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City Steamed over Hydrant Décor

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also digging deep into the pocket of the San Francisco taxpayer.

Whether you call it art or vandalism, the unauthorized spray painting of dozens of fire hydrants across the city is putting a dent in the municipal budget and could be endangering public safety, officials say.

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

San Francisco has two types of fire hydrants, the newspaper explained: 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 costs up to $4,000 to fix each vandalized hydrant. High-pressure hydrants are marked with caps (left), and the dried paint can keep them 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 ersatz paint jobs cause an even bigger problem: The paint can dry 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 is even more dangerous, 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.

The hydrant painters may not realize the harm their work could cause.

Wiener has recently proposed legislation that would require utilities to allow the painting of murals 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 the legendary earthquake of 1906 triggered fires that devastated the city over several days.

Despite their views on rogue artists, officials recently commemorated two fire hydrants used to fight the 1906 fire by painting them silver.

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

Another city hydrant, nicknamed "Little Giant," receives a fresh coat of gold paint each April 18 to commemorate its service in the historic blaze.

   

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

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