HOW RELIABLE ARE PRIVATE FIRE HYDRANTS?

BY DAVID R. BLOSSOM, ALCM, CFPS, CFI1

The old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is a perfect description of fire protection systems. In addition, the theory that anything that can go wrong will go wrong also applies. I recall hearing many years ago, as a teenager, about the reliability of the Apollo/Saturn V moon rocket, that if only one percent of the systems did not work properly, hundreds, if not thousands, of things would go wrong. It all had to work and work perfectly. I think we all can agree that this also applies to firefighting. Yet, at the same time, I would speculate that we often are not concerned about some of the simplest and most reliable elements of firefighting operations, such as the good old reliable fire hydrant. However, can you think of a more potentially weaker and extremely important link than a hydrant that doesn’t work?

BRIEF HYDRANT HISTORY

Fire hydrants have been so reliable that they are often taken for granted. After all, you are depending only on a simple valve to open and allow water to flow from the underground main, through a hose, into the pump, and discharge through the nozzle, extinguishing the fire. What could be simpler? The basic design and operation method of a fire hydrant have not changed much over the past 150 years-except for the days when they were called fire “plugs” because the hydrant was a wooden plug hammered into a wooden water main.

Today, the hydrant is either the dry barrel or wet barrel type. The dry barrel is commonly used in areas where freezing occurs and the wet barrel where there is no freeze potential. But, we must keep in mind that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and apply it to the tried and true fire hydrant, plug, or whatever you want to call it. This “link” is critical to “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” It is so critical in fact that little else will happen if the hydrant is not working properly, and many large losses have occurred because of hydrants that would not work. This has a profound effect on the ability to not only control the fire but also to initiate rescue operations; protect firefighting personnel; and, of course, complete extinguishment.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Several years ago while I was evaluating fire protection for a plastic bottle manufacturing plant, questions arose about the water supply for the fire sprinklers and public fire service needs. It was considered so important that it was decided that the necessary time and money would be spent to obtain additional information about the water supply. The local water department conducted hydrant flow tests. Area maps were reviewed to identify underground main sizes, hydrant locations, and relevant historical information.

The water department representatives found that the underground mains and hydrants in the entire industrial complex were not in that water department’s system and that it had no records or information for the complex. The hydrants were part of a system of private mains and hydrants that had been installed by the developer. Several blocks of large warehouse and manufacturing facilities had no reliable water supply system from the perspective that it was not inspected, tested, or maintained. Would you like to rely on that system to fight a major fire in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, let alone buildings now reaching 750,000 square feet or more? Worse yet, would you even know that such a system was not being maintained and not in a reliable condition? After all, the hydrants look the same as those in the public system.

The result of this attempt to obtain accurate information about the water supply for this multimillion-dollar facility was that insurance coverage could not be obtained. Based on the odds, it is likely that the private hydrants on this private system would work and deliver the water needed to fight a fire. However, how confident would you feel inside a 100,000-square-foot warehouse advancing a hose stream from a pumper connected to a hydrant and underground system that had been in use for 25 years or more and there was no verification that the system had been tested during that time?


A recent experience. A fire occurred in a convention and meeting building at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, on the west coast of Florida. The fire started in a kitchen area and rapidly spread to the remainder of the building. The first-arriving engine connected to the hydrant nearest the building and began advancing a hoseline. When the hydrant was opened, the unexpected happened: There was no water to charge the line. It was discovered that three private hydrants on the property were not in working condition. Crews advancing hoselines had to abandon the fight until alternate hy-drants on the municipal water supply could be accessed and long hoselines were laid to supply the fireground. Precious minutes were lost, resulting in the total loss of the building, estimated at more than $1 million. See “Incidents Involving Inoperative Private Hydrants” above.

