Overcoming Modern Challenges for Urban Water Tower Maintenance Projects

Find out how one city made the most of its water tower maintenance project through close collaboration and careful planning.

Modern water tower maintenance projects in urban areas share two unique challenges.

The first is related to development of the land and its limited availability.

“When siting water towers was done back in the 1960s and 70s, there weren't many other buildings around them,” says Dan Zienty, SEH project manager. “As cities have grown, water towers are often right in the middle of developments — that can cause maintenance challenges.

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The Penn Avenue water tower in Richfield, Minnesota, is located in an area of dense development. This caused challenges to the maintenance team working on the tower's reconditioning.

As a result, these towers need to be updated with limited impact to the surrounding development; which includes local residents, businesses and public services. And sometimes the development itself needs to be updated, because poor soil disruptions can pose additional challenges.

The second challenge is connected to the fact that today’s water towers do more than hold water, they are often central to the community in supporting its telecommunications system. In urban areas, where the telecommunications needs are greater, its infrastructure can become unsightly. The addition of telecommunications infrastructure also means every water tower project has more stakeholders than ever and involves coordinating multiple needs.

In this article, we’ll look at how the City of Richfield, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, overcame these common urban challenges to update its 1.5 million-gallon water tank and telecommunications equipment.

Planning ahead for the challenges

Though making ongoing maintenance repairs through the years, the City of Richfield, Minnesota, needed to evaluate its 1.5 million-gallon water tower. The assessment determined the water tower needed reconditioning, which called for interior repairs and exterior coating replacement, as well as modifications to the placement of the telecommunications equipment.

It wouldn’t be easy.

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The Penn Avenue water tank in Richfield, Minnesota, before reconditioning efforts.

The water tower is located along a major traffic artery, Penn Avenue, which could not be shut down. The tower also sits thirty feet from a fire station. The fire station and parking lot take up about 60 percent of the property. This left contractors with a 200 by 300-foot site to stage their operations. The tank is also home to three major wireless carriers and is a central distribution point for emergency services. In all, the water tower affects many of the city’s 36,000 residents and businesses.

To complete the reconditioning, the City would have to provide continued water service, maintain access to the fire station, and keep the cell carriers on-line.

Here’s how they did it.

“The name of the game with this project was staging and timing,” says Zienty. “Everything had to be carefully planned out to make sure nothing was disrupted and the project remained on task.”

Coating replacement without disrupting nearby fire station

The Penn Avenue Tower had common maintenance issues regarding the coatings.

The interior coating was last replaced in 2007 and, in 1996, spot repairs were made to the exterior. This is typical, as coating serviceability is about 15 to 20 years. Both the inside and outside coatings needed repair, replacement or both, as they showed significant signs of rusting, or a need for aggressive repair.

As mentioned, the project team couldn’t interrupt firetruck access from the station and onto Penn Avenue. Collaboration on staging among the painting contractor and fire department made this possible. The painting contractor was granted four parking spaces for equipment and material, and for the delivery of product. The fire department also worked with the painters to make sure the containment system and large crane used for the structural modifications would not block the fire station’s driveway.

To get even more space for work, the project site expanded when the team received DOT permission to close the sidewalk along Penn Avenue. Finally, temporary fencing was installed to define the work area. This new workspace housed the painting contractor’s dust collection system and blast-pot. The additional space created also provided room for containment inclusive of a roof bonnet — a system required by Minnesota law aiming to prevent dust and paint drift.

Apart from the physical reconditioning of the tank, the project team made preparations prior to the telecommunications upgrades as well.

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With limited space around the Penn Avenue tower, the project team in charge of reconditioning had to get creative.

Keeping telecom running with temporary infrastructure

The Penn Avenue water tower, like most modern water towers, has telecommunications infrastructure that would make maintenance more challenging.

Before they could take the telecommunications installations down, the carriers had to install a temporary monopole nearby to ensure cell services were not interrupted. Siting was complicated by the small site size and line of sight from the area. In order to operate correctly, the temporary pole needed three unobscured sight lines for frequency transmission, as the water tower blocked one direction. Utility location also identified poor soil conditions from a recent fire station addition.

Because previous construction waste was disposed in the area, it created some challenges finding good soil for temporary cell pole placement. A suitable location for the temporary installation was developed by combining soil boring information, as-built drawings, a site survey and utility locates.

The temporary pole also had to be positioned so it didn’t interfere with contractors’ reconditioning operations. Also, height restrictions from a City ordinance played a role when placing the temporary equipment, impacting the type of engineered pole used.

“We had to make sure we could work with the carriers though City ordinance requirements, and be timely,” says Zienty. “We also had to work around overhead power lines and underground utilities.”

Xcel Energy helped protect lines along Penn Avenue that were close to the containment system.

Upgrading the telecom for maintenance and aesthetics

“The City really wanted to make the telecom attributes of the water tank look a lot better, and the carriers didn’t want to compromise their service during the project—they also wanted considerations made for future site expansion,” Zienty says.

The old telecommunications installations were attached via U-bolts and compression brackets to each of the structure’s 12 supporting columns. The City wanted the installations reconfigured to make them less intrusive to workers for access and more appealing, aesthetically.

Regarding aesthetics, one of the key issues was the cabling running up each of the 12 support columns. The project team came up with a solution to remove and re-rout them through two 12-inch PVC conduits that ran up two co-locatable support columns. Not only was the solution more visually pleasing, it improved accessibility for future upgrades.

Finally, the handrail system was upgraded so it could support more telecommunications equipment. This type of upgrade will only become more common as carriers re-locate more and more accessory equipment closer to their antennas.

The Penn Avenue water tank in Richfield, Minnesota, after a tank reconditioning and telecom upgrade project.

Bringing it all together

Adjacent to development, located along a busy thoroughfare and loaded with telecommunications equipment, the Penn Avenue water tower is a thoughtful example for cities undertaking similar water tower maintenance projects. With so many stakeholders and potential impacts, close collaboration is essential. So is careful planning, says Zienty.

“When you recognize all of your challenges ahead of time, and you get everything lined up, you can make any project come together like clockwork,” says Zienty.

This 360-degree imagery, available to SEH clients, gives city officials and contractors close-up views of their facilities from anywhere.


About the Expert

Dan Zienty

Dan Zienty is a project manager committed to inventive solutions for complex water tower and tank maintenance projects. Contact Dan

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