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4 Areas to Focus on During a Water Tower Inspection

4 Areas to Focus on During a Water Tower Inspection

Water towers are often the primary water storage facility for a community, providing safe drinking water, reliable pressure and fire protection.

To keep the water flowing it’s necessary to make sure they function properly. To ensure everything is in proper order, here are four main areas to focus on as part of an annual inspection.

A bird's eye view of climbing a legged water tank. Certified inspectors with appropriate safety and access training should provide evaluation services. Drone footage provided by the SEH Drone Team.


Tank venting is critical so air can exit and enter the tank at the same time water enters and exits the tank. This prevents a vacuum, which can cause detrimental structural damage. Tank venting should follow design guidelines set by AWWA D100, incorporating proper screening to prevent debris, insects, birds and other contaminants from entering the tank. The photos below show examples of screening defects. The shroud, or cap, must cover the screen when viewing from the side, so wind driven rain does not enter the tank. The screen must be fully intact and its mesh properly sized to comply with current established guidelines. Corrosion resistant material such as fiberglass should be used for screening. Screening, if attached correctly, should be flush above and below the openings in the vent frame. Also the interior screen should include a designed frost-free pallet that moves freely with the flow of air. Floating access tubes will also include a screened venting system; this too must be inspected annually, and maintained as necessary.

vent cap
This vent cap does not fully cover the screen when viewing from the side.
In addition to an improper shroud, this screen is not composed of corrosion resistant material.
A tear in the vent screen
A tear in the vent screen allows easy access for insects, birds and rodents to enter the water tank. Any size tear in a vent screen should be repaired to facilitate proper function of the water tower.

Overflow pipe

The tank overflow pipe also needs to be properly screened to prevent unwanted contaminants from entering the tank, and unwanted intrusion. That means maintaining adequate relief of the overflow pipe with termination at 12 to 24-inches, an air break above the ground, in part so flooding of the area would not result in siphoning of contaminated water into the tank. The overflow pipe itself should be cut off high enough above the ground to allow for installation of an elbow to direct flow to an inlet, or splash pad to prevent erosion. If the overflow exits the tank at too low of a level, it may need to be redesigned and cut off inside of the tank, with a new penetration installed through the tank wall at a proper height, aligning with the termination height described above.

overflow pipe that is too close to the ground
This overflow pipe is too close to the ground. In the event of flooding, dirty water could be siphoned back into the tank. A new penetration may be needed through the tank base to raise the overflow to a proper height.
overflow pipe that sits just above the grate
This overflow pipe sits just above the grate To remedy this installation, the overflow pipe can be cut off and modified to a height 12 to 24-inches above the ground.
overflow pipe that terminates into the ground
This overflow pipe terminates into the ground. Beyond not meeting the required regulations, in the event of a communications failure, the operator may not know the tank is overflowing because the discharge is not visible.


What is the condition of telecommunications equipment installations on your tank? Is the safety of your drinking water compromised by one of these installations? Is there equipment present on the tank that should be removed? Your structure’s primary purpose is to store safe water for customers, and it is important that any ancillary installations maintain the integrity of the tank for its primary purpose. In serving its dual purpose, these installations may compromise tank access leaving an unsafe condition for the operator.

access hatch is in the middle of a mass of telecom cables
This access hatch is in the middle of a mass of telecom cables, compromising proper closure. The cables pose a tripping hazard for workers assessing and maintaining the tank. Ideally, telecom cables should be grouped and routed from the center of the tank to the handrail, and then routed along the handrail system to the associated antenna sector. Cables should never be attached to the top handrail because it impedes the use of a lanyard point of contact.
unused equipment and cables were left in place
When telecommunication equipment installations are modified, it is important that changes are reviewed by the city or a representative on behalf of the city. On this tank, unused equipment and cables were left in place when a tenant removed their equipment from the structure. The city’s lease should be reviewed to identify provisions for removal and maintenance compliance.
telecom cables enter the top of the tank near the access hatch
These telecom cables enter the top of the tank near the access hatch. However, the sealant meant to keep the elements and contaminants out has deteriorated below the surface. This entry hole should be properly sealed with an appropriately sized boot allowing the cables to pass through but keeping contaminants out.

Access locations

It is important to know that since 2001 water storage facilities have been designated as federally protected sites. Consider restricting water tower access through multiple layers of protection. Protective methods can or should include locked fences, locked access doors with swipe cards or coded entry, locked hatches, intrusion switches or closed-circuit television monitoring. If a private company requests access to your tank, make sure you have verification of the individuals’ identity and purpose on your tank, and consider accompanying them. Due to the design of the tank and its location, a fabricated modification may be warranted to impede undesired intruder access. The installation of a locked aluminum cover over the access ladder and the addition of metal bars to the ladder cage is a good example.

access door has a proper lock in place within a shroud that makes cutting the lock difficult
This access door has a proper lock in place within a shroud that makes cutting the lock difficult, restricting access to those without permission.
fence is in need of repair
A fence is a good first line of protection, but needs to be continually maintained. This fence is in need of repair. A person can easily pass through the gate, compromising the safety of the facility. A fence shouldn’t be the only layer of protection restricting access to your tank.

To sum up

Safe water is the number one purpose for your water tank. Proper tank inspection can verify the condition of vents, overflows, access points and ancillary equipment. Tanks should be inspected every year at a minimum to ensure proper performance and longevity.

Here's what it looks like to climb the outside of a legged water tank.

SEH's safety program requires that any employee climbing a tank be specifically trained for this task.

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About the author


Jana Nyhagen, PE*, is an SEH Associate, senior water engineer and water tower tank inspector with more than 20 years of specialized experience. She is committed to providing municipalities with the insight they need to make informed and proactive decisions regarding their community’s most important resource – water. Connect with Jana on LinkedIn for a glimpse of her water tower climbing and inspection adventures.

*Registered Professional Engineer in MN, ND, IA, IN, SD, WI