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Toppling water tank a first, longtime installer says

A water tower fell from building 2800 block North Pine Grove Avenue injuring three people Lakeview Wednesday July 31 2013.

A water tower fell from a building in the 2800 block of North Pine Grove Avenue injuring three people in Lakeview on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times ORG XMIT: CST1307311350375521

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:16AM



Nobody in Chicago knows more about rooftop water tanks than Ronald Carlson, whose family has been in the business of installing and repairing them for 120 years — a field it has had to itself since 1965.

During his time, the 69-year-old Carlson has seen the wooden tanks dry up and rot. He’s seen them list to the side. He’s seen building owners disappear unwanted tanks practically overnight despite a city ordinance intended to preserve them.

But he’d never seen what happened Wednesday.

“This is the first time in all our years I’ve heard of one falling like this,” said Carlson, still digesting reports about a tank that toppled from 2800 N. Pine Grove and injured three people, one critically.

For Carlson, it’s more than a curiosity viewed from afar.

Back in 1984, his company, Johnson & Carlson Tank Sales and Service, installed the tank that fell, replacing a previous tank the company may or may not have installed. Even his extensive records don’t go back to the construction of the 2800 N. Pine Grove building in 1893, although his great-grandfather had been in business 10 years by then.

Carlson said the building’s management contacted him two years ago about repainting the tank in response to an inspection. He said he submitted a quote but never heard back. City officials said Wednesday the tank had been repainted as ordered.

Carlson read to me from a structural engineer’s report, provided to him by the building, which found no serious structural concerns with the tank at that time. The cause of the accident has not been determined.

I’m forever fascinated by the city’s rooftop tanks, one of which sits just outside my window atop a storage business.

It’s a rusty steel hulk painted with an ad for the storage company. While I could only describe it as butt ugly, it has grown on me over the years — if only as a reminder of a fast-disappearing part of our cityscape.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley apparently felt that way, too, as he pushed through an ordinance in 2006 declaring the surviving tanks to be historic landmarks.

The city counted 178 tanks that year. Carlson figures there are closer to 150 left. He’s got most of them in a book.

Maybe 85 of those are still in use, primarily as a source of fire protection using gravity to feed water to the buildings’ sprinkler systems, he said. Most buildings now have pumps for that purpose.

The tank at 2800 N. Pine Grove was a little different. Carlson called it a “house tank,” one of a small subset of rooftop tanks helping to supply the building’s water for plumbing purposes. The house tanks help increase the water pressure — just like the big water towers you see in the suburbs.

As rooftop tanks go, the one that fell was on the smaller side at 4,000 gallons compared to a typical 20,000-gallon tank. It was made with 2-inch red cedar, supported by steel bands like a barrel.

Building owners hire Carlson’s company to keep their tanks functional, or if no longer in use, to keep them stable. Many of the tanks serve as billboards.

When tanks are empty, the wood “staves” can dry up and shrink and the steel bands slip. In those instances, Carlson has seen tanks list to the side, but never fall.

Before the city designated water tanks as landmarks, Carlson said his company also performed demolitions. Now he refers anyone with a demolition inquiry to city landmark officials, but he notes that hasn’t kept the tanks from disappearing.

“I can’t say if they went through the proper channels, or they did it on their own. Things like that happen in Chicago,” Carlson noted. A city spokesman said more than 20 building owners indeed have received permission to tear down the tanks.

Mark Bromann, a fire protection specialist with Rally Fire Protection Services in Wheaton, was as shocked as Carlson that the tank fell.

Bromann, a fan of rooftop tanks, said they were typically installed when the buildings were constructed, and planned for accordingly, with all necessary supports to handle the extremely heavy load.

“I wouldn’t think anybody should worry about something like that happening again,” Bromann said.

But people will worry. Comments on the Sun-Times website already are calling for the remaining tanks to be removed.

That doesn’t seem necessary, although there probably will need to be a special round of inspections to make sure.

Just when you think there’s nothing new under the sun, a water tank falls from the sky.



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