Apparatus Purchasing: the Booster Reel

By Bill Adams

What is revered by traditionalists, belittled by progressives, dismissed by many, and misunderstood by most?

It has been around for 140 years and has seen plenty of fire. It has adapted to changes in the fire service, yet its popularity rises and falls like the tide. It’s the booster reel. Although this article is specifically directed at today’s booster reels carrying 200 feet of one-inch hard rubber hose, the history of the booster reel will allow a better understanding of it.

1957 C85 Mack destined for the FDNY

This factory delivery photo (before graphics) is of a 1957 C85
Mack destined for the FDNY. The rear-facing booster reel became
an FDNY standard for many years. (Photo courtesy of Mack
through Harvey Eckart.)

Chemical Hose and Reels

Flexible rubber hose was made possible by vulcanizing, a chemical process patented in 1844 enabling rubber to be formed into specific shapes and sizes. Also in the mid 1800s, Boston, Massachusetts, pharmaceutical professor James Babcock discovered that mixing sulfuric acid and bicarbonate of soda created a gas that could force water through a hose. The ratio of two pounds of soda and one pound of acid to five gallons of water could generate 200 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure-enough to “boost” the mixture through the line. Early nozzles did not have shutoffs because the original rubber hose could not withstand the pressures generated. According to fire apparatus historian Walt McCall, Babcock chemical engines with ¾-inch noncollapsible rubber hose were introduced in 1873. Storage reels for the rubber hose followed in the 1880s. The Babcock chemical hose thread (CHT) became and still is today the fire service standard for booster hose.

Akron Brass reel

This Akron Brass reel is floor-mounted in the rear compartment of
a flat-back-design pumper. A roll-up door is provided above the
reel, and a hinged drop-down door serves as a rear step. (Photo
courtesy of Akron Brass.)

Chemical hose and chemical reels were also known and advertised as booster hose and booster reels. McCall elaborates that Seagrave was the first manufacturer to introduce chemical reels on motorized apparatus around 1910. He says that in 1913, Ahrens Fox introduced the first water tank and hose reel used exclusively with plain water and an onboard fire pump. The Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department received 10 1913 Model D Ahrens Fox Booster Cars with reels vertically mounted beneath the driver’s seat. A photo of a similar reel installation is in the late John F. Sytsma’s book The Ahrens-Fox Album. Don’t ask for it today-it’s out of print. Eric Hannay of Hannay Reels says, “Vertically oriented reels tend to have a lot of problems over time-weight of the hose collapsing on the bottom disc, the misappropriation of radial bearings in that axis, and so on.” Despite the differences between chemical and plain water systems, the booster description became synonymous for both as well as for the water tank itself.

Akron Brass reel

This photo shows a reel mounted high in the upper section of the
rear step compartment on this Spartan ERV pumper. Room is
provided beneath the reel to store loose equipment. (Photo by
Allan Smith.)

Horse-drawn and early motorized chemical apparatus were commonly equipped with reels. In the 1920s, hose reels on motorized apparatus mysteriously fell out of favor for perforated steel and wire hose baskets mounted behind the driver’s seat. Nobody knows why. In the mid to late 1930s, reels were again top-mounted just behind the chassis cab. Mysteriously, the favored reel location in the 1940s to the mid 1950s was at the rear step area beneath the hosebed. McCall notes the golden years for booster reels were the late 1950s with dual top-mounted reels common until their decline in the 1970s. He says, “I always thought a set of Hannay reels with power rewinds and long play-out arms mounted atop the booster tank looked pretty businesslike and sexy-but that’s just me.” Reel locations today are as varied as they were years ago.

Akron Brass reel

This reel was specified with an exposed roller assembly mounted
beneath the rear crew cab door of a 4×4 commercial chassis.
(Photo courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

Firefighting and Booster Reels

I take no sides and make no recommendation for if or when booster lines should be used now or in the future. No suggestion or inference is made on what size or type of fire, if any, they can or should be used for. Those are local matters. Historically, all fire attack was made with 2½-inch fire hose-the only size available. When introduced, chemical engines with ¾-inch boosters were used for initial attack until their demise in the early 1930s. A water-supplied booster reel was the preferred attack line during the 1930s and 1940s. Although 1½-inch collapsible hose became commonplace after World War II, the one-inch booster was still heavily used until the mid to late 1970s, when high-volume attack lines became the norm.

