Portable Tanks Get Lighter With Enhancements Added

Smithsburg (Md.) Community Volunteer Fire Company's Engine Tanker 73 offloads water at a 2008 rural water supply drill.
Smithsburg (Md.) Community Volunteer Fire Company’s Engine Tanker 73 offloads water at a 2008 rural water supply drill. Multiple dump tanks and jet siphons were used to support 1,000 gpm for two hours. (Photo by Mark Davis)
A series of Fol-Da-Tanks are filled with water.
A series of Fol-Da-Tanks are filled with water.
Syntex offers a patent-pending safety hinge intended to protect both the tank liner and firefighters' fingers on tanks ranging in size from 600 to 5,000 gallons.
Syntex offers a patent-pending safety hinge intended to protect both the tank liner and firefighters’ fingers on tanks ranging in size from 600 to 5,000 gallons.
Western Shelter's octagonal SnapTank is available in 1,000 to 3,000-gallon capacities with empty weights of 67 to 107 pounds. Each fits in a self-contained carry bag.
Western Shelter’s octagonal SnapTank is available in 1,000 to 3,000-gallon capacities with empty weights of 67 to 107 pounds. Each fits in a self-contained carry bag.

Sometimes the adage “they don’t make ’em like they used to” really is true. But in other cases, products that look much the same as they did decades ago have quietly gone through so many incremental improvements that they wind up being way better than they had been.

Think about the portable dump (or drop) tank. Widely used in tanker shuttle operations, it has a simple design that is said to go back to when rural fire departments would lash four ground ladders together to form a square enclosure and spread a tarpaulin in the middle so they could stage water. But the folding tanks that have been built by the thousands since that time have improved in materials and design.

While a typical portable tank is really just a liner and a frame, Craig Heider, owner of Syntex Industries in Humboldt, Iowa, said some new ideas have surfaced in the past few years, among them handles on the floor of the tank to help firefighters drain it faster.

Pinch protection is another improvement that Syntex and other manufacturers are working on. Syntex has a patent-pending safety hinge intended to protect both the tank liner and firefighters’ fingers.

Another small enhancement on Syntex tanks, Heider noted, is a new quick-snap latch to hook up and release the discharge spout so firefighters don’t have to tie it off with a rope.

In addition – and this is something everyone is after – “We’re always looking for ways to decrease weight” while maintaining strength, he said. So far, that’s primarily been through using aluminum frames, but Heider said he’s always looking for new fabrics and other materials.

Other manufacturers are as well. About a year ago at long-time dump tank maker Fol-Da-Tank in Milan, Ill., sales manager Chad Christensen said the company started offering a 30-ounce-per-square-yard polyvinyl chloride fabric that was developed for the military and offers exceptional puncture and abrasion resistance.

Improved Fabric

Another improved fabric has been offered by the company for about a year, a Hypalon blend that can be heat sealed. It replaced a stitched-and-glued Hypalon, which is a trade name for a type of polyethylene synthetic rubber.

In terms of tank design, several years ago Fol-Da-Tank added a liner with pickup handles and a patent-pending hinge protection system that is now standard on all its tanks.

On the weight front, according to Christensen, five years ago Fol-Da-Tank sold more steel than aluminum frames, but now sales are running two-to-one in favor of aluminum.

As rural fire departments nationwide continue to struggle with staffing issues, weight isn’t the only aspect of portable tanks that manufacturers have tackled.

Ryan Davidson, national sales manager of the Crew Boss division at Western Shelter Systems in Eugene, Ore., said his company developed its SnapTank line in response to complaints that traditional-style folding tanks were not just heavy, but also bulky when folded.

SnapTanks are intended to be “one-person capable,” and Davidson said a tank can be assembled by a single trained person in four minutes. That’s possible, he said, because the design has only three types of parts: horizontal frame members, vertical frame members and the liner. All frames are aluminum.

Structural Integrity

SnapTank’s unusual octagonal shape provides structural integrity, Davidson said, and if a tanker backs into a tank and damages the frame, only the damaged parts need to be replaced.

Introduced about five years ago, SnapTanks are available in 1,000 to 3,000-gallon capacities with empty weights of 67 to 107 pounds. Each fits in a self-contained carry bag that’s 14-by-16 inches, with the length varying according to the tank’s capacity. The idea is that the tank doesn’t have to go in a special rack on a tanker or water tender, but can be carried in a pickup truck, a chief’s car or an apparatus compartment.

The most popular SnapTank sizes are 1,500 gallons for wildland applications and 2,500 for rural or suburban tanker shuttles.

In a similar product niche are Fol-Da-Tank’s Rol-La-Tank and Rol-La-Tank II product lines, which Chad Christensen explained are designed to fit into a four-foot compartment. He said they’re aimed at departments, perhaps in newly sprawling suburban jurisdictions, that haven’t traditionally done tanker shuttles, but might need to do so occasionally.

Manufacturers agree that dump tanks are gradually getting larger, mostly because tankers are getting larger.

“The unwritten rule is that you should be able to drop all of your water” from one tanker into one dump tank, said Mark Davis, president of GBW Associates, a fire training company and owner of the GotBigWater Web site.

Davis commented that the trend toward bigger dump tanks runs counter to the trend of lighter-weight tanks capable of being deployed by fewer people.

He also noted that progressive fire departments are moving toward multiple dump tanks at a shuttle site. Using two or three tanks, he said, requires more training, thought and planning in placing the first tank.

Chief Robert Cobb, director of community hazard mitigation for ISO, formerly known as the Insurance Services Office, agreed that it’s more common to see two, three or even four tanks in a row at a dump site. He pointed out that while larger tanks have more capacity, smaller tanks are lighter and easier to stow.

Another factor behind the need for more tanks is that at rural fires today, it’s common for more tankers to be available, even on a first or second alarm, according to Edward F. Straw, a senior technical coordinator for ISO. He attributes this in part to the wider use of mutual aid.

Although portable tanks have been around for a while, purchasers still face some real choices when buying them.

Davis suggested that a square, rigid-frame tank seems to be the most practical for most situations, based on his personal experience. And he said he has concerns about the durability of lighter-weight liner fabrics, depending on the surface where a tank is set up and whether a tarp is put on the ground to protect it.

Don Freyer, a former coordinator for the State of Georgia’s Rural Fire Defense Program, is a member of the National Fire Protection Association committee that handles the NFPA 1142 Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting. Overall, he’s spent about 30 years training and working in rural water supply operations.

Based on that experience, he said, he likes square cross-section frame tubing better than round. While square tubing is more expensive, he said it’s less likely to bend or bow over the long haul.

And though bigger dump tanks are more popular, Freyer suggested that it might be smarter to buy two smaller tanks and to know how to link them if needed.

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