Smart storm drains detect toxic spills

Andrew Duffy

A Victoria company built around protecting natural water systems is taking its fight to storm drains.

A pilot project launched Tuesday at Royal Roads University will see Petro Barriers’ patented drain barrier systems coupled with new sensors and communication technology to create a wireless drain monitoring system that will both strip run-off water of oils and hydrocarbons and alert clients when there is a problem with water quality.

“Big spills make the news, but tonnes of little spills are happening right outside your door and we are all a part of it. People don’t really realize the magnitude of pollution that comes from storm drains alone,” said Mike Ansley, vice-president of marketing and communications for Petro Barrier (and Royal Roads BCom alumnus).

Ansley said as much as 80 million gallons of oil seeps into storm drains in Canadian cities every year.

“That’s the equivalent of 10 Exxon Valdez [spills] every year,” sad Petro Barrier founder Iain Muir.

The company’s product — a pad filled with absorbent chemicals that react with and remove hydrocarbon oils from water while allowing water to pass through — aims to stop all of that spillage.

The product has been on the market and has been in use in cities around North America for nearly a decade. Petro Barrier has created products for CN Rail, Ontario Power Generation and the Toronto Hydro Electric System. Campus Honda Victoria has been using the storm drain filters for several years to keep pollution out of Cecilia Creek.

But Ansley admits there has a been a problem getting wide adoption of the technology. “People love the product, but without manual inspection, they don’t know what’s going on in the drain,” he said.

That’s where the pilot project comes in. The company has partnered with Camosun College engineering professors Will Spaulding and Imtehaze Heerah, who have developed sensors that attach to the filtration pad to alert clients when oil is in the system or when there is a risk of clogging.

“As oil gets through the sensor, [the system] is tripped and sends a wireless signal to a computer and you check what’s going on,” said Heerah. “We have also implemented a flow sensor, so if the oil sensor is not tripped, but the flow sensor is, that means muck and leaves have clogged the drain and it needs someone to clear out the system.”

All data, including water-flow and daily temperatures, are then delivered to smart phones, iPads or desktops to make it easier for clients to avoid costly cleanups and prevent damage to surrounding ecosystems.

There will eventually be eight test drains used at Royal Roads and in a lab at Camosun College where it will undergo testing in extreme temperatures.

Ansley said potential growth for the company could be huge. The cost of installing one pad, without the monitoring gear, ranges from $1,500 and $2,000.

Ansley said if the system works well they will sell it as a service. “We think the market is ready for this.”