Dollars and Sense: Front Suctions on Commercial Pumpers

What can possibly cost more than $15,000 that could decrease a pump’s efficiency by 50 percent, require the purchase of heavier front axle components, increase the overall length of an apparatus, and add more than two feet to a rig’s wall-to-wall turning radius?

It’s a suction inlet on the front bumper of a commercial chassis fire apparatus. Front suction inlets are not common on commercial chassis apparatus and when specified probably should be job-specific. Regardless of whether it is called a front steamer, a front suction, or a front inlet, purchasers should specify if its intended purpose is solely for drafting or will always be used as an inlet supplied by a pressurized water source or both. Defining the purpose of the inlet can help vendors in recommending a layout. There can be a substantial difference in pricing.

There is no intent to disparage fire departments that use front suctions on commercial chassis. A common scenario is in rural settings where the only available water is carried on the apparatus to the scene. Additional water tanked in is usually stored in portable ponds where it’s drafted by the attack apparatus. It is a local decision whether a rig drafts from the sides, front, rear, or any combination thereof. It is one that should be periodically evaluated. Vendors are remiss if they do not inform potential customers of the available front suction options; their costs and advantages; and, just as important, any disadvantages. Fire departments can be equally remiss if they fail to investigate all options. An ideal time to evaluate firematic procedures is just prior to purchasing a new rig. Vendors must use care to not alienate potential purchasers when discussing fireground tactics. Purchasers should be receptive to new ideas and changes.

1 A 1960s-era B-Model conventional Mack pumper shows a common front suction installation on commercial rigs of that era. Back then, most front and rear steamer suctions were ungated and were used for drafting and big-fire hookups. Early front suction piping in wheel well areas of some commercial chassis showed evidence of “tire scrape.” (Photo courtesy of Harvey Eckart.)

1 A 1960s-era B-Model conventional Mack pumper shows a common front suction installation on commercial rigs of that era. Back then, most front and rear steamer suctions were ungated and were used for drafting and big-fire hookups. Early front suction piping in wheel well areas of some commercial chassis showed evidence of “tire scrape.” (Photo courtesy of Harvey Eckart.)

Grant Spencer, vice president of Spencer Manufacturing; Grady North, product manager at E-ONE; Mike Watts, national sales manager at Toyne; and Jim Kirvida, president and owner of CustomFIRE provided insight on the subject. The prices quoted by the manufacturers are approximate. They are ballpark figures an OEM’s representative could give potential customers. Attendees at trade shows asking for the price of a very basic installation may be perplexed later at the final price when all the desired options are made known and factored in.

The vendors agreed that there are numerous options and unknown factors that require clarification to provide a single price. According to North, “There are too many variables to quote pricing.” Spencer says, “Front bumper extension with suction can be up to $15,000 to $20,000 depending on options.”

2 This photo of a custom E-ONE chassis sans cab gives an overview of front suction piping and E-ONE’s structural support for a bumper extension. Above the wheel well is a weldment for a primer connection. To the right of the Victaulic coupling is a weldment for a drain. Access to front suction piping on commercial chassis is difficult because of fixed cabs. (Photo courtesy of E-ONE.)

2 This photo of a custom E-ONE chassis sans cab gives an overview of front suction piping and E-ONE’s structural support for a bumper extension. Above the wheel well is a weldment for a primer connection. To the right of the Victaulic coupling is a weldment for a drain. Access to front suction piping on commercial chassis is difficult because of fixed cabs. (Photo courtesy of E-ONE.)

Flows and Extensions

Watts states, “Front suctions are, in many cases, losing their validity due to the challenges of clearing the exhaust, axles, and other items. If you look at the piping, it comes out from the pump, goes down, then forward, then up and over the front axle, back down, forward, and then upward (the degree is determined by straight out or up to a swivel). There are an awful lot of bends in the pipe, which will affect the flow.” North adds, “Our testing of a 1,500-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pump indicates a 750-gpm flow from draft using the same suction hose and lift as for the UL pump test. Obviously, a hydrant connection would allow for a much larger flow.”