An area of booster reel lore that should be recognized is the use of low-volume high-pressure fog promoted by the former John Bean apparatus division of the FMC Corporation. Commonly pumped at around 800 psi, “Bean High Pressure” reels and fog guns were primary attack lines for many years in rural and suburban communities. High-pressure hoselines on reels are standard equipment on today’s European apparatus. Reels enclosed in the body that swing out 90 degrees from the apparatus are common. Another European feature is high-pressure reels discharging compressed air foam or similar high-expansion foaming concentrates-a topic for a later discussion.

Akron Brass reel

This reel enclosure is underneath a four-door commercial cab.
This customer specified that the reel be fully enclosed with a
hinged drop-down door. (Photo courtesy of Toyne.)

Reel Makers

Akron Brass entered the booster reel business in 2008. Jason Riggenbach, Akron’s product line manager for booster reels, says, “There are two reasons for us to get into this market. We have been making cord reels for a long time. We were in the process of expanding our reel business from cord to hydraulic and air. This was the next logical step. Also, many of our customers were asking for it. We are Akron Brass, and water flow is what we do.”

Hannay Reels, a fourth-generation family-owned business, employs 150 people in New York. Roger Hannay serves as chairman, son Eric is the CEO, and daughter Elaine is the COO. Roger says his grandfather, Clifford Hannay, started building reels in 1933 for home heating oil delivery vehicles and in the 1940s was asked by several apparatus manufacturers to supply booster reels.

Akron Brass reel

This photo shows a typical front bumper installation of a booster
reel on a custom chassis. (Photo courtesy of Toyne.)

Ed Hash, advertising manager, Mark Saker, sales manager, and Eric Hannay collectively weigh in on their reels, saying that the ratio of steel to aluminum construction is about 3:1 in favor of steel. Regarding why aluminum reels are sometimes specified, they say it’s probably better to ask the truck builders and the end users. They surmise that it might be for weight savings (about 25 pounds), the corrosion resistance, or the aesthetic look of a highly polished reel. Riggenbach says Akron does not offer aluminum reels. A theoretical steel reel installation could include 153 pounds for a steel reel; 208 pounds for two 100-foot lengths of one-inch booster hose; 40 pounds for the water that’s trapped inside the hose; 17 pounds for a roller assembly; plus four or five pounds for the nozzle, electrical connections, hardware, and piping at the reel’s location. How significant is that 25-pound difference?

Akron Brass reel
This bumper-mounted booster reel enclosure is tapered at the rear
to allow tilting the custom cab. (Photo courtesy of E-ONE.)

Reel manufacturers offer multitudes of configurations, sizes, and hose capacities. One advertises four locations just for the rewind motors. There are multiple access points available for the auxiliary rewind (the hand crank) as well as myriad roller system designs. Be wary if your favorite apparatus vendor says the capacity reel you want “won’t fit.” Do your research. There are many configurations of reels with identical hose capacities. Hannay’s triumvirate says it costs about five to 10 percent more for a custom-built reel to fit in odd locations. Riggenbach notes that Akron can also custom make a reel but cautioned that “a one-time order of a one-time configuration could be very expensive.”

Buyers, beware. The surcharge to custom build is for the reel in a crate. Apparatus manufacturers understandably will charge more to engineer, install, plumb, and wire a nonstandard reel in some off-the-wall, hard-to-access location. It may be less expensive for an apparatus OEM to make a notch or a cutout in a compartment wall to accommodate a standard reel. Ask, investigate, and evaluate before you locate.

Apparatus OEMs

Several apparatus manufacturers were asked to comment on booster reels. Mike Watts, national sales manager for Toyne, says there’s a resurgence in customers specifying booster reels. Jay Johnson, E-ONE’s vice president of sales and marketing, concurs, noting the increase is mostly with urban interface applications. Jim Kirvida, owner of CustomFIRE, says 2013 booster reel sales were about the same as 2012-about 15 percent of total production of rated Class A apparatus. He notes that 60 percent of them were for 4×4 rated pumpers.

