One of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Should Know, recently published an episode about water towers. I LOVE water towers so I was super excited to listen. It turns out that Josh and Chuck are also fans but it did make me wonder.
Am I unique in my love for water towers?
Josh and Chuck always do a great job of explaining things. While I have loved water towers for decades, I admit that I didn’t really know how they worked exactly or why we even have them. And are water towers relics of the past, the way train cabooses are? Would we be losing them one by one as they age?
I love water towers and am always taking pictures of them. My neighborhood water tower is just at the end of the street so I see it every day and like to take pictures from every angle, in every different light as you can see. And of course I take pictures of cool ones I see while traveling.
How Water Towers Work
The design and function of water towers have remained fairly constant over time. It’s a large, elevated tank of water that uses pressure to operate. No fancy bells and whistles. Just gravity and pressure.
Pumps are used to pressurize the water so that it fills the tank. Tanks are usually filled overnight when the demand for water is low. Then during the day when people are using more water, the water in the tank supplements the supply coming from the treatment plant.
Here’s a good video explaining it all… How Water Towers Work by Practical Engineering
And here’s a shorter video made for kids. Keeping it simple with How Do Water Towers Work by Excuse Me, Mr. Dad.
In this case, the simple design is best and we will continue to need them for years to come. The water towers are safe from obsolescence. Yay!
Why are water towers important?
Water towers are important for several reasons.
- Water towers allow towns to use smaller, cheaper pumps that can handle average demand and supplement peak demand with the water from the tower.
- Water towers provide clean water for people and can be used even during a power outage. Tanks generally hold enough water for one day’s supply.
- Water towers can be used for navigation. This is less true in the age of GPS and computers, but in the past, they served as visual markers for pilots. This is why the name of the town was painted on the tower – so the pilots could see where they were. Some small pilots still use the towers as backup navigation aids.
Water Towers in the City
So in most small towns and neighborhoods, you will find the classic water tower. But what about in cities where hundreds of people can live in just one tall building? How do you build a water tower that can service a high-rise building?
This video explains why there are so many wooden water tanks in New York City.
This New York Times video, Inside New York City’s Water Towers, investigates maintenance struggles with these tanks.
Water Tower Maintenance
Even though they are simple in design, water towers still need cleaning and maintenance. And the best way to see that in action is to watch Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs, right?!
Water Towers as Art and Landmarks
In addition to being functional, some water towers also act as art or as recognizable landmarks. Here are a few examples-
Tom Fruin Water Tower – Brooklyn
Artist Tom Fruin has constructed several water towers out of salvaged plexiglass and steel. These are sculptures only and do not function as actual water towers but they are striking and beautiful. One of the best-known towers is the one on 20 Jay in Brooklyn, New York where it can be seen from the Manhattan Bridge.
Ear of Corn Water Tower
Rochester, Minnesota proudly displays an ear of corn water tower.
Peach Water Tower
Seen from the interstate, the water tower in Gaffney, South Carolina, looks like a peach.
Chicago Water Tower
In downtown Chicago, the water tower is a registered historic landmark. Built in 1869, it survived the Great Chicago Fire. The architecture used to hide the tower and pipes just isn’t something you see in other places. Quite fancy!
Other Historic and Decorated Water Towers Around the World
This website has images of several historic or uniquely decorated water towers from around the world – Water Towers of the World.
Perhaps you would like to add one as a stop on a future trip… I have definitely added more than one to my “Next Time” Big Trip list. I don’t even want to think about how many cool water towers I may have already accidentally missed on previous trips.
Tank of the Year Award
Did you know there’s a Tank of the Year Award for water towers?! Tnemec, a company that makes coating material, has hosted a Tank of the Year competition since 2006. Water towers from the US and Canada may enter. Head on over to the Tank of the Year website to see this year’s finalists and winners as well as the winner from each previous year. There are some fancy towers over there!
Water Tower Podcast
Here’s the podcast that started my journey into the water tower rabbit hole… Short Stuff: Water Towers
Water Tower Art for You
Bring your love of water towers home with some fun art from Etsy!
I think I might need to put one of those cute water tower pendants on my Christmas list…
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