District Sales Engineer Andy Singer has spent enough time troubleshooting problems in the field that not much surprises him anymore. When it comes to dry barrel fire hydrants, though, he still gets a chuckle out of some of his more outrageous experiences. Here is his educational and entertaining take on the care and maintenance of fire hydrants, and ways to maximize a utility’s return on what potentially can be a 50+-year infrastructure investment.
A Prime Target For Abuse
As one of the few above-ground fixtures in water distribution infrastructure, fire hydrants are some of the more vulnerable elements in the system. “In general, people just assume that water will always be there,” Singer says. “We all take fire hydrants for granted, but hydrants are probably our #1 reason for troubleshooting calls in water distribution infrastructure.”
The list of individuals who operate fire hydrants includes people with a wide range of understanding and experience — from novices to experts:
“With so many people touching them, inevitably some people are not going to be as knowledgeable and well-trained as you would like,” Singer says. “New employees or volunteers don’t always know where the pitfalls are, and that’s one reason we get so many troubleshooting calls on hydrants.”
Figure 1. Activating the operating nut from fully closed to fully opened ensures complete lubrication of all moving parts. (Source: Mueller Company, LLC)
Debris-Catching Dead Ends
Because hydrants are installed on lateral lines that come out of a water main, they are inherently dead-end piping runs. This makes them magnets for debris that gets into the system during initial installation or as a result of water main repairs. Leaks are typically caused by a piece of debris getting trapped in the main valve. However it happens, the call for assistance is essentially the same: “Hey, my hydrant is leaking.”
One of Singer’s more unusual anecdotes came early in his career, and it involved a pair of blue jeans. “How they got there, I don’t know,” Singer laughs, “but they certainly were mangled around the main valve.” A similar experience came when he found someone’s lunch bag — soda, sandwich, and chips in a convenience store bag — inside a leaking hydrant. “You’ll often find debris — typically sticks and stones — in areas of new construction,” Singer relates. “The lunch bag incident happened in a new development where the landscape was barren. A construction worker probably just put his lunch in the only available shade — inside a stack of pipe that just happened to get installed that morning.”
Figure 2. Open and close valves completely. Partial opening increases the potential for debris to get trapped at the valve seal. (Source: Mueller Company, LLC)
Proper Care And Maintenance Of Fire Hydrants
Whatever the experience, there’s a reason and a cautionary tale behind it. Here are three areas of maintenance that Singer stresses:
“Utilities repaint hydrants for a variety of reasons,” Singer explains. “Sometimes they do it to color-code according to flow rate so firefighters can know what to expect when they arrive at a fire scene.” The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 291 recommends that bonnets and caps be color-coded to signify the “available flow” of the hydrant in gallons per minute (GPM), calculated at 20 psi residual pressure. That color code is light blue for 1,500 GPM and above, green for 1,000 to 1,499 GPM, orange for 500 to 999 GPM, and red for less than 500 GPM.
Whatever the reason for painting, Singer advises that workers take the extra few minutes to do the necessary prep work of roughing up the surface to ensure that the new paint adheres well, instead of flaking off after a year. Following instructions like those listed in the Mueller white paper, “The Proper Painting of Fire Hydrants for Maintenance and Color Classification” can help.
Dealing With The Unexpected
If Singer could offer only one piece of advice to someone encountering an unusual condition in a fire hydrant, it would be to echo the words of his mentor, who taught him about troubleshooting leaking hydrants: “If things are not going right when you’re troubleshooting, step back and think for a minute. Don’t force things. There’s always an answer to every problem if you think about it for a while.”