Go with the Flow: Water Towers in NYC

Water Towers at Sunrise (photo: Ingrid Cusson)

Water towers are a common sight in New York.  Wherever you are, if you look up, chances are you’ll see at least one, if not a small forest of them dotting the skyline.  I grew up with them as part of my childhood landscape, taking them for granted and never really knowing if or how they worked.  Do all of those wooden containers still hold water?  And if so, how does the water get in, and then out, of them?

It turns out that, although they look like remnants from New York’s past, water towers are still in use and are still being manufactured, though only two companies that build them remain in New York City.  Beginning in the 19th century, as buildings got taller (than six stories), the city needed a way to get water to the higher floors.  These towers were installed to store water and use gravity to deliver water to apartments below.  Made necessarily of untreated wood so that no chemicals or sealants will seep into drinking water, the tanks leak when first constructed until water saturates the wood, making it swell and thus closing any gaps between the planks held together with cable.  It is now possible to install steel tanks, but they are more expensive and actually require more maintenance than wooden ones.  A maintained tank lasts about 30-35 years and then requires replacement, thus keeping the water-tower-building business alive.

New York water towers will be spotlighted by The Water Tank Project next year. According to Inhabitat New York City,

Water tanks on the tops of buildings are a New York City icon, and starting in the spring of 2013, 300 of these tanks will be transformed into public art installations for all New Yorkers to enjoy from afar. The Water Tank Project has already enlisted big names like Jay-Z and Thom Yorke to design towers, and the group will also be holding open calls, asking talented artists from around the globe to submit their work to be immortalized in this unique public art project. All of the chosen artworks must aim to increase public awareness of the need for water conservation.

So if you haven’t yet been struck by the beauty and grace of our fair city’s water towers, make sure to look up next spring to see art, form, and function collide along the rooftops.

The Water Tank Project is an initiative to transform some of NYC’s most iconic structures into revolutionary, water-themed art (image: Inhabitat NYC)


The following is a breakdown of how water towers work from an April 9, 2009 article by Sean Joseph in AM New York:

– A water tower is a simple device that uses gravity to provide water pressure.

– They provide water for domestic uses and fire supply.

– Most municipalities have tanks that can hold a day’s worth of water for their population.

– Many New York City buildings exceed the height the infrastructure’s water pressure can handle.

– Most structures taller than six stories need some sort of water tower and pump system of their own.

– Water is fed to buildings through pipes in the basement.

– Electric pumps push the water from the basement to roof.

– It takes 2-3 hours to fill the average 10,000-gallon tank.

– From the roof, gravity sends water to pipes throughout the building.

– As tenants use the water, the level in the tank goes down and, just like in a toilet, a ballcock lets more in.

A photographic index of water towers around the world:

Becher, Bernd, and Hilla Becher. Water Towers. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1988. Print.



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