Pipeline Leak Detection at Work

When pipelines are being planned, built and operated, leak prevention is a top priority. But pipeline operators know that, even though leaks are rare, they do still happen. That’s why pipeline companies monitor and inspect their pipelines on an ongoing basis in order to ensure that leaks can be detected and dealt with quickly and efficiently.

How leaks are detected in pipelines

Pipeline operators use a combination of several different leak detection methods to ensure that leaks are identified as speedily as possible. These methods include the following:

  • Pipeline pigs. These are cylindrical devices, which are forced through the pipeline. Highly sensitive sensors in the pigs can measure the thickness and condition of the pipe, as well as the flow, pressure and temperature of the product in the pipeline. They can also detect corrosion, pits or cracks in the metal. Other types of pipeline pig are also used to clean and maintain pipelines.
  • Aerial surveillance. Each pipeline must be monitored via aerial surveillance on a strictly regulated schedule. The frequency varies from one pipeline to the next. Pilots fly the pipeline right-of-way while photographers document anything that could indicate a leak, or even an activity that might endanger the pipeline, such as unauthorized digging.
  • Detector dogs. These specially trained dogs are able to sniff out leaks.

Pipeline control rooms

Pipelines are also monitored 24/7 from sophisticated control rooms where SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) technology provides real-time data to trained technicians.

The data comes from sensors inside the pipeline, which measure variables such as product wave patterns, temperature, flow and pressure. Any anomalies could indicate the presence of flaws, weak spots or cracks in the pipeline material. This information is then analyzed by control room operators who have the authority to shut the pipeline down at a moment’s notice if necessary.

Finding leaks before they happen

Much of the data provided via SCADA technology is based on tiny anomalies in the pipeline, or in the way the product is flowing, so most potential leaks are identified before they even occur.

Because most pipeline are buried underground, it’s usually necessary to conduct an integrity dig when an inline inspection or SCADA data identifies a potential leak.

During an integrity dig, the pipeline is carefully exposed by hand, inspected and mended or reinforced as necessary.

Pipeline leak detection is explained in more detail in ‘The inside story on leak detection’ from About Pipelines.