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WATER GOOD IDEA

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

The best ideas are often the simplest. There are exceptions, of course, like the super computer, genetically modified crops, fuel-cell cars, petrol-engines, jet propulsion and the theories of relativity and evolution, etc, but there's something quintessentially romantic about the apple on the head moment. The Eureka sensation of an inventor at the kitchen sink messing about with a soldering iron.

If truth be told, good ideas are rarely simple. But Denis Gibbs, a retired engineer, has managed to come up with one - and actually had his flash of inspiration in the kitchen of his flat in Cheltenham while trying to work out how to prevent his washing machine from flooding. It's not really the stuff of a Hollywood biopic but it is an interesting story of single-minded inquisitiveness.

Leaks from appliances tend to come from loose connections and failed seals. What appears as a pool of water on the lino is usually the manifestation of a relentless accumulation of individual drips of water over time. Gibbs wanted to be able to know if this was happening before the flat downstairs came up to tell him. His tinkering has resulted in a leak detector that has more applications than you can shake a wet flannel at.

The brief is simple. A mechanism is needed to detect liquid and to create an alert.

Many people might think about solving this problem with water-sensors and new-fangled computer circuitry but Gibbs stuck to simple materials available in the local hardware store - some aluminium mesh and a couple of bell wires.

Gibbs' prototype comprises two layers of mesh in a frame, held a consistent distance apart.

Each bell wire is clamped to one of the layers and runs, via a battery, to a domestic doorbell. Water (in his kitchen sink) drips onto the top mesh and passes through to the lower mesh layer and out. However, the surface tension of the water droplet at a given size means that, at some point, the water is in contact with both upper and lower meshes, completing the circuit and ringing the bell.

And that's it!

Varying the mesh size and distance apart means that the mesh can be sensitive to other liquids of different viscosities, as well as being more discerning about the leak flow rate. Maybe in some circumstances minor drips are of little consequence and only major leaks are the problem (like Thames Water's much-publicised water losses);

in this instance, the meshes can be spaced further apart so that only a stream of water will complete the circuit. Gibbs suggests that a mesh mat in urinals, for example, can be used to regulate the flush.

By introducing spacers, instead of a frame, the material can be wrapped around pipework and created in sections to pinpoint the leak. As a plug it can detect flows and have its switching reversed so an alarm sounds when the fl ow stops.

There's the idea of a device that caps the end of an overflow pipe, linked to a radio transmitter that can be activated to send a signal to the homeowner (or facilities manager) to indicate when the gutter needs cleaning, or the domestic ballcock needs a bit of attention.

Gibbs spends a lot of his time now - after sewing up a tightly worded patent - thinking up ideas for other applications; from potty trainers to children's games. In the two hours I spent with him, I too got sucked into the excitement of trying to think of new 'things' to use it on. What about suspended ceiling tiles;

educational toys; flood warning devices? The list is endless, but he's got most of them sewn up.

Even a mesh mat on which to stand that washing machine.

For more information, and to see a still-developing idea, email denis_ gibbs@lineone. net

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