Cantankerous Wisdom: Crank, Pull, or Power it?

By Bill Adams

Ever notice old people tend to ramble from story to story? The past-their-prime white hairs were sitting around the firehouse coffee table solving world problems when the subject of Christmas presents came up. Annually, I always wish for a new lieutenant rather than a present. You can unwrap them—literally—whenever you want and wind them up at your leisure. You can tweak them. You can play with them for as long as you like, and walk away when you’re tired. They are fun. They’re better than toys. It’s like Christmas every day—which brings me to another story.

Did you ever operate a pump when you had to put both feet on the running board and pull so hard on a T-handle you were afraid you’d explode a hemorrhoid at the least or lose a couple precious body parts at the most?

Historically, 2½-inch discharges were controlled by a handle that swung side-to-side to operate (except the old Seagraves—they operated vertically up-and-down). As the number of discharges grew, pump panels became crowded and T-handled controllers became popular. They’re pretty much standard today for in-line valves and on most discharges including three-inch. I was wondering how much force was required to operate one when a new lieutenant walked into the kitchen. It was Christmas again. I asked him. He asked why. I said at some point when a valve is too hard to operate you ought to consider going to a hand wheel or power operated valve. Diminutive sized or older pump operators might appreciate it. Right? He got mad and left.

I asked several dealers and manufacturers how much force (in pounds) it takes to operate 2½- or three-inch valves with T-handle controllers. You’d have thought I questioned their ethnic heritage, number of legal parents, or loyalty to king and crown. That reminded me of another story.

Back in the 1960s, my chief would put out the Darley catalog and ask the troops to look through it and see what they wanted for the upcoming budget. Bear in mind that this was before the Internet and the only real trade magazines were Fire Engineering and National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Command. He believed that if it wasn’t in Darley’s catalog, we probably didn’t need it. It was the best resource for fire equipment—an excellent educational tool. If it worked then, it could work now, so I contacted them.

Jim Darley hooked me up with Mike Ruthy, chief engineer for W.S. Darley & Company’s Pump Division. He got back to me within a few hours. He said, “I went over to our truck plant and tested several installations to get a feel for the range. I couldn’t always tell the valve details as some were behind the panel. From feel, it seemed like the first pull was always a little harder, but subsequent pulls were easier. Once the ball was freed up, the force required dropped for the remainder of the travel. The best test was on a 2½-inch valve, which required 20 pounds to activate. Another, with a complex linkage, required about 30 pounds. I then checked a number of other push-pull controls with unknown sizes, with most requiring about 30 pounds. The worst one was a tank-to-pump valve, presumably three inches in size. It took about 50 pounds. I used a spring-loaded scale, similar to ones used to weigh fish. I put the hook around the T-handle, pulled on the looped end, and watched the indicator as the handle pulled out. It was hard to tell exactly what the reading was when it finally made the valve budge, so I usually rounded to the nearest big graduation. This scale has never been calibrated, so all readings are approximate.” Please note that the valve and apparatus manufacturers are not given—on purpose.

Mike reiterated that this was not a scientific test. “I believe the main variables are the valve manufacturer, the size, the linkage arrangement utilized, how well lubricated everything is, and how often it’s exercised. Age and wear probably affect things as well. This gives you some data, but naturally, this is not a representative sample of every installation,” he said. I didn’t dare ask him if there would be much difference if the pump was discharging 150 psi.

What started out as tweaking the lieutenant brings up valid questions for an apparatus purchasing committee (APC). When should an APC consider specifying hand wheel or power operated controllers? Do you use the hand wheel controller and lose space in the pump house or spend the money for power actuated valves? I wonder if NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, will address it. Come to think of it, down the road it could be a specifiable and measurable item that you could see in a set of apparatus purchasing specifications.

Getting back to lieutenants, Christmas presents, and past-their-prime white hairs, one of the coffee clutch glanced my way and said, “Everyone has the right to be miserable, but you’re abusing the privilege.” Now I know why I never liked that particular guy which reminds me of…ah, never mind.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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