ASHTABULA — The light-gray interior of the steel cylinder warped and echoed the near whispers of James Parker and Joseph Flahiff as they stood in a shaft of a daylight squeezed through a port hole far above their hard hats.
They were inside one of the city’s best-kept secrets, a structure whose interior rarely receives a human visitor. Surrounded by trees and a high fence, only neighbors and astute drivers know of the water tank, which has been off-line for the past month while interior restoration work was performed by Tank Industries Consultants of Indianapolis.
Parker, inspector with the company, and Flahiff, production manager for the tank’s owner, Aqua Ohio Water Co., opened the tank to a media tour Thursday afternoon. It was a rare chance to crawl inside a time capsule of sorts; the interior was last painted in the 1980s, although there have been periodic inspections that required human intrusion.
“We have 12 to 15 guys — two crews — working on it to get it done in a short time,” said Anthony C. Mancari, area manager of Aqua Ohio, Inc., Lake Shore Division. “The contractor has done a nice job.”
Last year, two intrepid inspectors entered the tank from an access port and, using an inflatable raft, inspected the top section of the interior. The inspection was necessary to obtain a cost estimate for the interior painting job ordered by Aqua Ohio as part of its wide-reaching plan to upgrade the Ashtabula water system.
With the tank work nearly complete, Flahiff and Parker proudly showed off the fresh paint job as if they were unveiling a commissioned work of art.
In reality, the tank is more a work of engineering and technology than art. When the paint crews entered the drained tank, they found rust on most of the surfaces and some structural issues. Repairs were made, the corrosion sandblasted away and an inert coating certified safe for potable water applied. Flahiff said coatings have improved greatly in the past 30 years, and the modern paint will do a better job of protecting the water supply.
Built upon a former reservoir location, the cylinder rests on a base of sand. The floor is steel plate 1/4-inch thick, yet it gives slightly as we walk over it. Flahiff explains that the constant pressure exerted by 25 million pounds of water will do that to steel.
The last step in the work will be to power wash the interior so all the dust and other construction residue is removed before potable water starts to fill the tank through its 24-inch fill/output line. Flahiff said the system will be able to refill the tank in three to five days.
“We’re about done. In 10 days we’ll be back in service,” Mancari said.
The project is part of a major reinvestment plan to improve the area’s water treatment and distribution system. Aqua spent $1.4 million replacing pipe, valves and hydrants last year. Another $300,000 went into the chemical building at the treatment plant and $800,000 went for exterior painting and structural rehabilitation of the Bunker Hill tank.
Planned spending for 2013 totals $1.7 million and includes the $450,000 spent on the interior painting. All told, about 1,500 gallons of paint will be used on the tank.
Flahiff said the paint job will be inspected in a year, then a decade or so will pass before humans again broach this aquatic sac that, like power grids and lift stations, are taken for granted until something goes wrong.
Aqua Ohio, which purchased the system from Ohio American Water on May 1, 2012, is doing all it can to keep that from happening.
“We invest a lot of capital into the infrastructure,” Mancari said. “Major upgrades are done and work is ongoing.”
Flahiff said that the Bunker Hill tank is one of several in the system; the next one scheduled for rehabilitation is on Harmon Road in North Kingsville. The system’s more familiar tanks are on Route 84 in Kingsville Township and at Austinburg Road and Bunker Hill.
All of the tanks provide a reserve of water and help maintain consistent pressure at faucets across the system, from a spacious Tudor on Bunker Hill to a bungalow on Lake Erie, where the water we take for granted begins and ends its journey.