George Sigelakis set out to redesign the fire hydrant. His Sigelock SPARTAN is made of a mixture of stainless steel and ductile iron. Its powder coating makes it resistant to rust and corrosion.

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.

Chris Windle, Superintendent of the Long Beach Water District, installed several Sigelock hydrants before Superstorm Sandy in 2012, one of which was submerged in saltwater for more than 8 hours, “and 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, a controversial move, since the SPARTAN is about 20% more expensive than other hydrants.

So far, none of the Sigelock hydrants in Long Beach have required maintenance. The same goes for the city of Franklin, Pennsylvania, where the first Sigelock was installed in 2010. Franklin’s Fire Chief, James Wetzel, admits “that may partially be due to the fact that they are relatively new.”

Sigelakis testing out the first SPARTAN hydrant, installed in 2010 in Franklin, Pennsylvania.

Sigelakis, a 15-year veteran New York City firefighter, in his office in Long Beach. "It would shock you how often fire hydrants don’t work when you need them," he says.

2014-06-03

Co.Exist

The Fire Hydrant Gets Its First Major Redesign In 100 Years

Today's hydrants break, leak, and freeze, sometimes costing people their lives. The tamper-proof and incredibly durable Sigelock Spartan, designed by a former New York firefighter, is intended to work when people need them.

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."

[Photos by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company]

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13 Comments

  • Thomas Goodwin

    It's a nice design , but what would be better in addition would be changing the silly rules in most US cities where you can't park within 15ft of a hydrant, leaving around 30-40ft gaps in parking making parking a nightmare. On most blocks 1/3 of all spaces are untaken.

  • jkelly

    Great question Christopher. Let me help answer that for you.

    -First, the lower valve has been redesigned to prevent leaking that will in turn cause the hydrant to freeze in the winter. -Second, this hydrant has also been redesigned to allow for proper draining so water does not remain in barrel when shutting it down. -Third, and this I believe is more to your point, there is a channel engineered under the protective cap, which allows any condensation or rainwater to flow downward and outward preventing ice buildup under this protective shield. Any ice build up on top of this cap is simply and quickly removed with a simple tap of the wrench. I hope this helps.

  • jkelly

    Great question Christopher. Let me help answer that for you.

    -First, the lower valve has been redesigned to prevent leaking that will in turn cause the hydrant to freeze in the winter. -Second, this hydrant has also been redesigned to allow for proper draining so water does not remain in barrel when shutting it down. -Third, and this I believe is more to your point, there is a channel engineered under the protective cap, which allows any condensation or rainwater to flow downward and outward preventing ice buildup under this protective shield. Any ice build up on top of this cap is simply and quickly removed with a simple tap of the wrench. I hope this helps.

  • great point, it's not just a matter of the unit freezing on the inside (causing malfunction and perhaps damage) it's also a consideration of how much external weather related ice forms on the outside or in the "nub" that would make it more difficult to open the valve. in my opinion the recessed operating nut would be the weak link in cold climate regions.

  • Travis Hulbert

    also the top of the hydrant will not work in cold climate when mounds of snow and ice get plowed on top of the hydrant.

  • jkelly

    Hi Travis- Obviously no hydrant will work if you can't a) see it or b) access it because it is completely covered with ice and snow thats been plowed all around and on top of it. Thats why all hydrants including the Spartan come with snow pole attachments if requested. The only difference is the Spartan snow pole does not get in the way of the firefighter attempting to turn the operating nut with his wrench. Also because the Spartan has no protruding parts like conventional hydrants (pumper and side nozzles), snow plows are also much less likely to hit it when plowing the streets.

  • Travis Hulbert

    There are other people other than the fire department that need to use fire hydrants such as municipal water people. you are asking every one to replace their 5 dollar hydrant wrench with a wrench that will cost several times more then that.

  • Jeff Slocum

    I work for a water company. A standard wrench for a conventional hydrant actually costs between $25-$30. A Sigelock wrench is about double that and is also way more durable and also versatile as a hammer and pry bar tool. Outfitting a fire department and water department with new wrenches would cost about and additional $1,500 total and is very economical when compared to the cost benefit value over time. Regular wrenches bend, break and get lost all the time, so wrenches are always getting replaced. Buy the wrench when the hydrant is bought and it's a very small cost with big payback in hydrant performance and cost savings. ANd the Sigelock wrench fits any standard hydrant, to include collared operating nuts.

  • Ben Winkler

    If you had read the story, you would realise that the cost savings in maintenance and reliability will far outweigh the extra $20 for a new wrench.

  • jkelly

    Travis, because the operating nut on conventional hydrants are completely exposed, anyone with a simple pipe wrench can turn the nut, opening the hydrant and unlawfully take or waste potable treated water, and potentially damage the operating nut making it much harder to use during an actual fire emergency. The Spartan can only be accessed by the company's all in one wrench, which also opens all the other hydrants in the municipality's system. The important point here is that only AUTHORIZED personnel should ever have access to the water supply. The design of the Spartan hydrant provides that security. I think the lives of firefighters and the people and property they are trying to protect are worth any small incremental investment in wrenches.

  • Lia Treffman

    But what if there is freezing rain and it gets into that indentation where the nut/bolt head is?