The future of plumbing

The future of plumbing

By Warren Robertson

Technology is developing at an ever-increasing rate. As industries continue to speed on into the future, plumbing is certainly not excluded.

With the focus now on hygiene, comfort, and saving the planet, plumbing will have a huge say in Earth’s future and humanity’s ability to conserve its most vital resource: water. These are big focus areas of many of the technologies that are coming out at the moment, but there still seems to be space for comfort, fun, and time- and money savings.

Touchless taps

From faucets that work with the wave of a hand to fixtures you can control with your voice, the touchless faucet market has grown in the past few years. Apart from the obvious hygiene benefits, which have seen these kinds of taps boom in popularity in public restrooms, hospitals, and the like, touchless taps also offer water- and cost savings.

SmartBall2American company Cinaton released perhaps the most comprehensive touchless tap with a completely touch-free five-sensor faucet for the bathroom and kitchen, which allows users to turn water flow on/off as well as adjust water temperature and flow without touching any part of the faucet. Three user-defined water flow and temperature settings provide a great deal of convenience and save users from manually adjusting to achieve favourable water conditions.

Looking like a blue bowling ball, the magic of SmartBall is in the centre. The device is inserted into water pipes, travels along them, and can detect weakened pipes before they become bursts. Credit: SmartBall

The largest benefit of touchless taps is that they are economical. Most are equipped with low-flow faucets, so in addition to being impossible to accidentally leave running, they also use less water than conventional taps.

Showers’ transformation

Shower technology has seen a huge boost over the past few years, particularly when it comes to conserving water. In the US, showerheads are being delivered that promise to use as little as 5.5 litres of water per minute without any of the pressure loss often associated with devices of this nature.

Meanwhile, a company called Moen is using technology to its advantage with its ‘U’ connected shower. The U allows you to control water temperature, shower duration, as well as preheat the water, all from your smartphone. That means you can turn the shower on before you even get out of bed.

Once installed, the U is operated via its digital controller or from an app on your smartphone. The user can store pre-sets with info on water temperature, shower duration, and even which heads are on and off. There is a digital timer that will turn the shower off after a set time — a great tool for limiting the amount of time that children spend in the shower.

Perhaps most impressive is the warm-up and pause feature. This pauses the water flow once the shower reaches your desired temperature.

New showers being installed in Singapore feature either a panel display of real-time water consumption in numbers or colour codes at the showerhead to indicate consumption level. They also allow users to set their own water conservation goals and monitor their water consumption history, among other things.

“Showering typically comprises 29% of a household’s monthly water consumption. To better manage water usage, PUB aims to provide information to customers to make informed decisions, especially in areas of higher usage,” said Michael Toh, Singapore’s National Water Agency PUB’s director of water supply, in a press release.

For a totally different type of showering experience, users of the future may choose to adopt a concept called the ‘Fog Shower’. The Fog Shower is a showerheadMoen Shower that consumes much less water than conventional showerheads. The water is heated and sent under pressure to an ultrasonic vaporiser before being forced through perforated metal plates. An intelligent sensor system aims the water vapor in different angles, depending on the movements of the person showering. Conventional showerheads consume 26 litres of water for a five-minute shower. By creating a fog of microscopic water droplets, the Fog Shower consumes only two litres of water for a five-minute shower.

The U is operated via its digital controller or from an app on your smartphone. Credit: Moen

While the Fog Shower manages to replicate the showering experience of a low-flow shower, someone who is looking for something more traditional in terms of a full-pressure shower should look no further than the Orbital shower — provided they can pay the staggering current price tag of R70 000.

The trick to this device lies in its ability to recycle its own water. The OrbSys system filters out particulate matter and microbes from drain water and then sends it back through the showerhead, allowing users to take a shower for as long as they want with just five litres of water. The purification system at the base of the shower is in fact so effective that the water ends up returning to the showerhead cleaner than when it left. After each shower, all the water is ejected, which is what results in the five litres being used.

Smart toilets

Smart toilets have theoretically been on the market since the early eighties, at least in Japan: the Washlet, found in over two-thirds of the country’s bathrooms, is controlled by a remote and features a self-opening, auto-heated seat, and a bidet-style cleaning system that “reduces paper consumption”. The Washlet is arguably one of those cultural anomalies which visitors to Japan often discuss on returning. The head of the company who manufactures the Washlet believes that they have not previously caught on in the West “because of the cultural taboo over talking about toilets”, which is understandable.

