PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Water Department is issuing an urgent message: Please don't open the city's fire hydrants. It can be a matter of life and death.
The warning comes after FOX 29 Investigates captures a bold theft of water on video. Jeff Cole has this report.
They are the road warriors of the car wash set, young hustlers armed with spray guns and soap.
This is Juniata in Philly, at J and Lycoming streets, in a sprawling lot near Pep Boys. Two crews are working either end of the pavement out of vans with big tanks inside and pressure washers along with generators to power the vacuum.
A sign warns the unauthorized will be towed.
Neighbors are not happy.
"Why does it bother you so much?" Cole asked.
"The generators drive us all crazy and the cursing and ... the smoking," said resident Nereida Rios. "…It's very loud, very loud."
It's also busy. Over several days in March, FOX 29 Investigates kept an eye on the streetcorner car washers, looking for what a lifelong Juniata resident says is bad behavior.
"They're stealing water from the fire hydrants," said a community activist who only wanted to be identified as Dennis. "We've caught them taking water. I saw them."
That's right, he says they're ripping off water ratepayers by tapping the hydrants.
We never saw one of the crews do that.
But we sit, and wait, and watch the others … until mid-morning March 9, when we see the operator of Hand's Car Wash is hitting the hydrant along a busy Juniata intersection, right,smack in front of a beer distributorship.
He checks his connection and latches his tools to the top of the hydrant as the water sprays.
For just over six minutes he pumps water into his tank while a small stream flows below.
A city fire official told us he believes hundreds of gallons are flowing in.
The car washer walks away, returns and shuts it all down as the hose goes slack. Within minutes he's gone.
Debra McCarty, the head of Philadelphia's Water Department, is frustrated.
"You think that he, in some ways, is putting this community in danger?" Cole asks.
"Oh, most definitely," McCarty says.
She says the guy has cracked a special locked hydrant designed to defeat thieves.
"So, this dude's got a wrench, and he's got a pair of pliers and he's able to defeat it?" Cole asked.
"That's right, unfortunately," McCarty says.
She says the big issue here is not cost but safety, even life and death: "He can damage the hydrant. So we won't find out until the fire department goes to fight a fire and they try to get on that hydrant, it doesn't work. That just delays them fighting that fire."
She says city water costs less than a penny a gallon, but the threat to the drinking supply is steep because water from his tank could be sucked back into the system.
"You don't want to be drinking the water out of his tank and his van, per se," McCarty said.
He told us his name is Louis, and he claims he fills his tank at home.
Louis: "You go to jail for that."
Cole: "You do?"
Cole: "If you get it from, like, a hydrant?"
Cole: "Well, that's where you get it."
Louis: "No, I get it from my house."
Cole: "I saw you get it from the hydrant."
Louis: "You never saw me get it from a hydrant!"
Cole: "Yeah, that hydrant, right there!"
FOX 29 obtained the water bill from the address where he says he lives and his van was parked.
McCarty says not only is the water usage too low, the account is delinquent by more than $500.
And the city could not find a required commercial activity license and tax ID in the name of Hand's Car Wash.
"I never got no water from this hydrant," Louis told us.
"Yeah, you did. You were there for about ... six, seven minutes," Cole said, showing him footage on his cell phone. "...Watch what's gonna happen. I mean, that's your hookup, right?"
"Yeah," Louis said.
After seeing himself, Louis at first said he was using the hydrant to defrost his equipment but seemed to change his story when we told him we'd seen him on an unseasonable warm day.
Cole: "But what about the 9th of March when I saw you? What were you doing then?"
Louis: "You probably saw me one times or two. I'm not gonna lie."
Cole: "Doing what? Filing up the tank?"
Louis: "Not filling up the tank. But, you know what I mean, I was doing ... what I got to do, working around. That's the only thing I was doing."
Pep Boys says the unauthorized car washes are neither sanctioned or connected to the company. They want them gone.
The water department urges you to call them or police if you see illegal activity. Some in Juniata say they did, but not much changed, Cole reported.