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There's water in them there tanks...
June 22, 2007 9:12 AM   Subscribe

"The business is definitely an art, the men are craftsmen..."(YT) NYC's rooftop water tanks are a unique and often overlooked part of the city. Watch as one goes up (its worth the 10 minutes for the money shot at the end): "New York, is water tanks, yes."(YT) "New York, which has thousands of cylindrical wooden rooftop water tanks with conical roofs, couldn't exist without them." Its the only city with its own section under Wiki's water tower page.
posted by allkindsoftime (44 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
In honor of our NYC meetup, tonight.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:13 AM on June 22, 2007


I've often thought one of these would make a cool spot to convert to a home office, up on the roof, looking out over the city.
posted by pupdog at 9:21 AM on June 22, 2007


Rooftop water tanks rock. No proper comic book city skyline would be complete without them. Long may they reign.
posted by Skygazer at 9:32 AM on June 22, 2007


Excellent post!
posted by idest at 9:38 AM on June 22, 2007


Funny how they say New Yorkers ignore them, it was probably the first thing I noticed on my first trip into the city when I was a teenager. Always knew I was strange.

cool post...
posted by inthe80s at 9:44 AM on June 22, 2007


Here is a recent NYT piece on New York City's water towers.
posted by JBennett at 9:45 AM on June 22, 2007


Just curious as a non-New Yorker, how exactly do you keep rats from getting in there? Do they die in there and ruin the whole building's water supply?
posted by Pollomacho at 9:47 AM on June 22, 2007


Rooftop water tanks rock. No proper comic book city skyline would be complete without them. Long may they reign.
The first time I noticed them was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle drawings. Years later (and only a few weeks ago) I noticed how attentive they had to be to put them in. Your comment makes me realize they were probably more attentive of other comic books though.
posted by Brainy at 9:49 AM on June 22, 2007


Hey, I am looking out of the window of my office right now, (west side of Flatiron building.) and I see a Rosenwach Tower with it's Tan Top and "R" decorative tip!
posted by JBennett at 9:51 AM on June 22, 2007


Unique to New York? What do they do in other cities with lots of tallish buildings?
posted by Western Infidels at 9:59 AM on June 22, 2007


I should just show you I guess. Sorry for the "self-link"…

The Rosenwach is the highest tank in the center.

I once watched, nervously as a man in a business suit, obviously not on the job, climbed up the ladder leading to that Rosenwach and smiled and waved like an idiot for 15 minutes. I was afraid he was going to jump. He didn't. he eventually just climbed down the ladder and went back inside. No one came out to get him, and he seemed to be waving at me. ?! Never figured that one out.
posted by JBennett at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, it's funny. I've seen these in dozens of movies and comic books, but I've never really thought about them before.

It's really nifty that the company that makes them uses the swelling of the wood to keep the water in, rather than glue or nails or screws. That's some quality craftsmanship.
posted by quin at 10:02 AM on June 22, 2007


Chicago went water-tank crazy after the 1871 fire, but they weren't required in the era of mechanical pumps and have been disappearing, with perhaps 130 still in use. In 2005 the Chicago Architectural Club held a competition for ideas for adaptively reusing the remainder that culled more entries than there are tanks. The winning entry suggested transforming them into wind turbines. 167 of the tanks were featured in a Chicago Cultural Center show.

One important aspect of maintaining a tank is keeping it full. If it's ever drained, the structure quickly deteriorates.
posted by dhartung at 10:06 AM on June 22, 2007


Pollomacho, they're pretty watertight, it would be hard for rats to get in there. Also, you don't usually get rats that far above street level, and there's not much in them they'd want, no food sources or anything, and water isn't that hard to come by in NYC, especially for sewer-dwellers...
posted by pupdog at 10:08 AM on June 22, 2007


Not sure about the rats - they're definitely not kept out by any type of sealant (from Wiki):

Even today, no sealant is used to hold the water in. Tank walls are held together with cables but leak through every gap when first filled. As the wood swells, the gaps close and become impermeable.

