A Q&A with Rick Glass, marketing manager, McGard

Glass

Glass

Hydrant Security Maintenance & Misconceptions

In general, what are some of the most common security threats that water utilities face, whether intentional system attacks or passive threats?

The biggest threat is always the introduction of some foreign material into the distribution system. A lot of people don’t realize that the same water flowing to a hydrant is the water that comes into your home. It’s not a separate system. It’s all coming from a water main. So anything that could potentially be introduced into a system is most likely going to happen via a hydrant. So that would be the biggest threat — something caustic or something damaging being introduced into the water system.

Which is more common, intentional or passive?

Absolutely something that’s passive. Any time a hose is hooked up to a hydrant, as soon as the valve of the hydrant is opened, there’s a brief period of suction. So anything that’s in the hose or anything that’s potentially in a tank that the hose may be connected to could be backflowed into the system. So the inadvertent backflow of something into the system is probably the most common. But, because the potential is always there for someone to intentionally inject something into the system — especially in today’s world — that always has to be forefront in a utility’s thinking.

How often do water utilities typically have to address these issues?

They’re forced to deal with the potential every day. As far as actual problems that do occur, they don’t occur that often because, in many cases, there are safeguards built in to protect against it. For example, if someone has a water tanker truck that they’re filling from the hydrant, that tanker truck is required to have a backflow prevention device or one-way valve, or they’re required to have an air gap. So safeguards are built into equipment, but there is always potential for contamination.

How is drought and water conservation having an impact on hydrant security?

In a distribution system, an open hydrant is the point at which the largest volume of water can be expelled. Depending on the amount of pressure in the line and the size of the line, it can vary. But generally speaking, you’re talking about roughly 1,000 gallons per minute (GPM) that can come out of a hydrant. Whether it’s vandalism or theft, if a hydrant is left open, at 1,000 GPM, you can lose a great deal of water. Not only do you lose water, but there are liability concerns, as well. When a hydrant is open, you have a dramatic reduction in pressure in that line. If a fire breaks out anywhere along that line, a fire department is going to be seriously hampered in fighting that fire because they don’t have sufficient pressure. Also, because of the amount of pressure coming out of that hydrant, any person, especially a small child, can be washed away. And that has happened. So there are huge liability concerns beyond the water loss.

Regarding hydrants, what are some examples of authorized usage versus unauthorized usage?

Authorized usage of a hydrant refers to any firefighting needs. That’s the primary use for the hydrant. Every water utility is also required to have a flushing program. So they have to flush every line. A water utility also has to test hydrants periodically, so obviously they have to open and close those hydrants. Those are examples of authorized usage.

Construction crews are required to get a hydrant meter from the local water utility. By putting that meter on a specific hydrant in or around their construction zone and by taking water only from that hydrant, they are authorized to use that hydrant. This provides a means for the utility to determine how much water was used and to charge the contractors for the water. That’s a good segue to unauthorized usage, because construction crews typically don’t like to pay for the water they use. Construction crews and paving contractors are very notorious for taking water unauthorized. Other cases of unauthorized usage include people opening hydrants for kids in the summertime. Hydroseeders and lawn care companies are another.

What would you say are some common mistakes made by utilities that need to address hydrant security or other security issues? What do utilities need to know?

I’d say the biggest misconception out there is that many utilities think they don’t have a problem. And they base that on the fact that they haven’t regularly caught contractors or anyone else opening hydrants. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t have a potential for a problem. If you have even one occurrence of something backflowing into your system, it could be catastrophic — maybe not catastrophic from a fatality standpoint, but certainly from a legal standpoint. So just a little bit of prevention would take care of at least the greatest part of the potential for something happening, and at the same time, reduce unaccounted-for water.

It doesn’t matter the size of the utility either. The amount or level of the problem varies and the source of the problem varies. But the problem is consistent. This is indicated by the fact that all utilities are required to do a vulnerability assessment. If there wasn’t a concern about water utilities being vulnerable to attack, there would be no assessment required.

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