Kirvida says a straight through-the-bumper suction may have “the draft capability of 900 gpm.” North cautions, “Due to the contours of the front bumper on some commercial cab models, a bumper extension may be required.” Watts says, “If the piping runs straight through, it can be a minimal extension of say six inches—if that.” Kirvida cautions, “Where the chassis engine housing (hood) is capable of ‘tilting’ a full 90 degrees or where the tilted hood swings forward and below the top of the chassis frame rails, a front bumper extension may have to be ‘lowered’ as necessary to allow for the full hood tilt. That itself could cost $800 or so depending on the length of the extension and what’s carried on it.”

Regarding what length bumper extension is required for a swiveling suction elbow on top, Kirvida states, “At least 20 inches.” North says, “20 inches minimum,” and Watts comments, “Bumper extension lengths are dictated by what functions have to take place. However, if you need a tray for hose, have a jump line, etc., then the length can be anywhere from 18 to 24 inches. All of this adds cost.” Spencer, adds, “Length also depends on options, but average would be around a 22-inch extension.”

3 Spencer’s front bumper extension on a Freightliner chassis. Its piping is not routed through the passenger side front wheel well. (Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Spencer Manufacturing.)

Add a Second Primer or Just Additional Primer Taps?

Spencer says, “We recommend doing the secondary primer for a front suction and tapping into all the highest points of the piping to get all air out.” Kirvida adds, “One at the ‘high’ point of the suction pipe (usually overhead front axle/centerline tire) and one immediately upstream of the butterfly valve (high point tap will flood/plug before water reaches farthest downstream, evacuating all air pockets).” North states, “We recommend a secondary air primer if the front intake will be used for drafting.” Watts comments, “An additional primer specifically for the front suction line can add between $500 and $1,000 depending on the primer chosen.”

Write purchasing specifications carefully. If your department desires a second primer, make sure the written verbiage is clear in stating so. If not, OEMs might only provide additional taps off the main pump primer. Ask the OEMs what they recommend and their reasoning. They’ve probably built one before. Remember: If something is not in writing, it does not exist. ”

4 Another Freightliner showing a similar installation by Spencer. The preconnected hard sleeve and low-level strainer is a common setup for apparatus to draft out of portable ponds. Purchasers could consider drafting from a portable pond behind the apparatus.

Single-Suction or Double-Suction Pump?

Some apparatus manufacturers offer both single-suction pumps (sometimes called end-suction and pedestal pumps) and full-bodied cast iron premanifolded pumps. I asked if there were advantages or disadvantages in using a single-suction pump when a front suction is required.

North states, “A single-suction pump would require special plumbing manifolds to integrate a front suction. Full-bodied pumps have a front suction tap included within the intake housing. The extra discharge and suction plumbing required for a single-suction pump would have minimal weight or cost savings over a full-bodied pump.” Spencer says, “A full-body midship pump is what we recommend,” and Kirvida comments, “Maybe weight. OEM-fabricated schedule-10 piping is slightly lighter in weight—maybe a maximum of 500 pounds. Financially, at the most, maybe $2,500, but REMEMBER, a single-suction pump has no tank-to-pump port and check valve, no discharge pressure ports for a discharge relief valve, and no way to record and test flow characteristics of each OEM-fabricated manifold revision.” These must be added by the OEM. Kirvida also says, “There’s no horizontal split of impeller housing to not disturb discharge and suction plumbing if rebuilding the pump. Some OEMs ‘who care’ can design and manufacture increased size manifolds for improved flow or ‘flow-through’ waterways. It’s probably more common that OEMs are recommending end-suction pumps with homemade plumbing to increase their value-added content.

5 This rig by Toyne has a basic front suction inlet on a commercial chassis. The swivel elbow is below and not blocking the chassis headlight. On some custom chassis, swiveling elbows commonly block lower outboard lights, whether they be chassis or warning lights. (Photo courtesy of Toyne.)

5 This rig by Toyne has a basic front suction inlet on a commercial chassis. The swivel elbow is below and not blocking the chassis headlight. On some custom chassis, swiveling elbows commonly block lower outboard lights, whether they be chassis or warning lights. (Photo courtesy of Toyne.)

Does A Front Suction Weigh Much?

