Great article about Arlington County fire hydrants [Feb. 24]. I was especially intrigued with the bonnet colors indicating water flow. I live in D.C. and, of course, our hydrants are green. Near my home, the city has placed a red reflective band around a hydrant just below the bonnet. Does that red band mean low water flow?

Gary Lesinski, Washington

Yes, it does. According to D.C. Water, the agency that oversees the hydrants, a band of red reflective tape means the hydrant is capable of below 500 gallons per minute. Orange tape means 500 to 999 gpm, yellow means 1,000 to 1,499 gpm and blue indicates at least 1,500 gpm. A white band means the hydrant has been upgraded to a standard 41 / 2-inch nozzle but hasn’t been flow-tested yet.

If a hydrant doesn’t have a band, it is an older design that uses a four-inch nozzle.

And while we’re on the subject, Answer Man should explain that the hydrant color plan in Fairfax County is much more complex than last week’s column implied. That’s because water is complex in that county. Oh, they still make it with two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom, but water is provided by several authorities.

It is not the case that all the county’s hydrants are silver with a red bonnet, as Answer Man wrote. That applies only to hydrants whose water comes from Falls Church, whether you actually live in the city or not. Fairfax County Water Authority customers have hydrants with red barrels and silver bonnets and side caps.

If you get your water from the city of Fairfax, your hydrants are red with white bonnets. And hydrants supplied with water by Vienna are entirely red.

Vienna has already started buying water wholesale from Fairfax Water. Falls Church will do that soon, pending voter approval. And it looks as if Fairfax City is going to follow suit. Answer Man wondered if that meant thousands of hydrants would need to be repainted in Fairfax Water’s livery.

“That’s an excellent question,” said the utility’s Jeanne Bailey. “It is way too early to answer it.”

In the meantime, let us ponder the history of the fire hydrant. It’s a ubiquitous part of our landscape, so common that it fades into the background, and yet when your house is on fire, you sure want one nearby.

Hydrants evolved from fire plugs, said Bowie reader and retired firefighter Stu Newman. That term stems from when water mains were made of wood, either from hollowed-out logs or wooden staves bound together, as in a wine cask. When there was a fire, firefighters would dig into the ground, find the main, then use an augur to drill a hole into the wooden pipe. Naturally, the earthen hole would fill with water.

Depending on the complexity of the fire station’s equipment, either a bucket brigade would be formed or a hose would be lowered into the pool to suction the water out and direct it at the flames.

“Afterwards, they would need to close that off,” said Thomas Ingalsbe, a fire hydrant collector in Anniston, Ala., and co-creator of, a hydrant-centric Web site. “They’d actually have a number of plugs already whittled down to the correct dimension. They’d simply hammer that in until it stopped leaking.”

Both D.C. Water and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission have old bits of wooden water main that they display as relics of that bygone age. Today, of course, hydrants are placed more methodically.

Thomas works for a waterworks manufacturer. In his previous job, he sold fire hydrants. That’s how he got interested in their history. His collection numbers nearly 900 hydrants of all descriptions.

The hydrants in our area are known as dry-barrel hydrants. When the nut on top is turned, it opens a valve all the way down at the water main, below the ground, allowing water to come up to the hydrant’s nozzles. That way, water in the hydrant won’t freeze. Warmer climes such as Southern California use wet-barrel hydrants, where the water is right at street level.

Some cities — New York, for example — paint their fire hydrants black, although Thomas said that in most of rural America, a black fire hydrant means one thing: It is no longer in service.

One last bit of hydrantiana: If you should spot a blue cat’s-eye reflector in the middle of the road, look for a hydrant nearby. Many jurisdictions place the blue reflectors to help firefighters find the hydrant in the dark.

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