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Backyard Residential Water Towers In The 50's And 60's


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Growing up in Houston in the 1950's, there was this what I call a water tower in the backyard;

perhaps 7 or 8 feet tall, maybe 3 feet on each side of a square. It had wooden slats covering it,

and I think it was for cooling the water that flowed thru it, and then piping that cooled water to

the house, where then somehow air was pumped thru the ductwork, and it was what we called

air conditioning.

(before central air units some years later).

Sorry I can't be more exact about this, was just a kid then and have not thought about this in

years. I do remember the sound of water flowing thru it, but really didn't spend much time there

as it seemed the wasps liked that area too.

Am looking for pictures of such a backyard, residential water tower, or whatever it was called.

(I don't think its the same thing as a swamp cooler, but really not sure).

The pics don't need to be from Houston, but of course that would be great.

Browsing the web searching for residential water tower air conditioning or related search terms

has not been helpful, have gotten many hits about office or nuclear plant cooling towers though.

Thanks for any pointers to such pictures or other search ideas or sites with such pics.

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Those were cooling towers for residential chilled water systems. They are small versions of what's commonly used to cool commercial buildings. The tower's were used in houses built in the 60's, I used to know a few people who lived near Chimney Rock and Chevy Chase who had those systems. Modern residential chilled water systems use outside equipment that's simialr to a standard system. Do a search for residential chilled water hvac.

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I definitely remember them from the 1940s in commercial situations but I don't recall ever seeing any residential ones. We lived close enough to the coast to have a little cooler breezes than in Houston, though. I can remember the ones on the lawn beside the Piggly Wiggly and the sound of the rushing water but I seem to recall they were mostly on top of buildings rather than ground level. I remember some churches also had them.

Up in Central Texas when we visited relatives who had ranches we encountered something similar, I guess, evaporative coolers hanging in windows like window air conditioning units, which were very large back then too. They were made of galvanized metal and were rather crude looking. Inside a single wide slat distributed air, blown by a rotating drum type fan, as I recall. They added some moisture to the air which was desirable up there but wouldn't have been here.

Maybe a site dealing with the history of air conditioning devices would have pictures?

I also remember something similar for cars - a torpedo shaped thing, about the size of one of those canister vacuum cleaners that you pull around on the floor. You mounted it in a window and rolled the window up tight. Then, supposedly you could keep the other windows closed and you'd get cooled air inside the car. They didn't work very well; we rented one on our first trip to SoCal across the desert and on the return trip just traveled at night. Those may not have had any water in them, though, I'm not sure how they worked.

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Those were cooling towers for residential chilled water systems. They are small versions of what's commonly used to cool commercial buildings. The tower's were used in houses built in the 60's, I used to know a few people who lived near Chimney Rock and Chevy Chase who had those systems. Modern residential chilled water systems use outside equipment that's simialr to a standard system. Do a search for residential chilled water hvac.

These are true air condtioning, that is chiller, systems. Those things hanging on the side windows of automobiles were simply evaporative coolers. The refrigerant may have been something other than the Freon used in later systems. Some very large commercial units, especially those used to make ice, used ammonia as the refrigerant. That may be a litte too dangerous to have in residences (recall the disasterous ammonia truck crash at the 610-US 59 interchange in 1976) but it is very efficient.

In the mid-70s, when I was in high school, I worked for a residental air conditioning and heating contractor. One of my tasks was to demolish the old water cooling towers and take the rotting boards (the towers were almost always made of wood) to the dump. I also helped load the heavy heat exchangers, which were usually located in a mechanical closet near the garage, on the back of the company's flat bed truck. When we had enough of those in the storage yard at the shop we would torch off the end of the heat exchanger, pull out the copper tubing and sell it to the scrap metal dealer. Even then copper brought a pretty good price - the cast iron cases, not so much. Most of the houses we worked at then were in the Braeswood area.

I mentioned in another thread about my neighbor in Garden Villas who had a four-pipe chilled water system in his house which was built in 1959. He worked for Strauss Systems so had no problem getting spare parts which he seldom had to do. He and his wife both passed away about 10 years ago. His son hired an agent to sell the house. The agent said people would see the system (which was still working wonderfully in 2001) and become spooked by it. The son replaced the system with what we now consider normal - a fan-cooled compressor and condenser in an outside unit and an evaporator inside - and the house sold within two months. By the way, the neighbor's electicity bills in the summer were the lowest in the neighborhood and he wasn't stingy with the thermostat.

One side note: When he was in his teens and had just begun to drive, my father along with his mother and younger brother drove to California in my grandmother's 1948 Buick Super. They had an evaporative cooler which hung on the passenger side window. My father was driving somewhere east of Phoenix, Arizona and said the thing was doing a great job of keeping the car comfortable (no AC of course) until my grandmother forgot it was there are partially rolled down the passenger window. The unit went crashing to the pavement and that was the end of it. Bruce is right, evaporative coolers work great except with the humidity we have here.

