Harlem’s wooden water towers – typically on buildings more than 6 stories – seem like a hold-over from another era. And, while it’s true that they’ve been in existence for over 100 years, they still provide 21st century apartment dwellers with reliable, and fully pressured water – even in the building’s upper stories.
The industry (building and maintaining water towers) has just three family-run companies – two of which have been operating for nearly this entire century-long history. While the number of water towers in Harlem is unknown, the city is estimated to have around 17,000 water tanks in total.
When indoor plumbing began replacing well-drawn water in the 1880s, tanks were placed on rooftops because the local water pressure was too weak to raise water to upper levels. This was especially the case when steel framing and elevators permitted the upward growth of commercial and residential buildings. The city enacted a law in the early 20th century that required that buildings with six or more stories be equipped with a rooftop tank and a pump to feed it.
About 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water can be stored in the tanks. The upper layer of water is used for everyday use, with water at the bottom reserved for emergencies. When the water drops below a certain level, an electric pump is triggered and the tank refills. Gravity sends water to pipes throughout the building from the roof.
Without this passive pressure, a building would need to install pumps to maintain water pressure for residents that would run 24/7 (costly, and prone to maintenance issues). On the other hand, a water tank usually lasts roughly 30-35 years, can be built within 24 hours, and takes just two or three hours to fill with water.
The three companies that construct NYC’s wooden water tanks are: Rosenwach Tank Company, Isseks Brothers, and American Pipe and Tank. The wooden aspect of the tank routinely draws questions about whether or not wood is the right material for the job. Wood, turns out to be the most effective for the water tank’s job. Wood, for example, is better at moderating temperature than steel tanks. Steel tanks, while sometimes used, are more expensive, require more maintenance, and take more time to build. A wooden tank that can hold 10,000 gallons of water costs roughly $30,000. A steel tank of the same size can cost up to $120,000. And water stored in the wood will not freeze in the winter and stays cool during the hot summer months.
Eventually, the wood will (however) rot and will need to be replaced after 30-35 years. When wood tanks are built, they leak, but when they fill with water, the wood expands and forms a watertight seal. When people use the water, the level in the tank goes down. At a certain point, the pump is triggered, and this pump fills the tank again.
Truck Depot vs. 457 Units of Affordable Housing
City Council Member Kristin Jordan’s campaign that stopped the development of 457 units of affordable housing at 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, has resulted in the developer floating the idea of a truck stop instead.
Patch.com is reporting that after Jordan stopped the building of a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, the site may be used as a “rental depot for big rigs and trucks”.
If this comes to pass, Council Member Jordan may have not only stopped 457 units of affordable housing but may have inadvertently brought increased pollution levels and asthma rates to this corner of her district.
Health Fair on Saturday – 123rd and 3rd Ave.
This afternoon, take a moment to wander over to the Harlem Bazaar, the market held on the third Friday of the month from June to October, outside the State Office Building from 3 to 9 p.m.