As for what other cities do, that's what I've been trying to figure out...was kind of hoping we might find someone who knows more about them out there to comment on that. I'm also wondering why most of them are built on seemingly unnecessarily high steel frames - why couldn't they be closer to the roof? Is it part of the gravity thing?
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:09 AM on June 22, 2007


Last year New York 1 did a story about the guys that make them. Far more interesting than their typical filler pieces.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:09 AM on June 22, 2007


I've climber one of those ladders and as you're probably way up on the roof of a high building and add to that the 40 feet of the tower that supports the water tank and I was getting some major vertigo. So I climbed back down. SOounds to me like your friend needed to do something exciting and his wave was his way of saying. "Hey lookit me!! Lookit me!! I alive, I'm alright. I'm standing on the top of the world!!".... or something like that.
posted by Skygazer at 10:09 AM on June 22, 2007


I guess mainly mechanical pumps in other cities?
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:11 AM on June 22, 2007


Last year New York 1 did a story about the guys that make them. Far more interesting than their typical filler pieces.

Isn't that the first vid I linked to?
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:12 AM on June 22, 2007


Thanks for the answer. I could just imagine that being another rat issue.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:14 AM on June 22, 2007


One thing I've always wondered...does the water getting sucked down into apartments also help to replenish the water tank by causing a siphoning type action that brings the water up? Also, how do they keep from over filling them and having water spill out over the edge. Also I've heard stories that back in the olden days, in the summer, some kids would use them to go for a swim.
posted by Skygazer at 10:15 AM on June 22, 2007


NYT article that JBennett linked to was helpful:

Younger cities often rely on electric pumps to supply water to skyscrapers, but New York’s aged infrastructure, built on shallow bedrock that results in extremely low water pressure, doesn’t allow that technology. Architects outside New York may not even think of using a rooftop tank to hold a building’s water supply, and if they did, who would build it?

posted by allkindsoftime at 10:18 AM on June 22, 2007


...does the water getting sucked down into apartments also help to replenish the water tank by causing a siphoning type action that brings the water up?

Not from what I'm reading - they have sensors in the tank that indicate when the water gets too low and then a pump kicks in to refill it. They also have an electrical heater in them as I gathered from the video that helps keep the water from freezing in winter.

Also, how do they keep from over filling them and having water spill out over the edge.

I would imagine the pump is set to never fill more than X amount of gallons, or they have a tank indicator much like a gas tank on a vehicle.

Also I've heard stories that back in the olden days, in the summer, some kids would use them to go for a swim.

Cool Gross.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:21 AM on June 22, 2007


I think the frames are to keep them up off the roof for a few reasons - easier access to all the piping and fittings, extra height for that top floor, and it keeps it out of any standing water or snow that might affect the wood. you want barrel staves (and tank staves I'm guessing) to swell on the inside first, to stay tight and sealed.

And yeah, I had a brief conversation about them with a couple construction guys in a bar once. I'm not like a tank fanatic.
posted by pupdog at 10:22 AM on June 22, 2007


Thanks pupdog, makes sense.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:25 AM on June 22, 2007


Yeah my bad allkindsoftime...figures, the only link I didn't view.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:25 AM on June 22, 2007


Architects outside New York may not even think of using a rooftop tank to hold a building’s water supply, and if they did, who would build it?

Wow what a myopic view of the world! Most of the world has rooftop (or in attic) water tanks, though they are not usually these lovely wooden ones found in New York. More often in this day and age, they are pre-formed plastic.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:28 AM on June 22, 2007


Most of the world has rooftop (or in attic) water tanks...

Really? What do you base this on? From what I gathered on the wiki page, most of the world uses stand-alone water towers.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:32 AM on June 22, 2007


Most of the world doesn't use water towers at all?
posted by A189Nut at 10:52 AM on June 22, 2007


How cn the tanks be mentioned without a mention of the great water NY has for drinking...it is as good as water gets, and yes, not all water is the same.
posted by Postroad at 11:09 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm sure there are many other cities, but when I was in Hanoi I saw plenty of Keg-like water towers on the majority of buildings.
posted by romanb at 11:12 AM on June 22, 2007


...maybe water "towers" is the wrong term for those I linked to, but I guess if you count as the building as the tower...
posted by romanb at 11:13 AM on June 22, 2007


Not from what I'm reading - they have sensors in the tank that indicate when the water gets too low and then a pump kicks in to refill it. They also have an electrical heater in them as I gathered from the video that helps keep the water from freezing in winter.

It's the same type "sensor" that keeps your toilet tank full but not too full.

Really? What do you base this on?