HISTORY OF THE PRIVATE HYDRANT CONCEPT

Initially, most fire hydrants were “private,” in that they were installed privately and supplied by cisterns, tanks, or other limited sources. Over the years, the concept of fire hydrants migrated to the public water company or municipal/governmental water utility. As time progressed and municipalities began to look at the cost of providing fire hydrants (installation and continual maintenance), property owners were again asked to provide the hydrants for their developments. Large shopping malls, hospital complexes, warehouse and distribution facilities, apartment complexes, and so on, all required numerous hydrants to allow readily accessible water supplies. The result was that large developments were required to bear the cost of installing and maintaining hydrants on their properties. In discussing this with the fire official for one central Florida county, he indicated that his district relied heavily on private hydrants. The reality is that private hydrants are prevalent; however, few are maintained according to recognized standards and their working condition is questionable. How confident are you that the next private hydrant you connect to will work? If you are not aware of which hydrants in your area are private or public, you may assume that all are being maintained. You would be assuming incorrectly and could be making a fatal mistake.

PRIVATE HYDRANT REQUIREMENTS

The Uniform Fire Prevention Code and 12 other National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards, including NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code; NFPA 24, Standard for Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances; and NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, address requirements for private fire hydrants. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) publication M17, In-spection, Operations and Maintenance of Fire Hydrants 1980, provides guidelines for the care and maintenance of fire hydrants. Public water companies and municipalities often refer to this publication, but those responsible for the private hydrants in your district or response area may not even know the document exists.

Nearly all documents state that the property management/owner is responsible for maintaining and testing private hydrants and related underground piping. Although this is practical in terms of responsibility, there are some concerns with accountability. The building owner/management may be responsible for the care and maintenance of the private hydrant and water system and may not know what is required for properly maintaining these appliances. Worse yet, after many years, the property management may not even be aware that the hydrants are on a private system and are its responsibility. The water department may assume that the private owner is complying with the requirements, and the area’s fire service may assume that the hydrants are public and that the water department is maintaining them. There can be serious repercussions when the weakest link in the chain breaks and the hydrant you are counting on is not operable when you need it the most.

APPLYING RESULT-ORIENTED SOLUTIONS

A three-step approach is needed to determine the locations of the private hydrants in your area and who, if anyone, is maintaining them:

Coordinate with the water department. Check maps of the water system to determine locations in which there are connections from the public mains to the private water system or hydrants. This does not have to be a completely separate system to an industrial area or complex. The private hydrant could be located on a private loop around a shopping mall or in a private gated community; it could even be a single hydrant installed in an out-of-the-way area of a property near a fire department connection to a fire sprinkler or standpipe system. The point is that these private hydrants could be anywhere and may be very difficult to identify.


(1) Private hydrant at rear of retail shopping center. (Photos by author.)

Conduct an area survey. Using the information from your community’s water system maps and the street/road maps, visit all suspected private hydrant and private water system locations and determine the location, number, and types of private hydrants in the area surveyed (are they “yard hydrants” in old industrial plants?). Use this information to develop action plans for contacting all responsible persons to determine the level of hydrant maintenance-and, thus, reliability. Determine the responsible owner/management for each hydrant/system. In some instances, this may be as simple as identifying the building or the property near the hydrant’s location.


(2) Private hydrant at hospital obstructed by a fence.

Contact the owners. This will allow you to review records on the inspection, testing, and maintenance of the private mains and hydrants and should provide you with reliable fire-flow information. You may discover that the responsible party is unaware of its responsibility or the requirements for maintaining these systems. This will give you an opportunity to inform the owner about what is required and to follow up to make certain that these hydrants and systems are being maintained. You may also choose to institute a color-coding system involving painting all private hydrants a specific color, for easy identification. This will help to ensure follow-up maintenance and firefighters’ being able to identify private hydrants when they use them.


(3) Private hydrants well off the main street at a warehouse complex.

The coloring system could also incorporate color coding for available water flow. A combination, say orange for the hydrant barrel and another color for the bonnet, which signifies the expected water flow, will give two good pieces of information about the hydrant encountered at an incident: the hydrant is privately owned and maintained and the volume of water flow you can expect. To determine the water available, you would have to perform a hydrant flow test or obtain the results of such a flow test from the owner or contractor maintaining the hydrant(s). (See “Classification and Marking of Hydrants Based on Flow Capacity” on page 104.)

POTENTIAL OBSTACLES

It may be more difficult to determine who is responsible for hydrants on streets within a large property development or an industrial complex. For these areas, try to gather any information you can to facilitate a check of the county property records. However, remember that the owner of the property on which the building is located may not be the same owner as that for the property on which the hydrant is. A developer who constructed and planned the complex may have sold or leased the property for the individual building sites but may have retained the streets, water supply, and so on, as part of the infrastructure of the development.


