Old Albion ...
Last week we discussed what Albion’s water supply was like a century ago. Let’s take a quick look around and tell me if anything’s familiar, compared to then. Yep: Some of those fire hydrants are the same ones originally installed when the first water mains were put in. In fact, some of those water mains are original equipment, a century old. See that water tower, just down the street from my house? Although well maintained, it’s three quarters of a century old.
None of this would be a problem – if nothing else had changed in the meantime.
Unfortunately, Americans now have more stuff. In 1900 furniture was fairly plain, and belongings comparatively sparse. It wasn’t uncommon for firefighters of the day to carry a bed key – a device used to save the family’s bed, because it was often the most expensive item in the entire house. There were no plastics, few flammable liquids, and much less of everything else – papers, cloth, wood, whatever. Today’s homes and businesses are stuffed to
the gills with Stuff. It makes fires burn faster -- and much, much hotter.
Fire load: Although armed with modern protective clothing, firefighters are facing blazes that burn hotter than ever.
A building fire that, in 1900, could be controlled with a hose flowing 100 gallons of water per minute today requires much more. If enough townspeople with strong backs surrounded the old hand engine and worked hard enough, they might produce 250 gpm; the standard for today’s diesel powered pumpers is five times that. Five inch diameter hose is now laid from the hydrants, flowing five times as much as 2 ½ diameter hose – it’s a hydraulic/math thing, trust me.
Sometimes we lay five inch hose from a four inch main. Worse, after a century the mains have become encrusted with deposits and sediments; the six inch mains might be five inches around now, and four becomes three. It’s possible for a modern pumper to collapse the old mains, or pull a hydrant right out of the ground. Nothing’s more embarrassing than heading back to the fire station with an old hydrant dragging on the pavement behind you.
The good news is, there are ways you can increase the capacity of a water main even before you replace it. You can “grid” the main, meaning water flows in from three or four directions instead of two; you can loop a dead end main, giving it flow from two directions instead of one; or, you can hang more water in your towers, increasing overall pressure.
The advantage of the latter is that you can put up a bigger tower, allowing more water for the “big one”. Did I mention that one of Albion’s towers is over 75 years old? I’m pretty sure I did. The good news is, Albion has two water towers – a new one was put up four decades or so ago, when a new industrial park came to town, and it’s bigger than the older one. But … there’s a problem.
Modern Albion; that's the old water tower in the background.
And here’s where it gets complicated.
Albion’s two water towers are at different heights. I’d thought this was unique, because it causes all sorts of problems, but I’ve recently learned Huntertown has the same problem – a 14 foot difference in elevation between their two towers means the level of one has to drop that much before the other can be used at all. In Albion’s case, the difference is so extreme that the two towers aren’t compatible: valves between them have to be shut off, otherwise the pressure from the taller tower to the east would overwhelm the lower tower to the west.
In effect, Albion has two separate water systems: One services mostly the industrial park, while the older, smaller tower provides for the rest of town. In the case of a large fire in central Albion, the old tower is quickly drained. In fact, the level in that tower gets dangerously low just from normal, day to day use, then fills back up at night.
Wait, it gets worse.
All the water that comes out of Albion’s water treatment plant is piped through the small water tower before being transferred, by way of a booster pump, into the larger tower. I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe the town fathers at the time planned to tear down the older tower after the newer one was finished, but came to the same conclusion I would have – that a backup water supply is pretty darned important – and ended up leaving it there.
Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the result is a bottleneck. If a large fire breaks out in the industrial park, all the water going to refill the large tank must channel through that bottleneck, and that means there isn’t a place in Albion with the volume of water needed to handle the kind of emergencies that happen across this country every day.
So here’s the thing: the new water tower will be on the same elevation as the one in the industrial park, giving the entire community access to the entire supply. The small tower will be torn down, removing the bottleneck. Pressure and volume will increase, bringing better fire protection and domestic supply even to the oldest parts of town.
This is why our present town fathers (and mothers) are asking for letters of support from citizens, business owners, organizations, monkeys in the animal park, whatever. We get that grant, we get a water tower.
If we don’t … well, the fire department carries water in its tubs now. (Those of you with short memories, refer back to my earlier column.) We’d try again in a few years, although I’m not happy about how much costs will increase by then, and meanwhile firefighters will keep doing what they’re doing, even if they have to put colored bands on the hydrants to tell which ones are flowing enough water for a modern fire attack. We have tankers, we have large diameter hose – we’ll manage.
But over time, we’ve taken great leaps in protecting our citizens; I’m hoping we’re on the verge of another leap now.
The Albion Fire Department's 1988 pumper, at a training session. It pumps five times the amount of water as the 1888 hand pumper.