Akron Brass reel

This rear step compartment is doing double
duty. It has a booster reel on the bottom and
an electric cord reel on top. (Photo courtesy of
CustomFIRE.)

The manufacturers agree that the upper dunnage area above the fire pump and inside the rear step compartment are the most common reel locations specified (photos 2, 3, and 9). On four-door commercial chassis, reels under the rear crew cab doors are popular-especially in 4×4 configurations (photos 4 and 5). Kirvida notes that customers located in cold climates prefer to enclose reels mounted above the pump house. Reels are occasionally mounted at the front bumper (photos 6 and 7). Purchasers should be aware that extending the front bumper increases the rig’s angle of approach, increases the wall-to-wall turning radius, and adds to the friction loss from the pump to the reel.

Flows and Friction Loss

Johnson says customers running variable-flow nozzles generally look for flow rates in the 10- to 60-gallon-per-minute (gpm) range, noting anything above that would be unreasonable. Kirvida advises customers that they shouldn’t expect much more than 30 gpm, saying the friction loss flowing 60 gpm increases exponentially. Watts concurs, saying 40 to 60 gpm should be a maximum flow rate. Elkhart Brass’s fire hose friction loss chart substantiates their statements. It shows friction loss of 52 psi flowing 30 gpm and 184 psi flowing 60 gpm through 200 feet of one-inch booster. Take 184-psi friction loss and add 100-psi nozzle pressure, and the discharge pressure is close to 300 psi before you compensate for friction loss in the reel and plumbing.

Akron Brass reel

This photo shows a side view of the reel depicted in photo 4.
Spartan ERV mounted the reel on the back wall of the rear step
compartment with the drum (aka disks) tucked up between the
shutter door roll and the rear wall to maximize use of the
compartment’s overall interior height. (Photo by Allan Smith.)

OEMs feel there’s a general misunderstanding of friction loss, and sometimes purchasers will oversize (1½- and two-inch) valves and plumbing to compensate for long plumbing runs to remotely located reels. Kirvida notes that oversized plumbing to a reel mounted just above the fire pump may be a waste of money. Purchasers should realize that regardless of the valve size and piping used to plumb a reel, the friction loss in the small one-inch-diameter booster hose over its total length may negate the friction loss savings (and cost) of the larger plumbing.

Be aware that there is friction loss in the reel itself. Riggenbach says, “We have done testing on the friction loss of our reels, and it is eight psi at 50 gpm.” Eric Hannay adds, “On friction loss in the reel, we strictly use engineering tables and calculate a theoretical loss. Usually the loss in the reel is pretty low compared with the loss in the fire hose itself. We primarily leave the evaluation of flow and friction loss in the hands of the apparatus OEM. I think there’s so much real-world experience out there by now that most OEMs have a good handle on what size flow path through the reel they need to achieve the result they want.” The Hannay triumvirate elaborates, “utilizing a full flow swivel joint design where the hose inlet enters the reel has better flow and less friction loss than the older, more restrictive balanced pressure swivel joint design.” They also note that the apparatus OEM must minimize sharp bends and tight radii in the fluid path. Don’t inadvertently red line your pumper’s rpm trying to develop an extraordinary discharge pressure for a flow you may never achieve.

booster reel is fully recessed below a rear dump valve
This booster reel is fully recessed below a rear dump valve on a
tanker. (Photo courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

Foam and Booster Reels

Another misunderstood subject is using a booster line to apply foam. Hannay’s representatives state, “Very little about the design of a booster reel needs to change when designing for foam agents rather than water. The seal material in the swivel joint, of course, needs to be compatible. Viton and EPR are both suitable for nearly all foams currently used.” Caution: Don’t blame the reel people for leaks if, in the future, you decide to use some exotic metal-rotting sealant-eroding foaming agent.

Johnson says, “Class A foam at small flows works well for grass or brush fires and mop-up of deep-seated fires such as sofas or mattresses.” He also notes that foam should be thoroughly flushed from the reel hose and plumbing after use. Jim Kirvida adds, “My belief is that many purchasers use the reel only for wash-down or cleanup, and therefore it needs to be clean water. However if the reel is, in fact, used for suppression, then it should most definitely be foam-capable. There are some direct foam injection systems that are not as accurate at low gpm, which is especially true of compressed air foam systems (CAFS) where the correct foam water ratio is crucial.” He notes that any use of foam and reels should be routed through the fire department training officer.

