Putting a Lid on Popped Fire Hydrants

Last week, when temperatures soared into the triple digits, my building ran out of water. For two days my apartment had a trickle but the upper floors had none. Turns out people had opened so many fire hydrants in my neighborhood (Washington Heights, New York City) that water pressure was almost nonexistent. All we could do was call the city and wait for the water to come back.

Kids have been illegally opening, or popping fire hydrants for years. Every summer it’s the subject of many a photographer’s photo. It seems like a lot of fun and a great way to cool off, but when I see fire hydrants popped I just get frustrated. I tend to take a hard conservationist line about such activities.

My roommate grew up in Washington Heights and reminds me that for many of the kids playing in the water, this may be the only way they can cool off.

A lot of kids probably don’t have air conditioners at home and most likely can’t go to the free public pools for all sorts of reasons: their parents may be working; maybe they can’t swim and, for many people, a subway or bus ride for an outing is just not affordable. It’s also likely that, depending on where they're from, some of the kids have never had this kind of access to clean, safe water.

My roommate says that hydrant popping used to be much worse. I remained unconvinced.

Manhattan’s Washington Heights in one of three New York City neighborhoods (the other two are in the Bronx) with the highest incidence of hydrant popping. Through its 311 helpline the City of New York received over 4,200 calls about gushing hydrants during this latest heat wave. I spoke with Farrell Sklerov from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about the situation. He says the problem with opening hydrants is three-fold: it’s illegal, it’s wasteful and it’s very dangerous.

Illegally opening a hydrant could result in up to $1,000 in fines and up to 30 days in jail, although judging from the number of kids playing in hydrants in my neighborhood, it doesn’t seem as though there is much enforcement. People may not realize the full consequences of popping hydrants.

A fully flowing fire hydrant shoots water at 1,000 gallons per minute (GPM), which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in one hour. That’s a lot of high quality drinking water literally running down the drain. Typically hydrants are popped in clusters and can quickly drain pressure from a system, as happened on my block. So, not only do building occupants go without water but fire fighting becomes far more difficult and dangerous and hospitals can be significantly affected as well.

It is especially problematic for the Heights because the neighborhood’s elevation requires drinking water to be pumped, instead of being gravity fed as it is in most parts of the city.

In addition, the water can entice little children to play in streets where drivers may not see them, and drivers can be surprised by the stream of water suddenly covering their windshield. Make no mistake - kids do get hurt!

In 2007, the City teamed up with Alianza Dominicanato form the Hydrant Education Action Team (HEAT),which works with youth in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. HEAT educates community residents about the problems surrounding the illegal use of fire hydrants. Sklerov says that since the program’s inception the City has “generally noticed a decline in the number of opened fire hydrants,” although that number is hard to quantify and is heavily influenced by weather.

Besides working with HEAT, Sklerov recommends that people use sprinkler caps. Hydrants can be opened legally if equipped with a City-approved spray cap. Spray caps can be obtained by an adult 18 or over, free of charge, at a local firehouse, after filling out a form. Caps reduce the flow to 20 to 25 GPM, a manageable amount that decreases waste and has much less impact on water pressure.

The kids on my street put a cap on the meter outside of our building and our water pressure has returned to normal. Kids still play in the street but now there’s less water flowing down it. It seems like a reasonable compromise between the hot and the bothered.