineers are currently looking at the data to determine the cause. 

Water main breaks are about as predictable as the ice cream machine breaks at McDonald’s—not very

A break can still happen even with regular maintenance, pipe replacement, and other preventative measures.

However, soil conditions and how close to the surface pipes are can influence the likelihood of a break happening.

For example, the closer a pipe is to the surface, the greater the chance it will be damaged from freeze-thaw cycles. 

It doesn’t help that Calgary’s water pipes are old, with some dating back to as early as the 1920s. The pipe that burst was from the 1970s. 

There’s also the possibility of human error, such as installation or manufacturing problems. Red Deer is taking matters into its own hands to prevent similar disasters. 

The major water main break in Calgary
The major water main break in Calgary | City of Calgary

Small But Mighty Sewer Crawlers

In the wise words of Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle, “The future is now, old man!” From medicine to construction, uses for technology seem limitless. 

In Red Deer’s case, the town wants to use technology, specifically robots, to inspect the condition of water mains and report any issues. 

According to Red Deer’s water superintendent Alex Monkman, oilfields have been using pipe inspection robots, better known as sewer crawlers, for many years. 

An example of a sewer crawler robot
An example of a sewer crawler robot | FOXTECH

Sewer crawlers can inspect pipes up to 6,500 feet long and as small as eight inches in diameter. 

While the expensive robots are easily afforded by wealthy oil companies, they are farther out of reach for municipalities. 

However, in recent years, sewer crawlers have become more cost-effective, presenting an opportunity for towns like Red Deer.

The town is currently figuring out how to use the robots without impacting water service since pipes must be shut down before the sewer crawlers can start crawling. 

One possible solution involves using fully submersible sewer crawlers to inspect water mains while they are active.

Last year, the Louisville Water Company, a water company based in Kentucky, United States, showcased the effectiveness of their swimming robots.

Crews inserted the robots into a water-filled pipe, and engineers used valves to control where the robot travelled and retrieve it from the pipe. 

“But the beauty of this is there’s no interruption to our operations. This main is in service; there’s water that’s going to people’s homes right now,” said David Mulloy, a project engineer at the company. 

Robots trudging through water pipes might sound silly, but these little guys go a long way toward stopping water main breaks before they happen.

As the global temperature continues to rise and wildfires in Alberta become more intense, having reliable access to water has never been more important.

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