When Seth Donkochik drives around the city looking for parking, he keeps an eye out for fat, red fire hydrants.
He's not a collector of parking tickets or an antagonizer of the Philadelphia Fire Department. Donkochik just knows how to spot the decommissioned plugs, no longer in operation, where it may or may not be safe to park.
"I started parking all across the city, and, lo and behold, I wouldn't get tickets," said Donkochik, who lives in Northern Liberties.
That is, of course, until he did. But he fought both violations, won, and hasn't been ticketed in years, he said.
The hydrants, part of the city's now-defunct High-Pressure Fire System, date to the early 1900s, when they were installed between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers from Girard Avenue to South Street, mostly in industrial areas where factory fires threatened to burn down the urban landscape.
The city decommissioned the fleet in 2005, but today, 924 plugs are still scattered around the city — faded cast-iron plugs confusing parking-spot hunters and ticket-writers. The Philadelphia Parking Authority trains its officers not to ticket cars in front of the decommissioned hydrants, and a ticket issued there can be challenged and revoked. The Philadelphia Police Department, though, has no written policy instructing officers not to ticket at the old hydrants.
The decommissioned hydrants have three bolts at the top and are fatter and redder than the very-much-in-operation slimmer, orange hydrants. Those distinguishing features aren't that helpful for someone circling the block for a spot.
"Oh, I avoid them now. I'd rather be safe than sorry," said Christina Sirochman, who was ticketed in Fairmount several years ago for parking by one of the hydrants while stopping at her bank. "It seems like everyone has issues on and off, so it's hard to predict."
With so many decommissioned hydrants in the city — and a city traffic code prohibiting parking within 15 feet of a hydrant in either direction — there could be hundreds of underused spaces in the city.
The Water Department maintains a list of the blocks that still have the high-pressure hydrants. But because active hydrants often sit right next to the old hydrants, it's hard to tell based on parking violation data how many tickets have been issued in error.
Neighbors in Fishtown and Northern Liberties have sporadically started to paint the old hydrants to better distinguish them as inoperable. The city supports the street art so long as the decommissioned hydrants are the only ones getting painted.
"It's not obvious they don't work," said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. "The only thing is anyone can see they look different, but that by itself isn't enough information to let you know they don't work. We're spreading the word, but we also can't 100 percent guarantee that any PPA meter inspector will definitely not ticket there."
The PPA says its parking enforcement officers are trained to distinguish the large, red hydrants from the thin, orange ones. Those ticketed in error should contact the agency, PPA spokesman Marty O'Rourke said.
But the Philadelphia Police Department has no such policy.
"There's nothing on the books with the Police Department," said Officer Tanya Little of the Public Affairs Division. "I see the different colors, but officers wouldn't know which hydrants work and which don't work. They're charged with enforcing the law on the books."
To rip out all the old hydrants would cost $4 million to $5 million, an undertaking the city is not committed to funding right now, said city spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.
Plus, natural urban erosion could take care of them within the next 50 years, predicts Harry Kyriakodis, a historian and author who researched the high-pressure water-hydrant system as part of a forthcoming book, Underground Philadelphia.
The old hydrants get pulled up as part of construction projects, Kyriakodis said. As sidewalks get repaved, the plugs slowly sink into the ground.
They may look lackluster now, but the system is largely credited with saving the city from a great fire in the early and mid-20th century, when many other cities had devastating blazes, Kyriakodis said.
"I think each one is a standing monument," he said, "to why Philadelphia didn't burn."
Kyriakodis said the hydrant system could shoot a two-inch stream of water a distance of 230 feet. The hydrants, no longer connected to a water source and separate from the active system, became unnecessary as fire equipment evolved and building materials became more fire-resistant.
But how to set the record straight for those less informed about the plugs?
"Other than putting a sign that says, 'It's OK to park in front of this one,' I don't see any solution," Kyriakodis said. "I don't think the Parking Authority wants to broadcast that it's OK to park in front of certain hydrants, because it could be a disaster if people get confused."
Some people already have.
Kevin Oliver, 31, moved to Northern Liberties two years ago and was told by multiple people that the hydrant on his block no longer worked and was fair game. He went away for a wedding last weekend and came back to two $76 tickets. He sent over a photo of the hydrant, which a reporter confirmed was actually an active one.
"I don't think anyone's intentionally doing anything illegal. People just want a place to park that's safe," Oliver said, noting the many car break-ins in his neighborhood. "If there was any way for us to know definitively what's legal, what's not legal, I'm sure that would help."