1952 Mack sedan pumper

This is a factory delivery photo of a 1952 Mack sedan pumper.
Before equipment compartments became popular, it was common
on this style rig to locate a booster reel on each side. (Photo
courtesy of Mack through Harvey Eckart.)

Mike Watts explains, “For rural grass fire applications, it is very common to use foam in boosters. If you do not match the ability to supply water to the fire load, you can get into trouble very quickly. You have to choose the correct tool for the job.” Riggenbach states, “If you are using an inline eductor, the biggest thing to keep in mind when using foam through a booster reel is the hose size and length. The friction loss through the hose has to be closely monitored to prevent creating too much back pressure.”

Personal Opinion: Compartment-Mounted Reels

Purchasers should carefully evaluate installing booster reels in any compartment, especially the rear step compartment, which, in many instances, is the largest one on a pumper. Apparatus purchasing committees (APCs), always clamoring for more compartment space, literally spend thousands of dollars to find and add extra compartmentation. Concurrently, safety advocates promote the well-being of firefighters by recommending locating loose and heavy equipment where it can be safely accessed. Their interests can clash over mounting a booster reel in the rear step compartment. A common size rear compartment is 42 inches wide by 40 inches high by 26 inches deep-about 25 cubic feet. A booster reel with a capacity of 200 feet of one-inch weighs about 400 pounds; takes up about 13 cubic feet; and, once bolted in, is never moved. Why bolt it to a compartment floor? Many times, the reel is the sole occupant of that compartment. Can an APC do better?

Photo 2 shows a floor-mounted reel. A shelf could have been located above it. Photos 3 and 9 show a reel mounted high on the back wall. There’s space beneath it to carry loose equipment, perhaps the hydrant makeup. Photo 8 shows a rear compartment doing double duty with an electric cord reel mounted above a booster reel. If a reel must be mounted inside a compartment, consider asking the vendor to mount it on or under a compartment shelf-especially if the vendor promotes its shelving as having a 500-pound capacity. Check the specs. Reels have been located on the tops of fire trucks since they were horse-drawn. Why do we hide them today?

Should accessing the nozzle of a booster reel have precedence over easily, efficiently, and safely accessing other equipment that is removed with a degree of regularity? It could depend on how often and how quickly that booster line must be put into service. Analyze and prioritize before you finalize.

aluminum reels is ready for shipment at Hannay's factory

This row of aluminum reels is ready for shipment at Hannay’s
factory. (Photo courtesy of Hannay Reels.)

The Future

There appears to be a consistent demand for booster reels. Hannay’s numbers are within five percent of what they were in 2003-several thousand reels every year. At Akron, “We are anticipating a slight downturn in the traditional firefighting booster reel market,” says Riggenbach. “However, we do see an increased demand for ultra-high-pressure booster reels with pressures in the 1,000- to 1,500-psi range. The maximum operating pressure of our standard booster reels is 1,000 psi.”

I believe booster reels have a place in today’s fire service. I also believe an APC has the obligation to define exactly what it expects the booster reel to do on its fireground. After all, an APC could be spending three or four thousand dollars for it. The APC should not assume a reel will function in a certain way just because the committee wants it to. Ask what the reel can do. Purchasing specifications should be as explicit in the performance desired as in the level of construction expected. Be careful. Seek technical help in instances where flow and friction loss may be a concern such as in complex foam systems. You can’t blame the reel manufacturer or the apparatus OEM if a reel can’t perform to a standard you did not define.

Roger Hannay says, “Over the years, booster reel sales have had their ups and downs in terms of numbers as various gurus in the industry either praised them for quick payout and recovery or panned them for not having the flow rate of 1½-inch.” He continues, “Over the years, booster reels have certainly had their share of putting out garbage can fires, car fires, and grass fires. After the fire is over, it sure is nice to push a button rather than tediously refolding the flat hose.” He’s got a point there.


BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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