4) Does this private hydrant look reliable?

In some instances, the property may have been occupied many years ago by a government installation that was turned over to private use. Some time ago while completing an evaluation of a large complex of warehouses being used to store peanuts, it was discovered that the warehouse complex had been part of an active air base during World War II. When the military no longer needed the base, it was deeded to the local community for use as an industrial complex. In this situation, the availability of reliable information on the water system depended on the transfer of information from the military at the time the property was turned over. The local fire and water department reportedly handled the maintenance of the hydrant system. The hydrant system and fire sprinkler supply depended on the elevated storage tank and a diesel-driven fire pump, the reliability of which could not be easily determined.


5) This private hydrant is near the fire department connection (FDC) at a manufacturing facility. Note the poor access because of parking. The hydrant and the FDC are not visible from the street.

In some instances, a development, residential or otherwise, within the limits of a fire protection district may have its own private water system. You might assume that the hydrants within the residential area are a part of the municipal water system and generally have the same flow and pressure as other areas in the district. However, such a system may provide only a minimum fire flow of 500 gallons per minute (gpm). It is common policy for these private systems to be turned over to the area’s governmental jurisdiction. When the area served by the private water system experiences growth, a mutual need must be considered. The municipality may have extended its water system to the area, but it may be barely adequate because of the distance from the water plant or pumping station. The private system may have reached its maximum capability and may need additional capacity. Giving the private system to the public water company usually meets both needs. Connecting the two systems and improving pumping and storage capacities often result in a greater supply to the newly joined systems. Following the changes in these systems over time is important to ensure that there is enough water available for fire protection.

ENFORCEMENT

In discussing this issue, we cannot overlook the importance and challenges of enforcement. Although most property owners do not neglect private hydrant maintenance through commission or willfully fail to provide maintenance, the fact remains that there will be many situations where private hydrant owners will fail to comply with codes and locally adopted ordinances. It is imperative that those charged with enforcement remain vigilant in this area. At the same time, there is recognition that many enforcement agencies often do not have adequate staffing. A potential solution may be to conduct company inspections at which time potential hydrant problems can be identified and brought to the attention of the property owner and problem situations can be referred to the appropriate agency for follow-up and action.


Although it takes some time, detective work, and cooperation among several parties, the benefits of such a policy outweigh the efforts. Your confidence in the hydrants and water systems in your response area should greatly increase. You reduce the potential for water supply impairments and at the same time increase safety and firefighting reliability. Through this exercise, you may determine that managing this information warrants the position of a water supply officer within your department. This individual can work closely with the water department, the owners/management of private hydrants/systems, and your fire inspection and suppression divisions to help ensure that there will be plenty of water for firefighting. The need for staffing this position will depend on the complexity of the water supply to your area and the presence of dry hydrant locations. It is likely that you will make some amazing discoveries as you investigate the water system(s) in your area; it is better to be surprised before the hydrant on which you are depending is needed. Once the initial districtwide evaluation is completed, the majority of the work is done. From that point, it is simply maintaining updated information and checking to see that the private systems are being properly maintained. Implementing the suggestions presented here will greatly improve the reliability of the private hydrant water supplies on which you may have to rely one day.

Bibliography

Fire Protection Handbook, Eighteenth edition, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code, 2003 edition.

NFPA 25, Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, 2002 edition.


Hydrant Flow Capacity and Classification

All hydrant flow capacities are determined with a residual flow pressure of 20 psi. (The methodology for conducting flow tests is outside the scope of this article.) The results will show three things:

The static pressure within the water system. Although a true static pressure is the pressure within the system with no water flowing, in reality, the static pressure used will be the pressure at a given hydrant from which no water is flowing. The static pressure will be representative of the “normal” pressure in the system under normal usage conditions.

The residual pressure of the water supply while flowing water from a specific hydrant. This will be plotted on hydraulic graph paper and will show the residual pressure and water flow at the residual pressure. From this point, the line on the graph will intersect with the flow at the 20-psi pressure of the system.

The actual flow in gallons per minute available at the 20-psi minimal pressure used to determine the available water flow for the system at that point.

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