How to Hack a NYC Fire Hydrant

Sometimes, you simply need to fill a 50-gallon water tank. 

New York Streets
Melchior DiGiacomo—Getty Images

We at The Drive do not advocate illegal behavior. In fact, we are explicit in our pleas with the driving public to follow both the letter and spirit of the law. However, there are times in the life of a Recreational Vehicle owner when desperation is driving force. Especially on the tarmac trails of New York City, where I have taken up residence in a heroic effort to expand the definitions of living and recreation vehicles.

RV camping in New York City presents very specific challenges. In the Camperman series, The Drive will use our daily struggles to illustrate these challenges, and to offer solutions.

Problem #1: In an RV, water is a finite resource

My beautiful Thor 25.2 RUV has a 50-gallon freshwater tank. When it was delivered to me, fresh off the factory line, it was empty (along with the blackwater and gray water tanks, which hold, respectively, the fecal and bathing waste of its occupant, Camperman). 

Essential ingredients of modern life are in short supply in NYC. Want to run an air conditioner? You need a generator. Want to shower with heated water or cook? You need propane. Want to have water? You need water, which requires a reliable source and storage. 

Problem #2: In NYC, water in volume is hard to find

Fresh water in the city is supplied using an ingenious system that combines several reservoirs around in New York State, though the lion's share is fed from the Ashokan, 70 or so scenic miles up the Hudson Valley. Water from this and surrounding reservoirs is piped through the massive 92-mile Catskill Aqueduct and into the bathtubs of millions of New Yorkers. Alas, it doesn't reach my RV. And New York City is not a place where fresh water spigots abound. 

It is, however, a place with many thousands of fire hydrants. These hydrants are the only realistic way to fill something like a 50-gallon freshwater tank with potable water. But here's the thing about NYC fire hydrants: Under almost any condition, it is illegal for a civilian to open one up. And regardless of the legalities, the practicalities of hacking it make it the task nearly impossible. You know that round thing that sits on top of the hydrant? That's a magnetic cap that you will never, ever be able to turn that hydrant on.

Risky solution: Hack the fire hydrant

The people who legally use the fire hydrants most often are not firemen. They are street sweepers, who use them mid-sweep shift to refill their wash tanks. The sweepers are oftentimes less than vigilant about return the magnetic security lock to the top of the hydrant. Once you find one without a cap, the key components you need to fill your RV freshwater tank can be found at your local Grainger's. 

  • Make a shopping list: You will need adapter that will convert the 2.5-inch fire department outlet to a ¾ inch garden hose. And you will need a big old wrench to turn open the valve on top of the hydrant. This adjustable hydrant wrench would work, though you're more likely to have luck with a magnetic wrench.
  • Scour your neighborhood (it should take less than 10 minutes), to find a hydrant with an exposed valve. They are everywhere. Remember, it is illegal to operate a fire hydrant without a permit
  • Screw your adapter onto the side of the fire hydrant.
  • Connect the garden to your freshwater tank. 
  • Use that mother spanner you purchased at Grainger's to open the valve on hydrant.
  • Let the water flow.
  • When it is finished, replace the cap on the side of the hydrant. Always leave it as you found it.

Remember: We do not condone or encourage illegal behavior.