Ear to the ground: Listening for leaks in Janesville's water system

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Elliot Hughes
August 27, 2015

JANESVILLE—At 8 a.m. Thursday, Gary Fenney, a heavyset 61-year-old, stood up from the back of his white van, set down the stogie balanced between his fingers and got to work on his last task for the day.

More than 300 miles of pipes mainline water to Janesville's residents. Every year, Fenney carves about two months out of his calendar to spend all hours of the day and night listening for leaks in half of them.

By finding the breaks before they rupture and flood a road or lawn, Fenney saves the city “easily hundreds of thousands of dollars” every year, said Craig Thiesenhusen, Janesville's water utility superintendent.

“It's an art form, not a science,” Fenney said with a wide smile.

He's been at the job for about 30 years now—five in Janesville—working for AECOME, a Fortune 500 company that offers technical and management support for infrastructure projects.

Fenney, a Wisconsin native and Neosho resident, has been to all 50 states and around the world for the job—even checking out the pipes in such far-flung places as Panama and Oman.

He's worked in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero and in the mess of post-Katrina New Orleans. That city became a repeat customer after a while, and it's where he found his biggest leak: a hole the size of a basketball gushing 8 million gallons of water a day.

He doesn't run into catastrophes like that in Janesville, but he finds plenty to take notes on every year.

Fenney typically finds about 40 leaks. Over the last two years, Thiesenhusen estimates the 86 egresses Fenney discovered splashed 1.2 million gallons of water daily.

“Every gallon of water costs us money,” Thiesenhusen said. “We have to treat the water, release the water, things of that nature.”

If Fenney wasn't there, the leaks would make themselves painfully obvious eventually.

“Leaks never get smaller,” Fenney said. “They're always going to get bigger, and they never stop.”

Fenney drives around town in a big white utility van crammed with equipment, checking the city's pipes block by block. He uses several hand-held devices called correlators, which come attached to magnets and a microphone.

At each block, he attaches two correlators and their mics to a fire hydrant, a curb stop or inside a manhole—one at each end of the block. To measure the distance between the two, he uses a rolling measure wheel, which he likes to push alongside the van as he drives, arm hanging out of the window.

Fenny uses a third device to enter in certain data points: the distance between the correlators, the size of the mainline underneath him and what it's made of: cast iron, lead, etc.

The mics, held in place by the magnets, pick up the acoustics down below. The louder the noise, the bigger the leak. Total silence indicates a closed pipe.

Meanwhile, the correlators, working together, can tell Fenney where the pipe is losing water.

At his last stop for the day, the 600 block of Monroe Street, he zeroes in on a particular area. Unsure if it's under a homeowner's property or the city's, he breaks out several other toys—a metal detector and a 5-foot-long valve key, among others—to be certain before reporting back.

He doesn't want to send someone digging into the wrong spot.

“That don't happen too often,” he said. “That's why I'm still doing this.”

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