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How to make sure your apartment building's water tower isn't disgusting and dangerous

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We've never heard the phrase "squirrel martini" before and now, having read the recent City & State New York expose on the dire state of New York's iconic water tanks, we can't scrub the image from our brains.

New York City is known for its high-quality tap water, piped in from the Catskills, but as the magazine explains, when it comes to stewardship of that water, "rigorous scientific monitoring stops at the curb." So in the estimated 10,300 New York buildings with water tanks—the city doesn't know exactly how many there are—responsibility for the final purity of the liquid that residents and workers are drinking and bathing in rests with the building owner. 

City & State found that despite a series of newish regulations mandating annual inspections and reporting for water tanks, fewer than half of all building owners with a water tank inspected it from 2015 to 2017. Also, among those tanks that are being inspected, it's rare for the inspectors, who are often also the cleaners, to report the problems they see, even though tank cleaners interviewed said that sediment, algae, debris, and dead insects are often present in the tanks' water, and animals dead and alive appear in 1-2 percent of tanks.

Those animals, in one tank cleaner's experience, included a family of squirrels living in a tank, two of which drowned in the drinking water, their carcasses infusing what the building's super indelibly dubbed a squirrel martini. E. coli, the bacterium that causes Legionnaire's disease, and other micro-critters can also lurk in the tanks, according to federal environmental regulators, though the city insists the tanks are totally safe, and that the recent finding of E. coli in several municipal buildings was a "clerical error."

So what can tenants and apartment owners do to make sure they're not inadvertently swilling squirrel juice from their water tank?

Here are the basics.

Find out if your building has a water tank 

Maybe, if you're like some people in this office, you've never thought about whether or not your building has a water tank before. Hopefully a peek through the roof door or a long view from the street can put the question to rest easily enough, but you can also consult City & State's handy map of inspection data to see if the city has a record of your building having one. And as a rule of thumb, New York's municipal water system can only provide adequate pressure to get H20 up to the sixth floor of a building, so buildings taller than that rely on pumps to get it up further, and water tanks to hold it on the roof till you turn on the tap.

Look at your building's inspection records

You can check your building's most recent inspection filings—if your building has been inspected—through the city Health Department here. You're also supposed to be able to request any building's records for the last five years of inspections under the city health code, but as City & State found, building owners may refuse and not be reprimanded. In any event, there should be a notice posted in an "easily accessible location" in your building with information on where you can request inspection results. Typically this is a super's office, and the owner is supposed to provide the results within five days.

Keep an eye on your water

If your water is brown, your faucets clog routinely, and/or you see what looks like wood pulp coming out of the tap, your water tank could be deteriorating. If the buildup is blackish and sedimentary, on the other hand, the source may be the city water supply. Any sort of unusual smell, taste, or appearance is worth complaining to 311 about and investigating further. The New York Times reported on the dire state of city water tank inspections back in 2014, so the city isn't exactly exuding competence here.

Talk to your cleaner/inspector

The rules aren't totally clear about when in the process of cleaning the inspection should take place, i.e. before or after, so many inspections report a spotless tank, because, duh, it's just been cleaned. This isn't improper per se, but if you want to know the condition of your tank and not just get a blanket declaration of good health, you/your building's board/your landlord should ask the contractor for details on what it looks like in there. And if a factual, pre-cleaning inspection report is what you want to end up on file with the city, poke around in the records linked above and look for contractors who don't just write "No" or "Negative" for everything.

Or you could always take the route that the city has at the Department of Sanitation's headquarters and cover your roof-less tank with a tarp, then when presented with complaints and an official report showing the presence of sickening bacteria, insist there's no problem.