WATER TOWERS

August 3, 2014

The other day I was going through my collection of photos and found these water tower shots. Most people think of New York City when they see water towers dotted along a skyline. But after doing a little research I learned that other cities in the US, and even India, Finland, Germany and Kuwait use water towers as well.

New York City first began using these structures in the mid-1800s. They were erected on buildings six stories or taller to assist with the pressurized water supply system to help distribute drinkable water for tenants and to provide emergency storage for fire protection.

The original water towers were built by barrel makers. Even today, no sealant is used to hold in the water and the cedar-plank walls are held together with cables. Water leaks through gaps when the tank is first filled, but the wood quickly shrinks and the tanks become impermeable as water saturates the wooden walls.

Depending on their size, these rooftop water towers store between 5,000 to 11,000 gallons of water.

Elevated water storage has been used in various forms since ancient times, though it was the development of steam-pumping that allowed the possibility to develop the pressurized public water systems. It is a method by which water is pumped up through pipes and into the towers where the water is held in reserve.

There are two pipelines exiting the tower for public consumption, one at the upper portion of the tank for tap water use, and then there is a lower pipeline to be used by the fire department in case of a fire.

When the volume of water drops below a certain level in the tank a float valve activates a pump or opens a public water line that then refills the tower.

  Builders and architects take different approaches when incorporating water towers in the design of a building. In structures that also accommodate a roof-top pool and recreation areas, the water tower is usually discretely enclosed. Here is a photo I took of a lovely decorated enclosure for this building’s water tower.    Offices, hospitals and industrial buildings frequently have water towers.   And some water towers look like a guard station standing on top of a building.

There is a system of inspections to insure that water tanks are well maintained and safe. And this is where the lovely visuals of water tanks and the reality of what’s in the tanks gets murky. In January 2014 the New York Times investigated the conditions of a portion of the estimated 12,000 to 17,000 roof-top water towers that are in use today, and according to their findings the regulations governing the maintenance of these tanks are rarely enforced.

The building owners are responsible for ensuring that their tanks are cleaned, inspected and tested annually for bacteria and conform to health code standards. According to the city’s own survey nearly 60% of the owners do not comply with these regulations.

The survey also found that there is often a thick layer of muddy sediment at the bottoms of the tanks. Some tanks contained bird droppings, skeletons of rodents, and high levels of coliform which indicates that conditions are ripe for the growth of potentially dangerous microorganisms. These results came from water at the bottoms of the tanks, which is far below the pipes that feed into the buildings taps. The study also found that many water towers have not been cleaned or inspected for years. When the health department’s deputy commissioner was asked if this could have negative health consequences, he said, “We don’t have any evidence that there is.”

There are water towers in Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. This is a photo of Lower Manhattan and the water towers on these buildings have all been enclosed.

The tap water in our apartment building comes from a water tower and after reading this article in the NY Times I asked our maintenance department when our tower was last inspected. Much like the elevator inspection roster that is located in plain sight, he showed me documentation that our water tower had been inspected in late Spring.

In any weather, any time of the day, these water towers make lovely photographs.

I took this photograph while standing on the observation deck of The Empire State building. I’m facing north and if you look closely you will see the tops of many building dotted with water towers. Every day millions of people drink water from these towers.

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14 Responses to WATER TOWERS

  1. thelma straw on August 3, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Believe it or not, a friend of mine lived in a water tower in CT many years ago. Elizabeth Daniels Squire, known as Liz to MWA and SinC, but I knew her as her childhood name, Dizzy, and her husband, news writer of Beirut and other foreign climes, and 3 sons, lived in a water tower in CT! Dizzy was the granddaughter of Josephus Daniels, like in big with the U.S. Pres.. I think he was Sec. Treas… they had tons of $$$, and the daughter of Jonathan Daniels, owner and writer of the Raleigh News and Observer… etc… very famous U.S. family. You’d never have known it – she wore clothes from thrift shops, was very unassuming, was well-thought of by all the Women of the South writers groups… wrote several clever mysteries… was on the Bds of MWA and Sinc in the Southern states — grad from Vassar, as well as Ashley Hall in Charleston, SC. Hey, you never know a book by its cover… T. J. Straw… I’ll always connect her with water towers… tjstraw, who is a plain folk person in Manhattan… no, I don’t live in a water tower…

    • Pushing Time on August 3, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      What a great story, Thelma!! Yes, I read that there were some water towers converted into apartments and in some European countries some of the very older towers have been turned into restaurants. You certainly have some interesting experiences. No wonder you have such an exciting writing life. Thanks for leaving this very amusing comment!! 0X0X

      • thelma straw on August 4, 2014 at 4:54 pm

        This story had a very sad ending, however…. Dizzy had gone on a Sisters in Crime trip to readers and children in Alaska, several years ago … at the height of her popularity as a writer, leaving back home in Weaverville, NC, a very happy, devoted husband and three sons and lots of their kids… and… picked up some kind of weird bug on the trip home … and died suddenly on the way home… It was a great loss, not only to her family and friends, but to mystery readers – and writers, as she was very popular with the writing world and gave lots of talks and workshops, etc.. tjs

        • Pushing Time on August 4, 2014 at 6:36 pm

          Oh, Thelma, that is a very sad ending to the water tower story.

  2. Irene Marcuse on August 3, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Many water towers are made of redwood, because it doesn’t rot ~ newer ones are more likely to be white oak or cedar. All have anti-bacterial properties. Metal towers were tried at one time, but algae grew on the insides. Wood — it’s the real thing!

    • Pushing Time on August 3, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks, Irene! There is a lot that could be said about the NYC water towers, but alas, time and energy. Thanks for helping to fill in the blanks. Hope all is well with you!

  3. maorlando on August 4, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    You are aware I expressed an interest in the history of the water towers I had seen atop the buildings in NYC that I had observed on my visits there… I just want to say thank you for this informative blog about them… I have enjoyed it very much my friend!!! Do not have many that I am aware of here in Houston, Texas. But then that said maybe I need to take a second look at the older buildings in Downtown. Thanks again and have a blessed week!!! maorlando of Flickr

    • Pushing Time on August 4, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      Maorlando, so glad to see you visiting my website. Let me know if you find water towers in Houston. Have a great week, too!

  4. Toddi/Claudia on August 4, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Water towers! Unusual topic but very interesting. The health dept. May say the water is good, but the word, ecoli, comes to my mind. No body
    Knows what we are drinking and what the floaty things are in the the glass. Interesting how the towers are disguised to make it more asthetic.

    • Pushing Time on August 4, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Yes, Toddi, Ecoli comes to mind, too. And I don’t even want to think about the floaties in my glass of water. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  5. Eric Parker on August 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Hey Marge – that was really informative and accompanied by some lovely shots
    thanks
    Eric

    • Pushing Time on August 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm

      Thanks Eric. Glade you found this blog post informative.

  6. Susan Sermoneta on August 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

    I had no idea I wanted to know about water towers – and having read your blog, I realize how curious I was! Thanks for the info – and the photographs.

    • Pushing Time on August 10, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Thanks, Susan for leaving a comment. Yeah, water towers are pretty interesting pieces of NYC.

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