Buckingham Fountain

Plumbing Achievements: Buckingham Fountain in Chicago

San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. For New York City, it’s the Statue of Liberty. Chicago? It’s got Buckingham Fountain, an icon that mingles water, multi-colored lights, and granite, as well as bronze and pink georgia marble. Not to mention a jet that sprays water to seemingly impossible heights.

The fountain’s wow factor has entranced questioner Alan Ireland, an HVAC contractor and a self-described “pump guy.” While growing up in Chicago, he wondered how the fountain works and heard lore of a hidden engineer who kept the displays going.

Eric Kelmar, an assistant chief engineer for the Chicago Park District, manages the team of about five engineers who tend to Buckingham Fountain. Kelmar explains that due to the high priority of site, “We try to keep it to a small family of people who operate it daily.”

Every morning, from April 1 through mid-October, one of Kelmar’s team throws on a pair of waders and pulls out any debris that birds may have lodged in the fountain’s screens and baskets overnight.

Then, at 8:00 a.m., the engineer manually starts up the fountain. An hour later, the first water-show begins. Kelmar says the fountain’s center jet can shoot water as high as 150 feet in the air, depending on wind conditions. That’s 15 stories.

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