Quoted weights range from several hundred pounds for a straight through-the-pumper suction inlet to well over a thousand pounds for a customized bumper extension. The main difference is the length and weight of an extended front bumper plus the equipment to be carried on it. Rather than explaining each widget and design possibility, the respondents all agreed there could be an impact on a rig’s front gross axle weight rating (GAWR). North says, “It (also) depends on options such as a Q2B siren, hose trays and hose, etc. This would have to be taken into consideration for the recommended front axle rating. However, there are many other factors affecting the front axle weight that have to be considered.” Kirvida states, “A bumper extension would weigh more than the five-inch schedule-10 stainless piping. Even the swiveling 90-degree elbow on top would be nearly the same weight as the pipe. The valve, actuator, and pump casting to facilitate the front suction are all back in the pump module and, in total, weigh as much as the pipe itself. On a commercial chassis, the front axle weight is always as it should be—33 percent of the rig’s total gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). On a custom chassis is where the front axle is challenged, especially when returning to the barn with an empty tank.” Watts adds, “The front overhang weight has to be factored into the GAWR of the front axle. It can sometimes make you have to go the next size larger front axle.”

6 7 A CustomFIRE front suction is being installed on a Peterbuilt chassis. The hose connection is recessed behind the bumper in a boxed-in enclosure. The gravel shield is stainless steel in lieu of treadplate, and the center hose well has a “raised and rolled lip” to facilitate removing hose. (Photos 6-9 courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

6 7 A CustomFIRE front suction is being installed on a Peterbuilt chassis. The hose connection is recessed behind the bumper in a boxed-in enclosure. The gravel shield is stainless steel in lieu of treadplate, and the center hose well has a “raised and rolled lip” to facilitate removing hose. (Photos 6-9 courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

6 7 A CustomFIRE front suction is being installed on a Peterbuilt chassis. The hose connection is recessed behind the bumper in a boxed-in enclosure. The gravel shield is stainless steel in lieu of treadplate, and the center hose well has a “raised and rolled lip” to facilitate removing hose. (Photos 6-9 courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

Plain Steel, Galvanized, or Stainless Piping?

North says, “All E-ONE plumbing is stainless steel with a 10-year warranty as standard.” Spencer says, “Spencer’s only option is stainless for plumbing. Stainless is worth it.” Watts comments, “Toyne does not use much black iron pipe. Black iron pipe is about $2,500 less expensive than stainless, but the stainless has a 10-year warranty, and the black iron does not. Also, the stainless is welded so there are many fewer fittings and exposed joints, so you get better water flow (less restrictions).” Kirvida says, “Nothing is worth avoiding stainless steel—not painting, coating, or galvanizing. Of course, you can’t get stainless steel truck frame rails. OEMs who don’t have laser cutting capabilities avoid stainless steel like the plague. CustomFIRE offers a 10-year warranty with stainless steel.”

Elaborating on galvanized piping, Kirvida says, “Galvanizing has to be done (hot-dipped) AFTER all welding and threading has been done. It’s a cheap process but takes time to schedule and transport. Also, the molten zinc can warp the product. The process is the same as galvanizing frame rails, tank cradles, body understructures, etc. The product is physically dipped into a tank. Galvanizing is charged by the pound of metal being dipped, surprisingly not by the surface area. I would not offer more than a five-year warranty on hot-dipped galvanized piping.”

8 A CustomFIRE piping installation heading toward a swiveling elbow above the gravel shield. Note the five-inch by six-inch increaser and six-inch sweep elbow located beneath the gravel shield. Larger pipe means less friction loss.

8 A CustomFIRE piping installation heading toward a swiveling elbow above the gravel shield. Note the five-inch by six-inch increaser and six-inch sweep elbow located beneath the gravel shield. Larger pipe means less friction loss.

9 Another CustomFIRE installation. This one will terminate through the front bumper. Fewer fittings and straighter runs also mean less friction loss.

9 Another CustomFIRE installation. This one will terminate through the front bumper. Fewer fittings and straighter runs also mean less friction loss.

Four-Inch Pipe?

