Under the Big Top

The water tower at the corner of Interstate 94 and 20th Street South is tented in preparation for painting. (Photo/Russ Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The Interstate 94 water tower is getting a top-to-bottom makeover. Now it’s wearing a bonnet.

“That’s what the professionals call the canopy that has been erected at the top of the tower,” Marc Pritchard says. The suspended covering can be lowered as the weather demands to protect the crew of four to eight workers who will be spending coming days applying a base coat to the cleaned, sealed exterior of the tank and the stalk that holds it up.

Over the past five weeks, crews from KLM Engineering of Woodbury, Minnesota, and Classic Protective Coatings of Menominie, Wisconsin, have stripped the tower to the skeleton inside. The process began with sandblasting degraded paint from both the interior and exterior, which over time permitted rust nodules to form on the metal underneath. Then joints are sealed and a layer of undercoating is applied.

The cosmetic side of the project – the band of symbolic art encircling the tank’s midriff – will be the final step. That stage begins later this month. The price tag for the entire project is $980,000.

The I-94 tower’s rehabilitation tops off a big year for the city’s water operation. Moorhead Public Service completed construction of a fourth tower at 4855 28th Ave. S. in July, clearing the way for the latest project. That tower went into service July 28. By the next Monday, Pritchard’s staff began the surprisingly complex process of draining the older structure to enable workers to strip old, degraded paint from the interior and recoat it.

Pritchard, the city’s water supervisor, explains the coatings have a useful life of 20 to 25 years, but then lose their ability to prevent rusting. The I-94 tower, built in 1995, was originally slated to be redone in 2020, but Covid delayed the project.

“The paint wears out,” he says, simplifying the technical explanation. “When that happens, the metal surface begins to rust. All that rust had to be sandblasted away so it could be recoated.” He adds that the metal itself is good for three to four renewal operations before it grows too thin: “So this tower has a good long life left in it.”

The entire project requires the painting crew to work at a dizzying height – hanging from rigging suspended from the bonnet 130 feet above the ground. But the finishing touch will garner the earthbound audience’s attention. The tower crew will use an enormous, specially fabricated stencil to delineate the design, then paint it in sections.

“The process is more complex than it might seem,” Pritchard points out. “The painters have to lay out the stencil, then make in-field adjustments to be sure it conforms to the conical surface. It’s surprisingly difficult.”

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