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Every small town has one, it seems.  Mine did, and yours probably does, too.  But what does it actually do?  I mean, other than serve as an often quirky local landmark?  I've often noticed water towers as I've driven across the country.  They are often hard to miss, rising as they do above the surrounding landscape.  But I never really understood what purpose they served, other than to act as a local gesture of "Hey!!  Look at me!"

While they often make a visual impact, I sort of assumed they must be slightly anachronistic.  An infrastructural holdover from bygone days that modern technology must have made superfluous.  Maybe they are some sort of municipal version of the 10 gallon water container some of the more prepared amongst us keep in the garage in case of emergency.  A reserve water supply for some future rainy day.  Or should I say some future rainless day?  But, to the extent that I ever gave them much thought, it always seemed to me that they couldn't hold enough water to make much of a dent in a city's thirst in the event of the taps suddenly going dry.

No matter what they look like, no matter how they are painted or shaped, these water towers are actually more functional on a day to day basis than I ever realized.

And now that I have finally figured out how to embed a picture, I can do this diary, which otherwise would be woefully incomplete!

Let's look at some water towers, and talk about the role they play in your local waterworks.

Here's a beautifully composed photo of a rather prosaic water tower located in Josephine, Texas.
The old water tower at Josephine, Texas

Most water towers in small towns throughout the country have been painted to trumpet some local point of pride.  In South Carolina, you will see water towers painted to look like a peach.  
Giant Peach

My hometown is noted for the apple orchards in the county, so ours was a giant apple.  You can find tomato water towers, watermelons, giant ears of corn, name it.  Sometimes they just celebrate the local High School football team.  And, sometimes, they are just weird.

This water tower in Ogallala, Nebraska is painted to look like an alien spaceship:


I'm not sure what inspired the design of this one, in Ypsilanti, MI, but it looks disturbingly phallic to me.
tower get the idea.  So how do they work?  It may surprise you to learn that they work both simply, and almost on a daily basis.  In many towns, the local water works couldn't function without them.  Take my hometown in rural Ohio.  The city of 6,800 gets its water from a local reservoir/lake.  That's pretty typical.  The city has a pump house at the reservoir which takes in the water and pushes it through the system.  It gets filtered for sediment, and treated to kill bacteria, resulting in a safe supply of drinking water for the town.  But the pumps have a limited capacity, and as with most towns, they were chosen to accommodate the community's average water demands.  There are times when that demand exceeds the capacity of the pumps to push water through the system.

Almost every morning, any given small town experiences a period of "peak water demand" that exceeds the pumps' ability to meet.  People are taking showers, brushing their teeth, flushing their know your morning routine.  During those times, the water towers kick in and supplement the pumps' ability to provide water, and they do so using the gravitational pressure of their stored water.  At night, when demand shuts off, they refill themselves.  Thus, the water inside them is constantly being recirculated.

For every foot in height above ground level that a water tower is built, it creates  gravitational pressure of .43 pounds per square inch (psi).  Now, it takes between 50-100 psi to run most municipal water systems.  A 120 ft tall water tower can provide that non-mechanically, without any need for pumps.  There are some water towers that reach 200 ft, but that's not typical.  The fact that these water towers allow communities to size the pumps in their water delivery system to average, rather than peak, demand saves them, and you, the consumer, money.

The typical water tower holds about a one day's supply of water based on local usage.  It holds, roughly, 50 backyard swimming pools' worth of water.  While that seems like quite a bit, at the end of the day most communities would drain their local water tower dry within 24 hours in the event that it could not be replenished by the local reservoir.
But 24 hours is 24 hours.  If the pumps at your local water plant blew up or malfunctioned, that water tower will but the city at least that much time to troubleshoot, repair or replace them in a pinch before it starts to put a crimp in your water needs.

In the aftermath of those big Derecho storms that swept through the Midwest and into the East Coast a few weeks ago, many areas were left without power.  Pity the community that didn't have back up generators for the water pumps, is all I can say.  In my home county there is a small town of less than 1000 that had no water tower as a backup, and when they lost power they also lost water delivery for all of the residents.

Historically, an interesting aspect of water towers, and municipal water delivery systems, is that civil engineering allowed for a heightening of the urban landscape which exceeded most cities' ability to pump water up that urban verticality.  As any diarist here over the age of 55 can attest, with the possible exception of Denise Oliver Velez, gravity is a force that cannot be denied.  It tugs at you relentlessly, and without rest.  As buildings grew in height, so did the psi required to adequately plumb them increase.  Eventually, cities were forced to require builders to install rooftop water towers for any structure over 6 stories, because their municipal pumps could push the water up that high, or higher.  Just think of the Empire State Building, at 102 stories.  It has several water towers on its roof not only to provide water pressure, but just plain water in the event of a fire.  In the aftermath of the famous Chicago fire, virtually ever building in the city was burned to the ground...with the exception of its water tower.

So, as you see, these structures aren't just some quirky anachronism.  They do actually serve a daily purpose.  One that I readily admit I was unaware of.  And the simplicity of their technology is almost hard to fathom.  

But I still appreciate their funkiness as much as I do their functionality.  It's rare in product design when the one doesn't interfere with the other.  No matter what they look like, they all work on the same, basic principal:  gravity.

I'll leave you with "The World's Largest Catsup Bottle", located in Collinsville, Illinois.

Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower Collinsville IL

Got any water tower stories or pics?  

Originally posted to Keith930 on Wed Jul 18, 2012 at 01:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.


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