Aging Water Pipes Hamper Firefighting

According to fire chiefs and watermain engineers across Ontario, Canada, aging underground water pipes could hamper firefighting efforts and put lives at risk.

There is often reduced water flow in old, corroded and leaking pipes, and this compromises the effectiveness of high-rise sprinkler systems and firefighting equipment. Some municipalities in Ontario -- including Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston and Hamilton -- are now colour-coding their fire hydrants to indicate low water flow areas.

"Aging pipes pose a serious risk. In extreme situations, they could result in sprinkler systems failing or the fire department being unable to put its equipment to the most effective use," said Tim Beckett, Vice President of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and Fire Chief of Kitchener.

"Color-coding hydrants is not a solution. All it does is warn the fire department that sufficient water flow may not be available." Municipalities that practice the colour-coding system follow the U.S. National Fire Protection Association's standards. The bonnet and nozzle caps of hydrants are painted a specific colour to indicate water flow as follows:

• Blue - flow greater than 95 litres/second
• Green - flow of 63 to 95 L/s
• Orange - flow of 31 to 63 L/s Red - flow less than 31 L/s

Frank Zechner, Executive Director of the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association, noted that the older piping systems in the province leak an average of 20 to 40 percent of their water.

"That results in a significant lowering of their flow. We've been warning municipalities about the situation, telling them that just because the problem originates underground doesn't make it any less dangerous."

In Toronto, for example, half of the water network is at least 50 years old, with some of it more than 100 years old. In some municipalities, such as Ottawa, the systems date back to the1870s.

"The solution is clear. More investment is needed to upgrade and replace the older watermain systems. We know this is a large capital cost, but we think it's important for a lot of reasons - maintaining the quality and safety of our drinking water, getting rid of lead pipes, but also ensuring the protection of the public when fires occur," Zechner added.

The Ontario government's own report, titled "Watertight," concluded: "Unless the rate of capital investment increases sharply from the level of the recent past, Ontario will face a gap of roughly $18 billion between what systems need and what they receive in funding over the next 15 years."

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