Lenoir City Not Unique in Hydrant Problem
Contributed by: Ann Hinch on 11/3/2006


Lenoir City may have a high percentage of fire hydrants devalued for firefighting by state standards enacted a year ago, but it is not alone in this inadequacy.

As fire management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service of UT, Gary West advises city fire chiefs and officials statewide. He also works with the Insurance Services Office (ISO), which rates fire departments across the United States on a scale of 1 (best protection) to 10 (worst).

In October 2005, Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Division of Water Supply enacted regulations to identify underperforming fire hydrants everywhere. The new rule states "all water mains designed for fire protection must be six inches or larger and be able to provide 500 gallons per minute (gpm) with 20 pounds per square inch (psi) residual pressure."

Of Lenoir City's 311 hydrants, 93 do not meet these criteria, according to Lenoir City Utilities Board (LCUB) Water Manager Greg Jones. Of the 93, only two are shut down completely.

"It is not an uncommon problem across Tennessee," West said, adding the new TDEC regulation has exposed hydrant and feeder water line deficiencies in many cities. "Infrastructure is always secondary to growth."

One community showing quick response is Columbia, 50 miles southwest of Nashville. For six months, its city council has been working with Columbia Power and Water to plan a $6 million replacement of main pipes in the older part of town, financed by bonds.

Council just bid out the first phase, and Water Superintendent Kelly Powell estimates work will be done within two years. Of Columbia's 1,422 hydrants, 35 do not meet TDEC standards, and just as in Lenoir City, they are located in the oldest part of town.

"It's not an easy quick fix, to go out and set another hydrant," Powell said, adding the problem is obsolete water pipes. Many of Columbia's main pipes in the older part of the city are four inches in diameter, which was "good enough - 50 years ago." By ordinance, minimum pipe size in Columbia is now eight inches.

Columbia Fire Chief Don Martin explained underperforming hydrants are usable for firefighting, but must be hooked into a reservoir or tank from which fire hoses can draw, rather than directly to a pumper truck.

Though TDEC enacted the regulation for public health by preventing backflow of non-potable water into a city's drinking supply via hydrant, Martin said another argument for high flow rate is speed of firefighting. Going up just two inches in pipe diameter nearly doubles GPM at the same water pressure.

He said simple math shows it is far preferable to hook directly to a hydrant than to a tank. If a hose is delivering 500 gpm and its tank is being filled at a lesser rate, even if the effort began with a full 500- to 750-gallon tank, "within 10 minutes of operation, you're out of water.

"You might as well bite the bullet and get it over with," Martin said of Columbia's philosophy behind upgrading its hydrant lines. "You're only going to get bigger; you're not going to get smaller."

West said there are no "1" ISO-rated fire departments in Tennessee. According to ISO Mitigation Online, a third of the state's 1,013 city and county departments are rated "9." Fewer than 200 are rated "6," which has been Lenoir City's rating (and the second most common for Tennessee) since at least 1985.

Only half this rating is based on a department itself. Ten percent is based on emergency dispatch, and a whopping 40 percent is dependent upon hydrant performance, a factor over which fire chiefs have little to no control. The lower the ISO number, the lower home and renter insurance rates a community's residents enjoy.

West credited Lenoir City for working on a master plan for water line replacement and pointed out inadequate hydrants have always been that way - the new regulations simply exposed them.

"And really, that's a positive thing, isn't it?" he said.