Of course, you know that hydrants are a necessity when it comes to fighting fires, but did you know that the approximately 14,750 active hydrants maintained by the Water Bureau are also an essential part of delivering safe, clean, delicious water to your tap?
In unfiltered water systems like Portland’s, sediment gathers at the bottom of water mains. If this material is stirred up—which can happen during construction, firefighting, or main breaks—it can impact water quality and cause discolored water at the tap. The controlled release of water through hydrants—a practice called “flushing”—gets the sediment out and brings fresh water in. The Water Bureau aims to flush the entire system before the new filtration facility comes online in September 2027. As of the end of 2022, we have flushed about 735 miles of pipe, or about 41 percent of our goal!
If that’s news to you, it’s probably not the only thing you don’t know about Portland’s hydrants. Brace yourself; the information is about to start flowing.
1. Portland: Keeping it weird, even when it comes to hydrants.
Portland doesn’t just have a lot of hydrants, we have a lot of different hydrants. According to firehydrant.org, “Portland has an unusually varied fire hydrant population, including designs and manufacturers found nowhere else.” That’s right, even the internet says we’re special. We’re going to take that as a compliment.
While many of Portland’s early hydrants came from major manufacturers in the eastern US, there were also several local foundries producing their own hydrant models. Unique and local? Very Portland.
And if you want to impress your friends and acquaintances by knowing your 1944 Pacific States from your 1971 Muellers, you are in luck. Most hydrants have the foundry name and location along with the date of manufacture cast on the barrel.
2. Hydrants, but make it fashion.
When it comes to catching the eye of a casual passerby (or a fire truck in a hurry), most hydrants can rely on a bright safety orange paint job to do the trick. Accessorize with a sleek black nozzle cap and some blazing red pumper caps, and the hydrants are ready for their close-ups.
But have you ever seen a hydrant all dressed up in white, blue, or purple? These non-standard colors let you know you’re looking at a non-standard hydrant. White exterior paint is used on dry hydrants. High-pressure hydrants are painted blue. Black indicates a restricted-use hydrant. And if a hydrant is painted purple, it means the hydrant is connected to a water source that isn’t safe to drink—like recycled water or water from a pond—but is still great for putting out fires. If you see a hydrant with its body painted in the usual orange, but with a black dome, nozzle caps, and pumper cap, you’re looking at a low-flow hydrant.
3. Meet the Coreys! (No, not the teen actors from the ’80s.)
Some of the oldest in-service hydrants in Portland are Corey models installed in the 1910s.
Originally manufactured by the Rensselaer Valve Company in Troy, New York, and officially sold as “List 90” models, the “Coreys” are named after their inventor William W. Corey of St. Louis, Missouri. And the name “The Corey” was cast on the original bonnets of older models. Eventually, at least two local foundries, Helser Machine Works and Western Foundry, were manufacturing their own duplicates of the Corey.
The Water Bureau started purchasing Coreys in 1910, though some might have existed in the city before then. By the end of 1912, there were more than 1,600 Coreys in Portland, making them the most common hydrant model in the city. Coreys continued to be the most common hydrant model purchased by the bureau into the 1950s.
4. But back to flushing: We’re talking debris the size of a humpback whale.
Remember that goal to flush Portland’s entire water system by fall 2027? As of the end of 2022, flushing removed approximately 24,000 pounds of debris from our system, averaging about 35 pounds per mile of pipe flushed. Most of the debris is deposits of organic material left in the mains from 100 years of delivering unfiltered water from the Bull Run. By the time we’re done flushing the rest of the system, we expect to remove about 63,000 pounds of debris. That’s about the size of a humpback whale!
5. Car vs. hydrant
This is one match-up you don’t want to see. The bureau receives reports of more than 40 car accidents involving hydrants a year, and there are also collisions that go unreported until the damage is discovered in the field. Luckily, newer hydrants have a breakaway feature, designed to prevent damage down into the underground pipe. Because street-level damage is easier for our crews to reach, this handy-dandy feature allows our dedicated maintenance and construction team to repair the majority of the hydrants involved in car accidents so they can be put back into service. But just because we can fix them doesn’t mean you should be running into them, so watch out for hydrants, okay?