I asked the vendors: If a front suction will not be used for drafting, would it be less expensive to use a four-inch valve and piping? Spencer asks, “If you can fit the five-inch, why go to the smaller piping?” Kirvida says, “A four-inch butterfly valve and four-inch (internal diameter) pipe could save about $500. The only positive reason to drop to four-inch is that one can then use a four-inch flat ball valve (nearly full-flow). It’s more expensive than a butterfly valve but has a better life-span and flows as much as a five-inch butterfly. The industry needs a five-inch full-flow ball valve, made of brass or stainless steel, with spring-loaded seal assembly. If always taking water from a pressurized source, the four-inch will not allow pumping at capacity unless there’s an extraordinarily high inlet pressure.” North says, “Material cost savings would be negligible, but labor, welding, etc. would be about the same. I don’t think you would want to reduce the pipe size. Friction loss in a four-inch pipe is about three times as much as a five-inch pipe at the same flow.” (I added the bold type for emphasis and to show the foolishness of my question.)

Third-Party Certification for Front Suctions?

National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, acknowledges nontraditional steamer locations. Sentence A16.6.1 in the Appendix says, “Intakes at the front or rear of the apparatus or otherwise specially situated might not allow drafting rated capacity at rated pressure. The purchaser should specify the flow rates required from auxiliary intakes, especially front and rear intakes or other intakes located 10 ft. (3 m) or more away from the pump. If auxiliary intakes are provided, the purchaser should also consider requiring the manufacturer to certify the actual flow rates from auxiliary intakes.”

Caution: Purchasers should tread lightly when specifying flow rates from a front suction. They may not have the engineering expertise to specify a flow that can be achievable. According to North, “E-ONE would recommend just a manufacturer’s test. There are no standards for front suction flow tests, so a third party would have to write a performance test procedure that may or may not work for every configuration.” Kirvida says, “CustomFIRE would probably take a pass on that tender (requiring an off-the-wall flow requirement).” Spencer says, “Yes for third party, and also to make sure you draft out of the front suction at delivery and training.”

It is advisable for purchasers to work closely with vendors to develop a performance specification. They may have already flow tested various configurations. A prebid conference is an excellent forum to ensure specifications are open and fair.

10 This photo depicts how complicated it can be to run multiple pipes through front wheel wells. Some all-wheel-drive chassis may give wiggle room for piping installations. Ask if front suction inlets are “designed and engineered” beforehand or if they are “field engineered” on the fabrication floor. (Photos 10 and 11 courtesy of author.)

Writing Specifications

Purchasing specifications found online for front suctions range from a few sentences to almost 500 words. Purchasers should use care when writing their own front suction specifications to prevent specifying something that cannot physically be accomplished. Using elbows and 45s as an example, Spencer says, “Everyone wants the fewest number of fittings, but sometimes you have things to work around on the chassis that can’t be moved or altered.” North adds, “We would not recommend specifying detailed design requirements. Every commercial chassis is different, requiring different plumbing configurations—sometimes even a rectangular pipe section. Even within the same model, locations of exhaust canisters, fuel and DEF tanks, batteries, etc. can dictate changes in the plumbing.” Ensure purchasing specifications reflect the level of quality desired without inadvertently excluding otherwise qualified bidders. On the other hand, Kirvida says, “Nowadays it’s rare that purchasers ‘hold accountable’ bidders who ignore detailed specifications, and you can quote me on that.”

11 This Sutphen pumper shows an alternative to a preconnected suction line on a front bumper. Think outside the box. There may be different, better, and less expensive ways to accomplish an objective.

11 This Sutphen pumper shows an alternative to a preconnected suction line on a front bumper. Think outside the box. There may be different, better, and less expensive ways to accomplish an objective.

Options and Pricing

Again, these OEM prices are approximate. When disparate prices were given, they were averaged. Some commercial chassis can be factory-ordered with a minimal frame extension of about eight inches, which could make life easy for apparatus OEMs to fabricate customized bumper extensions. Ask. A 20- to 24-inch extension on a commercial chassis can cost a couple thousand dollars. Aluminum treadplate gravel shields with boxed-in ends can cost between $600 and $900 depending on thickness (1⁄8-inch or 3⁄16-inch thickness), extra reinforcements for specific heavy items to be mounted, and how detailed the construction specifications are. Nonskid coatings are available, as is the use of smooth stainless steel in lieu of treadplate. I’ve seen photos of commercial rigs delivered with an extended bumper with nothing mounted on it but a siren. Explain that to the taxpayers.

