By Anthony Zampella, Jr.
Fire hydrants located in geographic areas that experience severe and prolonged winter climate conditions need additional attention to prevent failure. Making sure of their operation year round requires constant maintenance and a comprehensive fire flow testing program. As national water resources manager for ISO Community Hazard Mitigation, I’m privileged to travel the country and work with water resource professionals and emergency services departments on a wide range of water issues—and hydrants are a primary topic. Homeowners, businessowners, firefighters, and property insurers all have a vested interest in fully functioning fire hydrants, regardless of the weather.
I was recently invited to present at the annual conference of the Montana section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) held in Bozeman, Montana. The invitation came from John Alston, water superintendent for the Bozeman Water Department. Alston has been with the department for 29 years, is a past vice president of AWWA, and is an active member. He knows the water supply criteria of the ISO Public Protection Classification (PPC™) program very well, especially its emphasis on hydrant maintenance and flow tests.
Bozeman is located in southwest Montana. Its 19.15 square miles offer breathtaking scenery of valleys and mountain ranges. It’s the county seat of Gallatin County and home to Montana State University. As a result of building expansion and population growth, Bozeman is the fourth-largest city in Montana. Its 43,405 people represent 15 percent growth in the last five years.
For some additional perspective, Montana’s total area is more than 147,000 square miles. It’s the fourth-largest state in the union but has a population of only 1,042,520—that’s a population density of 7.09 residents per square mile. By comparison, my home state of New Jersey is 8,722 square miles with a population of 8.94 million and density of 1,210 per square mile. (We’re the number one in density!)
At the conference, I was able to speak with Alston about hydrant care and maintenance. What follows is a summary of our discussion on behalf of Community Fire Protection News.
Community Fire Protection News (CFP): Because hydrant care and maintenance are the responsibility of the Bozeman Water Department and because harsh winter climate is a factor in your city, how do you maintain your 2,527 hydrants in an area that can be subjected to freezing temperatures six or seven months out of the year?
Alston: Having functioning and reliable hydrants starts with good engineering standards. Minimum pipe bury depth in Bozeman is six and a half feet, but we bury most hydrants nearly seven and half feet. Equally important is a good drainage bed of at least a half cubic yard of wash rock. Proper hydrant drainage is another critical component in these climates.
Because of our lengthy cold season, we perform hydrant inspection and maintenance during the winter months. We follow AWWA M17, Fire Hydrants: Installation, Field Testing, and Maintenance, and generally accepted engineering standards. We do a dip test to check for proper drainage. If the hydrant fails and the test comes back with an indication of water or the depth of the barrel is reduced due to frozen water, we repair it as quickly as possible.
Our hydrant inspection and flushing program is conducted annually, including a pressure test of each hydrant. In the warmer months, we fire flow test one-third of our system each year to comply with the AWWA five-year testing requirement and obtain full credit from ISO. We also conduct hydraulic modeling on our distribution system.
CFP: Considering the geographic location of Bozeman, snow removal must be an issue. Can you explain the challenges and how they’re addressed?
Alston: We average about 85 inches of snowfall each year, so access and visibility are imperative. We clear hydrants of snow by shoveling, using a backhoe, or both. Crews clear three feet around the hydrant and usually dig a four- to six-foot opening in front of the hydrant. We coordinate with the street department so they don’t bury a hydrant that was just cleared. Some of our highway hydrants are set back 40 to 50 feet from the curb. That helps reduce excessive snow coverage from the heavy-duty plows. However, there are times when we have to use a metal detector to locate a hydrant.
CFP: The fire department relies heavily on the hydrants. What is your relationship with the fire department like, and how do they assist you?
Alston: A good working relationship and communication between a water department and a fire department are essential to a successful fire hydrant program. We train firefighters in hydrant operation as part of our hydrant maintenance policy. Part of the Bozeman fire department’s new recruit training is a class with our department on the city’s water distribution system and fire hydrant operation for all times of the year. This initial training and subsequent update training emphasize that improper operation during the winter months can result in a frozen hydrant. Our department is also notified of all structure fires, and by the next day, we conduct a complete maintenance check of hydrants that were used.
CFP: Thank you, John, for this quick but informative discussion. Do you have any final thoughts?
Alston: What’s worked well for us are sound engineering practices, proper inspection and maintenance programs, good record keeping, and a strong relationship with the fire department. All are part of a solid foundation for an effective fire hydrant program. We take great pride in providing our community with a viable system for both firefighting and, of course, safe drinking water.