Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Busting freeze-proofs
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Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science

Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Busting freeze-proofs

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A Clayton Mark hydrant

A Clayton Mark hydrant 

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island I would help my father winterize our suburban house about this time every year. We would start off this mid-October ritual by draining the outside hose spigots so they wouldn’t freeze during the long and icy winter.

Because the water supply for the spigots came from the internal house plumbing, we would simply shut off the basement supply valves and then go outside and open the faucets, letting the trapped water run out. The basement valves were located a foot in from the foundation wall and in the heated part of the house. Because water expands as it freezes, doing this system purge every year prevented the faucets, or hose bibs, from cracking and having to be totally replaced altogether.

Somewhere in the ‘60s, a sillcock valve was patented (R.R. Kline USP #3,267,956 ) that did away with this “double valve” system of one outside and one inside. The invention featured a long shaft inside a pipe that closed a valve situated a foot or two upstream (and in the house). Now you only needed one valve and saved money.

I found this out the hard way when I set out to winterize my own house I had just bought, also in mid-October. On a leafy, cold Saturday when I struggled along a dirty crawlspace under the house fighting spiders and heaven knows what, when finally getting to the location of a hose faucet I discovered there was no valve at all to turn off!

The hardware store manager told me later on that all houses nowadays have these frost-free hose bibs coming out their foundation walls when the house plumbing supplies the water. Nice to know after the fact.

When hose faucets are fed from underground pipes things are a little different because they involve a special valve assembly known as the “yard hydrant” or “freeze-proof.” You have probably seen them a thousand times, the shutoff has a red or blue iron handle and head connected to a galvanized pipe sticking into the ground. When you lift the handle it takes a few seconds for the water to gush up and out, indicating it comes from a deep supply line. My ranch has over thirty of these hydrants scattered around here and there and just about every year one or two of them give me trouble. As you will see, they are actually a poor design. Just last week, my daughter Amber left the valve open with a hose attached, allowing the water inside to ice up one night when the temperatures dipped below freezing. The next day she couldn’t shut the valve off because the mechanism was jammed and broken.

Most yard hydrants look very much the same and are designed to control a water flow from a connection buried deep in the ground, hopefully below the frost line. When the handle of the hydrant is raised, a lifting rod located inside the vertical pipe opens a plunger in the lower mechanism allowing water to flow up the pipe and out of the spout. The plunger is usually made with a rubber gasket that seals shut a valve when the handle is down. One important feature of this kind of spigot is that after the hydrant is shut off, any water in the standpipe drains out, allowing parts located above ground to become completely empty. Because the water drains away, there is none to freeze in the pipe.

That was the problem with Amber’s connection. She shut the water off at the hand sprinkler end of the hose and not at the hydrant. But no matter, there are new hydrants available in town and she’ll have to buy a replacement. Unfortunately, the big problem is not getting another hydrant, it is digging a large enough hole several feet down to get to the connections and making it adequate for someone to work in. Today, there are many manufacturers of hydrants and most come from China. Let’s look at one made in the USA.

The Clayton Mark Company, began making water piping products in the Chicago area as far back as 1888. Besides hydrants, they were one of the pioneer makers of steel pipe and were large suppliers to the furniture, automobile, electrical conduit, and bicycle industries. As the need for petroleum products grew, the Mark Company found itself selling pipe and forged steel fittings to the oil drilling industry. Because their business was quite profitable, the wealthy Mark family, just before WWI, wanted to give something back to its employees and started building a planned worker community in northwest Indiana called Marktown. Their idea was to recreate the atmosphere of a gracious English country village and hoping everyone would be happy there. Things did not work out so well and the family sold out to Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1923. You can however still buy a Clayton Mark hydrant although they operate now as part of the much larger French conglomerate Vallourec Group.

Looking at the picture of the yard hydrant you can see that the construction is a steel pipe connected directly to a brass valve device. Anybody in the plumbing industry knows that when you connect dissimilar metals together you set up the potential for galvanic corrosion to occur. You can minimize this likelihood by wrapping vinyl electricians tape along the length of the pipe from the brass up to ground level in effect breaking the circuit. Another cause for concern is the brass inlet at the bottom. If this is connected up to a male PVC fitting (as many on my ranch were), a weak point is created that can easily be broken if anyone yanks or twists on a hose connected topside. Placing galvanized pipe to this input port is frowned on, again due to the dissimilar metal situation. Over the years I have standardized with a brass street elbow connected to an extra brass gate valve sitting below ground that I add so the water supply can be shut off when replacing the hydrant. From this gate valve I run PVC through a union to the water feed, which in my case is usually PVC or black polyethylene tubing.

Ah, but, we are not finished. Another place for a problem is where the water exits when the spigot handle is lowered. Unless the tiny 1/8” FPT drain hole is protected with a mating elbow to barbed fitting and a short piece of hose attached, every time the pump is shut off sand and debris will flow into this hole and grind along the rubber sealing rings. Some instructions just say to place the bottom into a pocket of gravel but over time small granules of rock and dirt will mosey in and cause the hydrant to leak.

I think that whoever has to replace a yard hydrant freeze-proof will agree with me — this is a crummy design.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at: garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

Hannah sold a pair of goats for $420. On one she made a profit of 10% and on the other she lost 10%. In total she made a profit of 5%. How much did each goat cost her originally?

Solution: $300 and $100

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