UK water companies still use 'magic' dowsing rods to find leaks, despite no supporting scientific evidence

'Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance,' says scientist Sally Le Page

Jon Sharman
Wednesday 22 November 2017 15:38
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A depiction of a divining rod in use in Britain during the late 18th century, from a volume by Thomas Pennant
A depiction of a divining rod in use in Britain during the late 18th century, from a volume by Thomas Pennant

Almost all of the UK’s water companies have admitted their engineers use dowsing rods to detect leaks or find pipes, despite there being no scientific evidence for their efficacy.

Ten of 12 companies confessed their occasional use of divining rods – a form of magic that dates back hundreds of years which, in reality, relies on the same unconscious muscle reflexes as ouija boards.

In dowsing a practitioner holds either two small rods or a single larger, forked one, said to lead them to water sources.

Its use by employees of leading companies in the 21st century came as a shock to scientist Sally Le Page, whose parents were themselves surprised to see a Severn Trent engineer use two “bent tent pegs” while on the job at their home.

In a Medium post, she documented the responses of all 12 companies after she asked whether they used the same techniques.

She said: “Just because the rods move doesn’t mean they are moving in response to water underground. The rods move when the person subconsciously moves their hands.

“Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance.”

Wessex Water and Northern Ireland Water replied on Twitter that they did not use dowsing or divination rods to diagnose leaks or find pipes.

While 10 others said they did, they all later tried to clarify their positions.

Anglian Water

On Twitter the company said: “Divination isn’t used but there have been occasions where we’ve used dowsing rods. But mainly we use our listening sticks (a device that allows us to hear the water underground).”

It later added: “Using dowsing rods to find leaks is an old–fashioned method. We don’t spend money on it, or issue rods to our engineers.

“Our leakage rate is the best in the sector at around half that of the rest of the industry and we’re using every available technology to tackle the issue; including leak detecting thermal imaging drones and specialist robots.”

Northumbrian Water

On Twitter a representative said: “We don’t use them as part of training for our teams or as an official recognised tool for them BUT our field services manager tells me he’s seen them used successfully before!” It occurred “sometimes”, they added.

Later, the company said: “Northumbrian Water technicians do not use dowsing rods in order to locate water and water pipes but instead favour a more scientific approach based on industry best practice which involves using detailed electronic mapping systems, equipment and technology.”

Scottish Water

The firm’s Twitter team said: “We can advise that these are techniques that Scottish Water use to detect pipework rather than underground leaks.”

A spokeswoman added: “Some of our water operatives use this as one way of establishing the presence of water and pipes. However, it is a very small part of the range of equipment we use for this purpose and would never be the only method.

“We use modern technology such as ground microphones, correlators, metal detectors and other devices to pinpoint the exact location of underground assets and leaks.”

Severn Trent Water

The starting point for Ms Le Page’s investigation, the company told her: “We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.

“The older methods are tried and tested and we do find them useful – as I say, we are venturing out into other methods.”

But the company’s Twitter account later clarified by adding: “I’ve been told to let you know that divining rods are not part of our everyday use, it is an ‘old school’ technique that was carried out before we had reliable tracing apparatus.”

A spokesman said: “We use detailed mapping systems to identify where our network of pipes are, which helps us to react quickly when leaks and bursts happen.

“To track down exactly where leaks on our pipes are we use an array of cutting-edge technology.

“Just recently we’ve begun using satellite data and imagery to monitor our pipes from space and we regularly use drones to spot leaks from the air.

“We don’t issue divining rods to our engineers but we believe some of our engineers use them.

“As long as the leak is found and repaired quickly, by whatever means, we’re happy and so are our customers.”

Southern Water

On Twitter the firm said: “I’ve just asked our technical customer services staff and they advise me, yes we do use them sometimes.”

A spokesman added: “As well as having a proactive leakage detection team, we use drone, sonic loggers and other devices to find and fix leaks. We spend more than £14mn a year to ensure we have the most cutting-edge leakage detection technology, and are proud to be one of the best performers in the industry with regards to leakage detection.

“It’s not company policy to use dowsing rods, although it’s possible some of our leakage technicians may use them. However it’s done, finding and fixing leaks as quickly as possible remains the most important thing to us, and we will continue work hard to drive down our leakage figures.”

South West Water

A representative told Ms Le Page: “Yes on occasions we use divining or dowsing rods to locate water mains however they are not accurate 100 per cent of the time.”

A spokeswoman said later: “We deploy a variety of high-tech electronic methods to detect leaks, such as: drones; installing electronic devices, known as acoustic loggers, on our large pipes; and pressure monitoring across our large rural network.

“We do not issue divining rods, nor do we train or instruct our engineers to use them as they are not part of our standard procedures.”

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Thames Water

The company said on Twitter: “Some of our techs do on occasion use dowsing rods. However, we also have access to a wider range of accurate technology, which most techs find preferable.”

Contacted by The Independent, a spokesman said: “Reducing leakage is a top priority for Thames Water and our customers, and we have significantly increased investment this year.

“This includes upgrading leak detection methods, installing electronic devices on our large pipes called acoustic loggers, which operate around the clock, and increasing the number of people in our leakage detection teams by 50 per cent.

“We do not train or instruct our engineers to use divining rods. They might use them to help find a pipe, but it would then be confirmed using other modern techniques.”

United Utilities

Online the company said: “Yes we do still use these from time to time :)”.

Later, a spokeswoman added: “Our engineers use modern electronic techniques to locate pipes and leaks and we’re also looking at new innovations like satellite technology.

“We don’t issue our teams with divining rods. However, one or two of our engineers were interested enough to learn how to use them in their spare time.”

Yorkshire Water

A representative said on Twitter: “Although few and far between, some of our techs still use them! But they are only used to detect pipework and voids that may be caused by bursts or collapses!”

Later Dave Stevenson, its head of water distribution, added: “We prefer to explore high-tech solutions to help us tackle leakage such as satellite detection, drones to survey our pipework, and thousands of acoustic listening devices that will help us identify leaks in our underground network and fix them more quickly and effectively.

“Divining sticks are rarely used these days with so much better, twenty-first century technology out there.”

A spokesman told The Independent that dowsing rods could be useful “to a small degree”.

Welsh Water

Initially the company said “yes we do”, accompanied by a smiling emoji. But it later deleted its tweet and said in a statement: “With over 27,000km of water mains, we use a number of innovative techniques to detect and monitor leaks on our network. This includes the use of drones, thermal imaging systems, pressure-control models, and alarm systems.

“We don’t issue or encourage the use of water dowsing as we rely on advanced leakage pinpointing technique to help us find and repair the leak quickly.”

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