Edited by Specwriter
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Thanks to all for the replies so far (and so fast, what a great forum !)

I've been doing the searching using the terms suggested and now understand more about it -

still found no pictures but perhaps aside from pictures in a catalog or brochure from a hvac company of those times, odds are there would not be many folks who took pictures in their backyard with the

water tower in it.

And I also know now this is a real memory as to these towers (getting older sometimes I wonder) -

as per the posts that others remember seeing them and specwriter, your memories of taking down the

towers in the 70's and the slats.

I'll keep looking and searching for some pics of these and will post if find any.

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Very interesting...never heard of those cooling towers, never came across any, growing up in the 60's. But understand the concept. I vaquely recall reading about a cooling system wih chilled air and fans, used in the downtown theaters, before air-conditioning.

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Very interesting...never heard of those cooling towers, never came across any, growing up in the 60's. But understand the concept. I vaquely recall reading about a cooling system wih chilled air and fans, used in the downtown theaters, before air-conditioning.

The cooling towers are different from the chilled air and fan method. The cooling towers help reduce the temperature of the water used as an heat exchange medium so the chillers are more efficient. Most residential AC units today urn air across a coil containing expanded refrigerant that absorbs heat from the air. The chilled water units use an exchanger that has chilled water running through it to absorb the heat in the air. Swamp coolers work in low humidity environments by using the evaporation of water to absorb heat - they do not work well here most of the time.

This link has a decent explanation - http://www.perfect-home-hvac-design.com/chilled-water-air-conditioning.html

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My church still had a wooden cooling tower up until about 15 years ago. I think the structure was made out of cypress or cedar, though it was pretty rotten towards the end of its life. It probably dated from the late 1940s/early 1950s.

One of my relatives also had one to cool his store. He kept goldfish in the bottom of it to eat the mosquito larvae.

I remember seeing the remnants of a few residential cooling towers in Riverside Terrace, but I almost never see them anymore.

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How big are these things? I'm not positive, but there might still be one at a house on 19th St between Lawrence and Nicholson. It's the house that's right in the middle of the Chase bank. From the Chase driveway/alley, you can see the backyard, and I always thought it might be an outhouse, but it's just too skinny to be that. It might be something else, I have no idea. I haven't gone by to look again, I'm just going from memory.

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20thStDad,

Wow, that's it ! Thanks for the great pictures and closeups !!! I can see a few pipes on it too which am guessing went underground to connect somehow to the house where the rest of the process happened, and now starting to remember about those also.

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Upon closer inspection, it has to be what that thing is. It's still there and pretty easy to check out from the Chase alley/driveway (note the No Trespassing sign, but you can still see without doing that)

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That was more than likely an Atmospheric Cooling Tower. There was a time when much of the A/C systems were water cooled instead of Air Cooled. The heat rejection you have on your present day outoor Condensing Unit is outoor ambient air drawn through a coil by a fan thereby remove heat absorbed by the freon. These systems you mention id so by using water pumped through nozzels which then rejected the heat it had absorbed in the water cooled condensor usually located by the compressor which I have seen in garages or small mechanical rooms attached to the house and at times in the house. This process was not very efficent due to the high dewpoint Houston has most of the time.

I may have some pics of these. I remember working on some in River Oaks and Tanglewood areas.

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  • 6 years later...

this is great I have searched a long time to verify childhood memory of these and was curious as to how they worked,  I grew up in Irving Tx in the early 50s there was a new subdivision called Plymouth Park and every house had these towers in the backyard, it was advertised as central a/c, cant wait to read up on how it worked

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13 hours ago, Earlydays said:

Called "swamp coolers" in Florida....usually on the roof.

Refer back to my post on May 25, 2011. A swamp cooler is essentially what I described on the '48 Buick. Air was cooled as it passed over evaporating water. That is way it works best in a dry climate. Swamp cooler seems an inaccurate name then because I've never been to a swamp with low relative humidity. :)

The small towers usually seen behind houses up until the early 1960s were indeed part of a true air conditioning system. They were scaled down versions of what larger commercial buildings still use today. Whatever the refrigerant used, be it a halogenated hydrocarbon, ammonia, or something else, it gets hot as it is compressed. Just as modern systems use a fan blowing air across the piping to dissipate some of the heat the older systems used water to 'take away' the heat. Having the water fall down the slats of the tower allowed the water to give up its heat to the atmosphere and repeat the process. So the water cooled the refrigerant and the tower cooled the water.

The process of compressing  gas then letting it expand until it reaches a greatly lower temperature is called the adiabatic process. It is one of those aspects of physics I find fascinating. In modern systems the water is treated so it does not promote bacterial growth such as Legionella species.

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  • 1 year later...

Interestingly, I saw an old water chiller yesterday.  It’s located at a former church on the south side of Bellaire Blvd. (HOUSTON, TX) where Bellaire crosses the railroad tracks about a mile inside the 610 Loop.  Go have a look!  

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Edited by Mike Farley
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  • The title was changed to Backyard Residential Water Towers In The 50's And 60's

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