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Water Towers in New York

Updated: July 11, 2023

This post is about the peculiar water towers on the top of NYC buildings, what their function is, and how they are installed and repaired. 

Tourists to NYC are fascinated by them and they are usually a topic of conversation on our walking tours.

How Do Water Towers Work?

Water towers in New York are everywhere.

Just look up and you'll notice round, wooden structures on the top of New York buildings that look like ancient relics from the past that were accidentally left there.

The water towers in New York might look old and yes, they are, but they encompass the past, present, and most likely the future.

As New Yorkers reached for the skies in the 1800s, water towers became an intricate part of the buildings’ framework.

As buildings grew taller than 6 stories, the main water infrastructure couldn’t handle the water pressure.

Water towers were needed to move water safely to the 7th floor and above.  

New York Hidden water tower

Although they look like remnants of the past, they are still very much in use today.

Using gravity to help supply the water pressure, water is fed to pipes throughout the building, providing water for everyday use like showers and drinking, as well as extinguishing a fire.

The water tank works similar to a toilet. As the water level recedes from use, a float valve will allow more water in, refilling the tank.

The water is pumped up from the basement using electric pumps.

The tanks hold about 10,000 gallons of water (37,854 liters), with a reserve for emergency use.

It’s a simple concept that has little changed throughout the century.

This system may be “old” but it sure is reliable. About 15,000 buildings still use this system today.

As you look up to the rooftops to marvel at this simple, yet “green”, part of New York City’s past and present with more appreciation, you will start seeing them everywhere.

And don’t be fooled by those fancy, decorative brick structures on the tops of buildings. They have a water tower treasure hidden inside them.


Only three companies build the ones you see on the NYC rooftops, and to get an idea of how much in use they are, Rosenwach Tank Company (which has been in business for over 100 years) builds approximately 300 new tanks a year.

Simple in construction, tanks are built within a 24-hour time frame and only take 2 to 3 hours to fill. Most are made of wood, but some are made of steel.

Steel tanks cost more to build and maintain and offer less insulation, so wood is the material of choice for most.

Wood acts as a natural insulator, preventing the water from freezing in the winter. No sealants or chemicals are used so as not to taint the water supply.

Since the tanks are on the rooftops, they take a beating from the elements, hence why they look like antiques, but they have a 30 to 35-year lifespan.

+++Come and discover the many water towers the next time you visit NYC. Join our many pay-what-you-like New York walking tours!+++

Written by Lori Pickhardt

About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo,, and more.
Updated: July 11th, 2023
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