Plants and trees near fire hydrants – all you need to know


If you have a fire hydrant on the edge of your property, you should consider any rules for planting trees, hedges, shrubs and other plants around it. We know that trouble abounds for anyone who obstructs a fire hydrant with a vehicle – what about plant life, landscaping, rocks and fences?

As a general rule it is acceptable to plant trees or plants and to landscape around a fire hydrant, provided that the hydrant can still be easily seen and that there is 3 feet (90cm) of clearance in all directions to attach large tools and the hose itself.

In this article I’m going to outline a complete guide of issues about gardening, fencing and landscaping near or around hydrants, and what might happen if you don’t abide by them! We’ll look at how tree roots can potentially cause issues as well.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that most countries don’t have the iconic above-ground hydrants that are found in the US, though above ground hydrants are also seen in parts of Australia and much of China. Most countries (the majority of Europe, including the UK) have metal panels that are flat on the ground which can be opened to access the water supply. Sometimes there’s a sign nearby to mark it – in the UK and Ireland the sign looks a like a small tombstone with a big ‘H’ on it!

UK Ireland fire hydrant H marker stone
The ‘H’ that you’ll find in the UK and Ireland, marking a flat panel nearby

Can I plant trees or plants, or erect a fence, near a fire hydrant?

So why do fire hydrants need to be kept clear? More than one reason…

  1. Obviously, so that fire crews can access them during an emergency
  2. They usually need to be maintained by opening them briefly once a year, to ensure a safe water supply
  3. They usually need a proper flow test every 5 years, to ensure they can provide an adequate water supply if there’s a fire.
  4. They’ll need to be painted from time to time.

Let’s look at the rules from various fire codes. First, the USA.

There is no universal fire code for the United States, but in almost all cases the local code is enforced in accordance with either the International Code Council (ICC) or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The vast majority of state and court codes are based on the ICC’s code, although some use a combination, or one is referenced within the other. You can check on page 4 of this document whether your state has adopted ICC fire code, and using this tool you can check if your state’s using NFPA.


The International Code Council’s code states:

507.5.4 Obstruction.

Unobstructed access to fire hydrants shall be maintained at all times. The fire department shall not be deterred or hindered from gaining immediate access to fire protection equipment or fire hydrants.

507.5.5 Clear space around hydrants.

A 3-foot (914mm) clear space shall be maintained around the circumference of fire hydrants, except as otherwise required or approved.

The National Fire Protection Association’s code states:

18.5.7.1 A 36 in. (914 mm) clear space shall be maintained around the circumference of fire hydrants except as otherwise required or approved.

18.5.7.2 A clear space of not less than 60 in. (1524 mm) shall be provided in front of each hydrant connection having a diameter greater than 21⁄2 in. (64 mm).

You can also use this website to search for any published fire codes for your city.

I’ve read many of the fire codes. They usually are adaptations of the international rules above, with a little bit extra about visibility – something like this:

The fire hydrant must remain visible and readily accessible. A 3 foot radius free of obstruction (sometimes 5 feet at the side facing the street) must be maintained around the hydrant.

Why three feet? Basically, a firefighter has to be able to stand next to the hydrant and turn a large wrench to open the hydrant.

BUT remember to factor in that trees and hedges are going to get bigger over a period of many years, both in the diameter of the trunk and the size of the canopy above, which has the potential to encroach on the hydrant. So it’s probably a good idea to try to leave at least 5 feet between hydrant and the stump of any new tree or hedge, to allow for growth.

If there was an emergency, it’s unlikely that any fire crew is going to be delicate about any obstruction. The axe is going to come down pretty quickly, and you could find yourself in for a fine as well.


In Canada, local fire codes appear largely to follow suit, though of course the metric system is used! The City of Toronto states that hydrants must have least 1.2m of space around them at all time and be ‘clear’ of trees and other vegetation. Calgary’s bylaws state “a 2 meter clearance must be maintained on each side of a fire hydrant and a 1 meter clearance must be maintained on the side of a fire hydrant farthest from the street. Nothing may be erected and only grass may be planted in this clearance area.”

