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A Growing Trend: Hydrant Locks to Reduce Illegal Summer Showers

July 20, 1990

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ The spray of an open fire hydrant - for generations, an escape from urban summer swelter - is going the way of such lost childhood pleasures as marbles and mumbletypeg.

Newark is among a small group of cities that have turned to The Custodian, a magnetic locking device, to crack down on the illegal diversion of city water from hydrants.

Hydrants have long offered children the easiest, cheapest way to cool down on a summer’s day. But the practice has a dangerous downside - it diverts water that may be needed to fight fires.

Some children say they know about the dangers in opening hydrants, but they need some relief from the sweltering conditions of the city.

″They should and they shouldn’t do it,″ said Latasha Harris, 14, who used to play under open hydrants. ″In a way, it’s dangerous, because people could be hurt in a fire if there’s no water.

″But it’s hot. I mean, some people can’t afford to go places to go swimming. They should at least let people use the sprinklers. That doesn’t waste as much water.″

Officials in Newark, Paterson and Passaic in New Jersey, and in Boston, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo., say the magnetic lock that slips over the top of a fire hydrant has sharply reduced the amount of water loss. The lock comes equipped with a key wrench, which is needed to open the hydrant. They are also used in Washington, D.C., and New Haven, Conn.

″This is the first thing we’ve found so far that has worked,″ said Bob Kerns, director of the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities.

Installing 1,500 caps on the most popular of the city’s 5,200 hydrants saved Newark enough money on salaries, repairs and water to pay for the devices, said Andrew Pappachen, a supervising engineer in the Water Department.

Hydra-Shield Manufacturing Inc. of Irving, Texas, sells The Custodian and its special wrench for about $500, said salesman Ron Green. Sales primarily have been in northeastern cities, he said.

The average number of open hydrant reports on a typical summer weekend dropped from 200 two years ago to 10 this summer, said Newark Fire Department spokesman Larry Krieger.

Vandals have used blow torches, chain saws, drills and sledgehammers to damage the locking device, officials said, but only on a few occasions have they succeeded in getting water from the hydrants.

″Some people really attack them,″ said Mark Durham of the Chicago Water Department. ″There have been cases where hydrants were damaged and rendered inoperable, but no water was lost.″

The Custodian is an improvement over earlier hydrant security devices, said Wendell Inhoffer, general superintendent of the Passaic Valley Water Commission, which installed 400 caps in Paterson and Passaic.

″Some early devices needed scissor wrenches to open, so we made sure all the fire departments had them. The kids found a way to open them with coat hangers,″ Inhoffer said.

Illegal taps were virtually eliminated in Boston after the caps were installed on all hydrants in public housing projects, said Fred Famolare, an aide to the Fire Department’s deputy chief.

″But nothing’s foolproof. We’ve noticed lately that some people are putting a large magnet on top of the hydrant and then using a plumber’s wrench,″ Famolare said.

Boston firefighters also have discovered a new problem: out-of-town fire companies helping Boston units have found they cannot open the hydrants. Famolare said wrenches are being supplied.

Open hydrants can spew more than 1,000 gallons of water a minute and reduce water pressure in a system, a potentially dangerous problem when there is a fire.

In Newark, Krieger said community groups are no longer allowed to open hydrants with sprinkler caps. ″The drain on the water system was tremendous,″ he said.

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