Picture this: Your house is on fire. You call 911, the fire trucks arrive, and the firefighters, hoses hoisted over their shoulders, rush to the hydrant on your corner. The clock is ticking while the fire consumes your home, but there’s a problem: The hydrant doesn’t work.
“It would shock you how often fire hydrants don’t work when you need them,” George Sigelakis, founder of a company called Sigelock Systems, tells me.
“How often?” I ask.
“All the time. It’s always in the back of our minds.” Sigelakis says “our minds” because he spent 15 years as a New York City firefighter before retiring in 2000. Now, he’s the man behind the first major redesign of the fire hydrant in more than a century.
Tales of malfunctioning hydrants are frighteningly common. In January, a blaze on Long Island raged out of control while firefighters searched for a hydrant that wasn’t frozen. A girl died in a Detroit fire when a working hydrant was nowhere to be found. A report from Atlanta this month found many of the city’s hydrants are dry. “People live under a false sense of security,” Sigelakis says. “People don’t realize they need it until they need it, and when they need it, it doesn’t work.”
In the early ’90s, he set out to change how the hydrant is made, both inside and out. He spent the next 20 years researching, developing, and perfecting his prototypes. Now, he says his creation, the Sigelock Spartan, is safer and more efficient than its predecessors, and has the potential to transform our urban infrastructure.
National statistics on hydrant performance are hard to track down, but when local studies are compiled, the numbers tell the story: A 2013 report says one in seven fire hydrants in Newark, New Jersey, don’t work. Replacing them could cost upwards of $500 million. Phoenix spends $3 million a year repairing busted or old hydrants. In Philadelphia, illegally opened fire hydrants cost taxpayers $1 million each year.
To redesign the hydrant, Sigelakis needed to understand why they break in the first place. The problem is twofold: First, most hydrants are made of cast iron, which erodes with time and exposure to the elements, leading to cracks, leaks, and freezing. Second, they’re easy to open, making them a perfect target for anyone looking to cool down on a hot summer day. But hydrants are not intended to be used as a sprinkler. On full blast, an open hydrant can put out more than 1,000 gallons of water per minute. That kind of force is both wasteful and dangerous. Plus, residents may not close the hydrant properly, leading to leaks and wasted water.
So Sigelakis’s first step to a better hydrant was to make it nearly impossible to break in to. The working parts of the Spartan “Security Model” are completely encapsulated in a smooth, spherical locking mechanism. “I realized you need to shield it, encapsulate it, so they can’t put any kind of wrench on it and open it up,” Sigelakis says. The lock can only be opened with a special tool he provides, which exerts more than 3,000 pounds of inward force. The result is a nearly impenetrable, simply-designed (if somewhat odd-looking) nub. “Everybody says I have the funny looking hydrant,” he muses. But with the new design comes a new level of safety. During testing, it took hours to crack into the hydrant with an arsenal of tools that included torches.
To prevent leaks and rotting, Sigelakis swapped out cast iron for a mixture of stainless steel and ductile iron, materials that are both resistant to corrosion. Special powder coating on the Spartan further prevents rust. He reengineered the internal parts to prevent leftover water from pooling and freezing in the winter. “This will last 200 years maintenance free,” Sigelakis boasts. “This is a maintenance-free hydrant.” The Spartan hydrant met and exceeded all the requirements for certification from Underwriters Laboratories, an independent organization that tests products for public safety. It is the first and only hydrant to receive a new UL certification–“264B“–verifying its tamper resistance.
There is perhaps no better place to test Sigelakis’s claim than his own seaside community of Long Beach, New York. In 2012, mother nature put the hydrants to the test, unleashing Superstorm Sandy, which left parts of Long Beach submerged under several feet of corrosive saltwater. Chris Windle, superintendent of the Long Beach Water District, installed several Sigelock hydrants before the storm, one of which was submerged for more than 8 hours. “It went through the most brutal winter that we’ve had, and it works like the first day we put it in. After the water subsided, the thing was sparkling,” Windle says.
Since Sandy, Windle has replaced 90 storm-damaged conventional hydrants. He no longer orders new parts for them, instead opting to replace the whole hydrant with Sigelakis’s design. He plans to have 130 in the ground by Christmas, which is a controversial move, since the Spartan is about 20% more expensive than other hydrants. Exact prices vary depending on location and “bury depth,” but the city of Long Beach paid roughly $2,700 for each new Sigelock hydrant. That’s not an insignificant cost, but Windle says the future cost-saving potential of a maintenance-free hydrant is important to consider. The city spends $40,000 a year just to paint the old hydrants, he says. That, plus the cost of replacement parts, wasted water from leaks, and lawsuits (Long Beach sees between 10 and 20 hydrant-related lawsuits a year over things like leak damage and injuries from open hydrants), adds up.
Right now, there are 150 Sigelock hydrants installed across 11 states. Sigelakis wants to see them in all major cities, and his hope is that the hydrant’s success in these smaller communities will provide him with the evidence he needs to convince others to come on board. He spends many weekends traveling to trade shows across the country.
So far, none of the Sigelock hydrants in Long Beach have required maintenance. The same goes for the city of Franklin, Pennsylvania, where the hydrants are manufactured and the first one was installed in 2010. Franklin’s Fire Chief, James Wetzel, admits “that may partially be due to the fact that they are relatively new.”
Only time will tell the true strength of the Sigelock hydrant. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Sigelakis says. “It was built brick by brick, pebble by pebble. But it’s a crime every day these aren’t in the ground everywhere.”