Yet, with the rise of the Internet of Things leaving no home accessory unsmartened, smart loos are one modern bathroom technology whose time seems to have finally come.

SpinX 1Probably the most famous technological toilet is the Kohler Numi, which at roughly R75 000 includes a bidet and heated dryer, heated seats, foot warmers, custom settings for individual users, and a built-in music player.

Never clean your toilet again: the self-cleaning SpinX boasts a robotic brush inside the toilet lid. Credit: SpinX

The latest version also features a Bluetooth receiver that allows users to stream music directly from their smartphone, an SD card and slot for users to create playlists, or program a personalised greeting — who wouldn’t want their toilet to say hello when they sit down? Another new feature is ambient lighting, which includes seven different colours. Users can have the Numi cycle through each of the colours, or have a different colour set for each day of the week.

The new Numi also includes a battery pack that can support up to 100 flushes, so even in an extended power outage, the toilet will still function as normal. Like the original Numi, everything on the new model is controlled through a wireless remote. Even the lid of the toilet seat is opened and closed through the remote.

The final new feature comes in the form of a USB port on the back. This allows service technicians to come out and update the firmware on the toilet. That’s right, the toilet has firmware.

But innovative toilets can be so much more than simply entertainment devices. Innovations include the self-cleaning toilet the SpinX, which boasts a robotic brush inside the toilet lid. The owner simply replaces the existing toilet lid with the SpinX, and bids farewell to one of the most loathed chores in the home. The actual brush is installed within the toilet lid cover. When it’s time for the machine to start cleaning, it will send a soap-sudded jet stream of water into your toilet bowl and set the brush in motion. Once it’s done, the brush washes itself with some more soap and water, then tucks itself back into its little compartment. You don’t even have to tell the SpinX when you want it to clean. Thanks to the smart sensor flushing feature, anytime you send your waste down the tube, the brush comes out — the smart sensor scans the toilet’s shape and tells the brush where to scrub.

Another hygienic addition to the common toilet range are those that come with ultraviolet (UV)-sterilised seats and bowls. The BeeVi WALDEN 2.0, for instance, features a UV lamp installed just below the lid to sterilise or disinfect the toilet bowl, seat, as well as the lid. A truly innovative feature of the toilet that will impress the adventurous and horrify our grandmothers, is that this toilet also features a built-in health screening system that could be used to analyse urine and other waste matter and inform users of their current well-being via a smartphone application.

As demonstrated by these toilets, germs seem to be the main concern with this new generation of bathroom technology. Toilet models, such as the Kohler Numi, are designed to avoid anyone touching the devices in any other way besides sitting down.

Smart pipes and water monitoring tools

Monitoring the state of the pipes in a home, office, or other space has traditionally been fairly difficult. Leaks can sometimes do a huge amount of damage and waste a vast quantity of water before a homeowner detects them, but that is starting to change. New systems that use smart technology, hardware, and the latest Internet-based software are being put in place to gather, collate, and crunch real-time data on conditions within the water network of everything from homes to entire municipalities. The best of these systems can not only spot a problem, but automatically fix it as well.

A company by the name of Flo Technologies has developed a system that aims to detect leaks in plumbing installations as soon as they start.

“A single Flo device is professionally installed on the home’s main water supply line and from that single device, the flow rate, temperature, and pressure of the water supply line are proactively monitored,” says Flo Technologies chief executive and co-founder, Gabriel Halimi.

Halimi says this is the most important aspect of the system and it is what makes Flo different from other systems on the market.

“Water pressure in your home is like blood pressure in your body, and just as high blood pressure can cause your body serious damage, high water pressure over time can cause micro-leaks and bursts in pipes, fixtures, and appliances. By monitoring the pressure proactively and alerting the home owner, Flo can detect vulnerabilities, including leaks as small as a drop of water a minute,” he says.

“This technology provides benefits to consumers, insurance companies, and plumbers. For consumers, Flo can help prevent leaks, lower water bills, and understand consumption habits. For insurance companies, Flo can help mitigate the huge amounts paid on water-damage-related claims each year. Finally, for plumbers, Flo’s alerts are sent to both the homeowner and the plumber, creating a closer relationship.”

