‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby’: The Making of the Modern Day Fire Hydrant

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by Derek B. Scott, AMERICAN Flow Control Marketing and Technical Manager

For those of us who were around in the 1960s, we remember it as a time of great change. The news of the day was often filled with references to peace, war, social change and liberation. One of the most famous advertising campaigns of the period encouraged those liberations. It was launched by the Phillip Morris Company in 1968. Seemingly everywhere, the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby” appeared.

Although often considered an industry that is slow to change, the waterworks industry itself has come a long way. Take the fire hydrant for instance. It’s one of the few visible pieces of today’s water distribution system. It just sits on the corner, patiently waiting for an emergency. Its existence is often taken for granted, if not for the need of an occasional coat of paint. Truth is, with a little TLC, these highly engineered valves can last a lifetime. But, where did they come from?

The earliest water mains in the U.S. can be traced back to 1652 in Boston, Massachusetts. The piping materials we see today are nothing like they were back then, as the waterlines were nothing more than hollowed out logs. In an emergency, the wooden pipe was excavated. A hole was bored in the log, allowing the trench to fill with water. The water that was collected around the pipe was then transported by a bucket brigade and poured directly on the fire. Afterwards a plug was placed in the wooden pipe, and the location of the plug marked, so that it could be removed in the event of another emergency. The plug was referred to as a “fire plug,” a term that is still used today.

Over time, the water distribution system began to use cast iron pipe, and the fire plug evolved into using cast iron stand pipes. In the mid-1800s, the stand pipe was upgraded to include a ball and rod-type mechanism that could be pushed downward, allowing the water to flow out of the pipe. These seemingly primitive designs were the precursor to the modern day fire hydrant.

A lot has changed since that time. Today, we hear terms like the “Internet of Things.” We take phrases like “in the cloud” in stride, when only a few years ago those phrases were new and — if you are like me — met with uncertainty. So, what does that mean for today’s fire hydrant?

It has changed as well. Take the valve and hydrants that are produced by AMERICAN Flow Control, all are provided with 2-D bar codes. Using an app called AFC Mapper, these bar codes can be scanned by an iOS or Android smart phone or tablet. The app works to integrate the information on the AFC 2D barcodes, the latest version of Trimble Unity software, and Esri GIS technologies. In turn, AFC Mapper helps water utilities automate mapping functions, locate and manage assets, and improve field operations efficiency. The app can be used by the technician to collect vital information that may not be readily available.

Using the app, field personnel have quick access to information such as fire hydrant thread specs, or the depth of bury of their hydrant. Other information such as size, end configuration, number of turns and direction to open a valve can also be accessed simply by scanning the bar code attached to American-Darling and Waterous fire hydrants. By design, everything works together to seamlessly upload the information to data collection forms. Once uploaded, the information is then associated long term with that specific asset. This information is invaluable in troubleshooting a problem or planning for future changes and/or system expansion.

Additional in-field information can also be captured including photos, GPS location, maintenance records and flow data. This information is critical to the utility technician trying to troubleshoot a problem or locate a valve or hydrant. Take for instance, a weather related event like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, these storms literally changed the landscape of the affected areas forever. Locating the valve or hydrant and having access to previous records, as well as all of the manufacturing attributes we just mentioned, can prove to be a real difference-maker during those instances.

So, I can only imagine if fire hydrants could talk. They would probably say something like “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Posted in Fire Protection, News, Uncategorized, Water and Wastewater