Want storage compartments? Prices quoted were between $600 and $800 for an open well (hose trough). Single-piece and bifold treadplate lift-up covers are available—so are covers with hydraulic stay-arms as well as plain fabric covers. There are multiple styles of latches and cover hold-downs to choose from. Prices are across the board. Don’t inadvertently create a tripping hazard if firefighters might stand on them. Compartments can be welded in place or be removable so they’re easily replaceable if the rig happens to hit a speedbump or a curb. Drain holes and vinyl floor tiles have to be specified, or you may not get them. Be specific when writing your document. Be aware that the longer a bumper extension is, the less the angle of approach will be. A rig’s wheelbase and curb-to-curb turning radius may be the same, but the wall-to-wall turning radius will increase. Some specifications do not differentiate between the curb-to-curb and wall-to-wall dimensions. They should.

Kirvida says $6,000 could be quoted for a very simple front suction installation including basic plumbing and an extended front bumper. Want valving controlled at the pump panel? Spencer says valves could cost between $3,000 and $5,000 depending on the brand and controller (air or electric). Kirvida says purchasers should ensure an intake relief valve and a manual override are included. He notes, “If the front suction is ONLY to be used for drafting, the intake relief valve could be eliminated, as it is a source for potential vacuum leaks.” It is about a $2,000 difference for a suction pipe straight through the front bumper vs. adding a radius elbow below the extension with a 90-degree chrome-plated, inlet swivel, with six-inch NST male threads above it. There also is a cost difference in a pipe merely protruding through a bumper vs. one that is “boxed into” the extension so the fitting is flush with the bumper. See previous statements about bumper contours and hood tilt. Want drains in the piping’s low points? Automatic or manual? Push-pull or ¾-turn? Handles extended to the edge of the running boards?

Words of Wisdom

Kirvida says, “Save your money! Buy a rear suction for less than half the cost. There are NO elbows, it will keep the truck shorter, no freeze-ups, and no ‘banging noises’ from up front. If you must have a front bumper extension for a jump line, it only needs to be 12 inches or so. Don’t allow miter joints! No threaded connections (they rot out), except at the brass inlet fitting. Specify only smooth-sweep (preferably long-sweep) welded elbows.”

North says, “There is significant cost in adding a front suction to a commercial pumper, so you should thoroughly evaluate the need for this feature. If it fits standard operating procedures for your department, it would be a valuable asset. If it would rarely be used or just be nice to have, your money might be better utilized elsewhere.”

Watts adds, “Rear suctions have become more popular because they come out, up, and straight back, virtually eliminating friction loss due to bends and turns. There are a few sweep turns but no hard 90-degree turns or reduced pipe size going to the rear. On a commercial chassis, it is even more restricted, and the pipe at some point usually goes down to four inches. So, you go from six to five to four to five inches and usually end in either a five- or six-inch swivel/coupling. I don’t know what the flow rate is, but it is definitely restricted vs. a straighter run like the rear suction. My advice would be to go with the rear suction option on the commercial chassis.”

Spencer states, “Don’t buy a truck with steel piping. Make sure there are drains at all the low points. Also make sure the front suction/supply piping has a relief valve on it and you know what it is set at. Try not to block headlights or create shadows, but if you do, it’s nice to add fog lights or additional driving lights. Add a secondary primer for the front suction. Connect all high points to the primer to remove all air from the plumbing when drafting. Use Victaulic couplings so piping is easily removable if needed for service to the chassis or plumbing.”

When designing a front inlet for drafting, keep in mind the heights of portable ponds (usually 29 inches high). Don’t forget those of neighboring mutual aid departments as well as heights of guard rails and bridge railings at known and possible draft sites. Years ago, front suctions were not gated—especially when a rig was designed to “drop a line” and head for a water source to draft or tie into a plug. If that’s what “always will be done,” a valve may not be necessary.

Instead of using a front inlet, a possibility is adding an extra length or two of suction hose and drafting out of one of the side steamer inlets that are standard with a midship pump. W.S. Darley & Co.’s catalog lists a 10-foot-long length of clear six-inch flexible PVC suction hose for less than $400. Bear in mind that some apparatus bodies can be 13 feet or longer. Three lengths of suction hose sized to fit a body might equal the length of four 10-foot sections. Think outside the box. Some end users also use a side steamer inlet in addition to the front inlet because of a front’s limited flow. The effectiveness of a front suction inlet on a commercial chassis will be a direct result of how well the purchasing specifications are written. Good luck.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board, 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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