Fortrezz is a company that focuses specifically on one aspect of the home plumbing system: smart valves. The technology uses an app to automate your home’s plumbing network through a system of sensors, which are installed in the water system and allow the homeowner to control the flow of water in the home. The system allows water valves to be shut off dynamically to prevent leaks from becoming major water repairs.

Users can use the app to shut off their water from anywhere. Forget to shut off the water when you leave town and a neighbour called to let you know there’s a problem? Connect to the app and close the water valve immediately.

For those with more money, the entire home can be piped with a system of ‘smart pipes’. These pipes analyse water pressure, temperature, and other variables along the entire length of a system, feeding information back to a central processing unit that uses the data along with artificial intelligence and a system of automated smart valves to adjust the flow inside the system and keep pressure in the pipes even, thereby lowering the chances of bursts or leaks. When leaks happen, they are quickly detected and the affected area is automatically isolated.

With a system called BrainPipes, the main water supply line is in the off position by default and doesn’t open without a legitimate request for water. Every faucet and water-using device in a building is equipped with a water flow detection sensor. When there is a valid request for water, by flushing a toilet for example, sensor technology communicates with the main brains of the system to open the valve that is normally closed and allow for the delivery of water. However, when the system detects a loss in water pressure without sensing any need for water, a leak or other malfunction is detected, activating the alarm. With the BrainPipes app, the home or business owner is instantly alerted that a specific device needs immediate attention. In the meantime, the main water shut off in the home remains closed so any potentially disastrous water incident is avoided.

The ramifications of this style of system are immense. Anglian Water in Britain has already been using a similar system to cover municipal water supply in conjunction with an engineering firm called i2O.

i2O’s proprietary software runs the data it has gathered through the entire system to understand patterns of demand and supply, and their relationship to pressure and flow — two critical factors for causing leaks and burst pipes.

“We use artificial intelligence to learn these relationships, enabling us to create control models. These are then sent down to battery-powered controllers, which autonomously use this model to continuously adjust the [pressure] valves to account for changes in demand,” a spokesperson says.

Similar technology also autonomously controls pump stations. Again, the idea is to optimise water pressure in line with consumer demand. In the areas where this technology has been tested, Anglian Water’s losses due to burst pipes and leaks have been reduced by 56% and 40%, respectively.

“These smart controls enable us to control our network to much finer degrees than any manually controlled system previously could,” says David Ward, Anglian Water’s head of water networks.

Way back in 2007 in the UK, Southern Water started using a SmartBall device developed by Pure Technologies, which is inserted into water pipes, travels along them, and can detect weakened pipes before they become bursts. The ball contains a series of sensors, which provide data that is then transmitted to surface stations placed along the pipe’s path or downloaded once the ball is recovered. The latest iterations of the ball contain an acoustic sensor that listens for leaks and gas pockets, while an accelerometer and gyroscope measure the SmartBall's movement, which can later be used for pipeline mapping. A magnetometer measures the magnetic field coming off the pipe wall — data that can be used to find joints and other pipeline features.

But monitoring water, analysing pipes, and preventing leaks is only the first step. A company called Qinov8 has a system called AquaNav, which is essentially a transmitter enclosed in a buoyant spherical carrier around the size of a tennis ball. It free-flows through municipal pipes, drawn by the force of the escaping water. Once the AquaNav reaches the source of the leak, the device is drawn to and plugs the hole. As there is no moving water, it is held in place and sends a signal to the receiver to notify the operator so a repair can be made.

Qinov8’s AquaPea system, meanwhile, works on a similar principle but is designed to repair leaks in smaller, domestic water pipes. When the AquaPea is drawn to the hole, the material spreads, hardens, and repairs the crack from the inside. It has been tested on copper, lead, and polyethylene pipes between 15mm and 90mm and the company is working on using it on larger-diameter mains.

And this is just the beginning. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has recently released a paper on smart cities of the future, which states that within the next few decades, the current analysing and detection systems in plumbing will be paired with pipes capable of repairing themselves completely, needing no outside human aid at all. It’s a bold new world of plumbing and it’s just around the corner, requiring plumbers themselves to adapt firstly into the world of electrician, and then, in the longer term, into IT, electronics, Big Data, and software engineering. A change is coming.

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August 2019

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