Why are there so many wooden water tanks in New York?

We have all seen the New York City’s skyline. Many people even have photographs of it in their houses. But have you ever taken a closer look at it? If you haven’t, then I am happy to tell you that you could see a lot of water tanks. More precisely, there are around 17,000 wooden water tanks scattered all around New York City! But why are there so many water tanks, and why are most of them wooden?

If you maybe think they are old relics and don’t have a purpose, then you are in the wrong. During the 1880s, local water pressure was too weak to raise water to upper levels. As construction started to grow taller, the city required that the buildings with six stories or more, must have a rooftop tank with a pump. Today, it is the same story, as the New York’s street main system can push up water 60 feet (approx. 6 floors) from the ground with a pressure of 50–60 pounds per square inch. Most of today’s New Yorkers drink and shower with the water stored in them. Before the construction of Croton Aqueduct (that brought clean water from the upstate), New York was afflicted by huge epidemics of cholera every five years. Today, NYC’s drinking water is some of the best in the world.

How do they work?

A water tank is a simple device that uses gravity. The tank is filled with water from the main system by basement pumps. Gravity pushes water to the lower stories as needed. As the tank empties, it triggers the pumps to refill it. The water tank acts as both a water tank and reservoir. So, why are almost all of them made of wood?

Wood

If you think it is because they are the cheapest, then you are right! For the 10,000 gallons of water wooden tank costs around $25,000. Steel tanks of the same size can cost up to $130,000. But the price is not the only thing. Steel tanks don’t provide as much insulation, take longer to construct and require more maintenance. Also, water stored in wood doesn’t freeze in the winter and stays cool during the summer. Fun fact is that even the most elite buildings have wooden tanks.

Who constructs them?

There are only three companies that construct wooden tanks in NYC, all of them being the family businesses: Isseks Brothers, American Pipe and Tank, and Rosenwach Tank Company. They all prepare, install, and repair water tanks. A wooden water tank usually lasts around 30–35 years. Every year they need to clean the natural sediment from the bottom of the tank. If the tank is too leaky, a new one must be built. The wood rots and needs a replacement. It only takes 24 hours to build the new one. When the tank is first set up, the water will leak but, as the wood expands it becomes watertight.

The Water Tank Project

In 2014, there was a Water Tank Project. It was part art exhibition, part awareness campaign. Aim was to produce art as social intervention, to inspire and educate. Artwork by acclaimed artists and New York City public school students was wrapped around rooftop water tanks throughout the city, celebrating the talents of established and emerging artists, and calling attention to the global water crisis.

Electrical engineer that loves robotics, fun facts and cooking!

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