In the UK, I couldn’t find any specific regulations about planting and fencing near fire hydrants. However the importance of keeping surrounding vegetation from growing over and hiding the hydrant’s ground panel is acknowledged. If the hydrant’s outside your own property, this is common sense. If the fire hydrant is needed, your own house is on fire… right??!

Landscaping near or around a fire hydrant

Following the rules above, provided any alterations you make to the landscape keep the hydrant visible and maintain a 3 feet radius in all directions and a 5 feet radius on the side of the street, as per the NFPA code, you should be able to landscape around a hydrant.

Some local codes have an additional stipulation that the ground around the hydrant should remain level with the base of the hydrant. This seems like common sense – don’t bury the base of the hydrant in mulch or soil! Make sure it’s entirely exposed.

Can I put rocks around a fire hydrant?

Small rocks are ideal to put around a fire hydrant provided that they are not piled up against or around the hydrant. As they will naturally suppress vegetative growth of grass and plants, the visibility and accessibility of the hydrant will be easy to maintain.

Mulch such as bark chippings will do the same thing. If the hydrant’s on your lawn, it’ll save you having to negotiated the hydrant with a mower.

It might be easier to spray some weedkiller around the base of the hydrant to stop long grass growing up around it.

Can I plant flowers around a fire hydrant?

Practically and in the spirit of these fire codes, I think as long as you’re keeping the hydrant visible and accessible in the case of a fire, I think this is often safe enough to do – provided that they’re only expected to grow a number of inches high. Tall flowering plants like amaranth, foxglove or sunflowers could easily obscure the hydrant if allowed to grow around it.

There are some suitable low-growing flowers if you really want something other than grass growing around the hydrant. Examples would be:

  • Dwarf lobelia (Lobelia Erinus), whose tiny flowers (in a variety of colours) grow only to a maximum of around 6 inches tall
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) which only grows to an inch or two – the purple flowering spreader can be used as an interesting alternative to grass
  • Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) – produces white flowers to 6 inches tall
  • Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum) – attractive white flowers to 3 inches tall

All are fairly hardy and would make an pleasant low-growing ground cover.

Remember though – the local fire department usually open each hydrant briefly on a yearly basis (and do a full flow test every 5 years) so your flowers may well get trampled upon. It also will need to be painted very occasionally, and your flowers might not make it through that either. For that reason, in my opinion it’s probably best to surround your hydrant with small rocks, mulch or grass which is kept short and plant your flowers elsewhere.

What to do if you already have a tree or other obstruction near a fire hydrant on your property

As mentioned above, there are plenty of instances in which fire crews have had to clear obstructions by any means necessary if they’re obstructing a fire hydrant in an emergency. You may have a tree or bush that has become large over the years, or you might have moved into a house with an existing issue and you don’t want to be found liable.

Just call your local fire department and ask them about it. They’ll probably consider a quick inspection. Believe me, they’ll appreciate a helpful citizen bringing it up now. Making sure that the fire hydrant outside your own property is accessible in the event of fire is probably a good idea.

Can tree roots damage fire hydrants?

Tree roots have been known to invade into pipes and sewer systems, so it’s feasible that they could get into the underground piping of a hydrant. However, it’s not a common problem as for above-ground hydrants that don’t have an access point.

I found only one recorded instance online this happening with any type of hydrant, in Bromley, England! It was dutifully reported to the local council by a guy called Adam. Adam, you need some sort of award.

River birch, American Elm, silver maple and willow species are known for their persistent water-seeking and invasive root systems that can get into septic systems and other plumbing.

On the other hand, Japanese maples, crape myrtle, kousa dogwood, American hornbeam, serviceberry, and photinia are trees with less troublesome root systems.

If you’re concerned that abundant surface tree roots might be causing an issue with your hydrant, make a call to the city. They may wish to check it out, or might be content to continue with the usual intermittent flow checks that they perform.

Conclusion

So after that, I think it’s safe to summarise as follows:

  • Make sure your hydrant stays visible AND accessible from top to bottom
  • Most places use a rule of ‘keep the surrounding 3 feet clear’ (leave 5 feet on the side facing the street) – but I recommend adding 2 extra feet if you’re planting a tree or shrub, because they grow!
  • If you’re not sure you’re compliant, call the city fire department

I hope you found this article helpful. Please have a look at my other posts!

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