I base it on the number of plastic pre-formed water tanks manufactured and sold worldwide vs. the number of large scale water towers built.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2007


nice post and awesome load bearing roof properties (8500 gallons @ 8lb per gallon = 68000lb (or 30844kg)
posted by HyperBlue at 11:15 AM on June 22, 2007


I can confirm that rooftop water tanks are very common in Mexico, at least. Here in my building, there are 4 (I think) huge pre-formed fiberglass tanks up on the roof. There's also a ground-level reservoir, under the floor beneath the stairs, which, from the sound it makes when it fills up, is also pretty big. Water from the city supply fills that up, then a small electric pump moves it up to the rooftop tanks.

I think the reason for having the ground-level tank is to have more of a buffer, since supply can be spotty (the city's water supply is overtaxed), and to compensate for the incredibly low water-pressure.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:38 AM on June 22, 2007


As mentioned with links upthread, Chicago used to have tons of these. I even remember them everywhere back in the '70s and '80s. I think as the buildings got rehabbed, the now purposeless tanks were dismantled. Wonder why there's still so many in NYC?

You still see a lot of the platforms the tanks used to sit on, but very few tanks. The few tanks left that I can think of are painted like billboards with advertising, or make a sign proclaiming the building's tenent. One up in Andersonville has the Swedish flag motif on it.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:47 AM on June 22, 2007



"I guess mainly mechanical pumps in other cities?"

In the Denver high rise i used to work in, we had 3 pumps staged with pressure controls to get water up to the 33rd floor. Since we had no roof tank type system a pump was almost always running to maintain a pressure of 200 + psi at the pump. This system consumed a lot of power (smallest was 35Hp) as it only cycled off in the middle of the night and flushing 5 times would be enough to trigger a pumping cycle (controlled by a pressure sensor in the sub-basement pump room).

"I'm also wondering why most of them are built on seemingly unnecessarily high steel frames - why couldn't they be closer to the roof? Is it part of the gravity thing?"
Yes, It's about pressure. You want to be able to flush your penthouse toilet.

"One thing I've always wondered...does the water getting sucked down into apartments also help to replenish the water tank by causing a siphoning type action that brings the water up?"
Not sure if that would work, but more importantly you need to have vacuum breakers (anti siphon) in the system so water does not flow backwards from some tank or fixture during a power/pump failure (back into the city pipes from some tank that may not be clean}.
posted by blink_left at 11:57 AM on June 22, 2007


Not being much of a city boy, this was my main experience of these water tanks until visiting NYC as an adult. I have to thing a lot of people my age are the same.
posted by hwestiii at 12:14 PM on June 22, 2007


What's amazing to me is that new buildings going up still more often than not use these tanks-- but the architects hide them behind facades. Drives me crazy.

When I worked on 25th Street, we tried to count all the water tanks we could see from our building's roof. After 150, we gave up.
posted by phooky at 2:40 PM on June 22, 2007



Also I've heard stories that back in the olden days, in the summer, some kids would use them to go for a swim.


I dunno about kids, but as an irresponsible 20 yr old, naked, with girl : Exceptional. (not my building)

And this was a rather sublime sculpture about them by Rachel Whiteread.

Nice post, thanks.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:27 PM on June 22, 2007


I don't get why the wood doesn't rot. Even pressure-treated wood eventually rots if left in standing water. Anyone know if they put some kind of liner on the inside?
posted by molybdenum at 5:02 PM on June 22, 2007


I've often thought one of these would make a cool spot to convert to a home office

i remember in an issue of gi joe, storm shadow had coverted one into a secret dojo. one of the coolest images i saw as a kid.
posted by andywolf at 5:05 PM on June 22, 2007


Even pressure-treated wood eventually rots if left in standing water.

I don't think that is exactly right - I think rot has to do with a combination of water and air. Underwater, you can find preserved wood in 5,000 year old archaeological sites (Time Team rulz). The type of wood makes a big difference too - cedar lasts just fine without pressure treatment.

The New Yorker link (3rd) says:
The staves are made either of California redwood or of white cedar (juniper) from the South or of yellow cedar from the West Coast. The conical roofs are plywood; they were originally made of yellow pine and later of cedar, but those woods don't last more than eight years. "Plywood lasts forever, unfortunately," Wallace Rosenwach says.
Hardly definitive :P I'd be interested in more information on rot and preservation of wood myself..
posted by Chuckles at 7:37 PM on June 22, 2007


I reckon preservation is helped by the treatment of municipal water with chlorine or chloramine.

The requirement for the staves to be constantly wet is one reason I never seriously considered using a barrel for making beer or wine. Doesn't seem like much of a disadvantage here, though.
posted by exogenous at 7:30 AM on June 23, 2007


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