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Hydrant Artists Irk San Francisco

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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Call it art or call it vandalism: By any name, the unauthorized spray painting of dozens of fire hydrants across San Francisco is costing the city a small fortune and could be endangering public safety, officials say.

Thirty-five to 40 hydrants have been painted silver, red and neon green, but the "artists" responsible may not realize what kind of potential harm they are causing, according to a story by The San Francisco Chronicle.

The Chronicle explained that San Francisco has two types of fire hydrants: those that can pump high-pressure emergency supply water from the Bay and smaller, low-pressure units.

San Francisco painted fire hydrants
Photos: San Francisco Fire Department

It can cost up to $4,000 to fix each vandalized fire hydrant. High-pressure hydrants are marked with caps (left), and the dried paint can cause them to get stuck when first responders try to use them.

Both types are marked with identification numbers and information about water pressure, water mains, and distances to shutoff valves—all crucial information for first responders.

Hindering Help

Painting over that information can cost precious time in an emergency, Bill Gunn, a supervisor of the emergency water supply system unit at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, told The Chronicle.

"It's hindering the operations of the Fire Department," Gunn said. "If a firefighter rolls up and there is no information, they have to look at another hydrant or call it in. That's time wasted. [A]nd it's a lot of money."

Gunn told the newspaper that it cost about $4,000 to repair an illegally painted hydrant; the whole spray spree has cost the city about $140,000 in recent months. 

The reason it costs so much is because the hydrant can't just be painted over.

Gunn told The Chronicle that to repair smaller hydrants, the water main must be shut off. Then the hydrant is removed and brought to a shop to be sanded, restamped and repainted. While the work is being done, a substitute hydrant is put in its place.

The high-pressure, emergency system hydrants can't be removed because they control too much pressure; they must be repaired where they stand.

Little Giant

City officials paint one hydrant, nicknamed "Little Giant," gold each year to commemorate its service in the devastating 1906 earthquake and fires.

Sometimes the vandals' paint jobs cause an even bigger problem: The paint dries the color-coded caps in place, and crews have to break them off with sledgehammers. And if there is an emergency before the hydrant is fixed, a stuck cap makes for an even bigger safety issue, fire Lt. Mindy Talmadge told The Chronicle.

Working with Graffiti

"I understand people are looking to do interesting artwork and make neighborhoods more beautiful, which is great except you need to work with the city if you are going to do that," SFPUC Supervisor Scott Wiener told the newspaper.

He added that the people painting the hydrants may not realize the potential harm their paint jobs could cause.

Wiener has recently proposed legislation that would require utilities to allow murals to be painted on utility boxes, according to The Chronicle.

Silver and Gold

San Francisco's high-pressure emergency water system is used exclusively for firefighting. The system was put in place after an earthquake in 1906 resulted in fires that devastated the city over several days.

While the city doesn't want rogue artists painting hydrants, officials commemorated the two fire hydrants that helped put out the 1906 fires by painting them silver on Thursday (April 17).

City officials and community members spray painted the "Silver Twin" hydrants and anointed them with flowers.

Another fire hydrant in the city, nicknamed "Little Giant," is given a fresh coat of gold paint each year on April 18 to commemorate its service in the 1906 fires.


Tagged categories: Fire; Graffiti; Maintenance coating work; Spray Paint; Vandalism

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