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Tinacos: Storage for Water, and Maybe a canvas for Art

By Karla Ortiz

“There is no water” is a common phrase that Mexicans encounter every day. Writer Vicente Leñero knew about it and used that phrase in his book La gota de agua which he tells the story of a family that is left without water supply and how builders and tinaco sellers try to solve a problem with a much deeper root: water culture, its handling and use.

According to the book Jergario De Mexicanismos (Mexican idioms) by José Manuel González Freire, a tinaco is “a tank that is placed at the top of houses for water storage.” But when did we start to store water in roof tanks? How were the first tinacos made? Why do they still exist? What happens when we don’t need them anymore? How do we dispose of them? Are they going to stay forever on rooftops marring the cityscape?

The truth is that in our country, water, the most basic of human necessities, has not always been immediately accessible on demand. Water had to be fetched from rivers and wells and then possibly stored in ancient cisterns. With the advance of urbanization we came to rely on city supplied water for our daily use, but delivery was erratic and water had to be stored to ensure availability during periods of scarcity. To the traditional use of cisterns was added the use of manufactured water tanks placed on rooftops, using gravity as a method of delivery. Tanks buried in the ground, cisterns, required a water pump.

According to Juan Antonio Jaramillo, Director of SAPASMA, in San Miguel de Allende our source of water supply consists of 20 wells. “These wells allow us to give service most days. When there is good service, no water tanks are required.” he said. But in San Miguel de Allende, as in all of Mexico, almost 100% of houses have tinacos because people store water as a precaution against possible cuts in service.

The first water tanks manufactured in Mexico were made of asbestos cement in the 1920s and ’30s. Because of their weight, it was difficult to move them, and eventually people replaced them with new products. Today, the water tanks that we see on rooftops are mostly made of polyethylene, a material that is cheap to produce.

“It’s indisputable that a water tank should be placed on the top of a building because of the gravity effect. The proper functioning of a hydraulic installation in a building in terms of an adequate flow of water will depend on the distance between the faucet and the water tank. We agree that if this doesn’t work properly, we’ll be forced to use electrical energy for pumping,” said sanmiguelense architect Axel Huerta. “There are people who prefer tinacos over cisterns and vice versa. Others prefer to use both,” who noted.

The rural communities in Mexico suffer the most from scarcity of water. “We sell three or four water tanks a week to people from rural communities who do not have a regular and dependable supply of water,” said Omar González, an employee at Ferretería Don Pedro.

Types of Tinacos

There are various types of water tanks according to the need and the type of structure on which they are to be placed. They are made from materials such as asbestos, fiberglass, cement, or polyethylene. They come in various shapes: round, square, trapezoidal, with or without legs, and in different sizes, of course.

The least recommended material is asbestos because it emits toxic chemicals, and asbestos tanks require more investment in maintenance and cleaning.

Unfortunately, asbestos tanks are still found on some houses, such as in the Centro Histórico of San Miguel. On that matter Juan Antonio Jaramillo commented: “There is no official campaign to retire old tinacos and install new ones, that is up to the owners.”


Tinacos or no tinacos?

Omar González explained that in comparison with Mexico, in the US and other countries water is delivered through a completely integrated infrastructure from reliable reserves to the consumer’s home.The water comes already treated and pressurized, ready for human consumption, and the majority of houses have motor pumps for extra pressure.

In Mexico it is believed that tinacos or cisterns are a better choice for health as they can be cleaned as often as needed, protecting us from bacteria or rusty pipes. However, Omar González said, “We would benefit from having a water system like the US only if we had enough water like they have. They find water 10 or 15 meters down, and here you have to drill up to 300 or 400 meters to find water.”

Art and tinacos

We see them everywhere, an incongruous part of a historical city’s landscape. “Are they still working? Are they still needed?” people ask.

SAPASMA service is much better than it was 30 or 40 years ago, so do we still need tinacos? “Even if we still need water tanks, I think we should do something to give them color, give them life, give them a purpose apart from their practical side, give them an artistic touch,” commented Ali Zerriffi, Vice President of the Biblioteca Pública Board.

Zerriffi’s opinion is that this could be an important opportunity to raise awareness about the global concern about water scarcity, leveraging the incredible artistic talent that our town has. “It could be a project for the community at large. We have so many artists and young people in the city who could contribute,” said Zerriffi.

This is not a new idea. It has been done in other cities in the world. The Water Tank Project for example ( is a program that was created in New York City, not only as urban art, but also as a medium to raise awareness about the global water crisis. Artists and students worked together to present an art exhibit, with a message on industrial water tanks all across that city.

The Biblioteca Pública of San Miguel and other organizations, like Muros en Blanco, El Charco del Ingenio, Bellas Artes, El Sindicato, and San Miguel Siempre Hermoso, can work together to make this project an exciting contribution to the charm of our town.

“The idea is to involve youth organizations, educational institutions, government social services, and the community at large in one project to promote environmental awareness and show to ourselves and to our visitors that we are, indeed, a community,” concluded Zerriffi.


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