A few generations ago, even the largest residential buildings had basic electrical needs, such as lighting the building and running some washing machines. Residents back then generally only had a TV, a radio, some lamps and a few kitchen appliances. Until not long ago, older residential buildings that were constructed more than a century ago and electrified later were able to provide enough power for their residents' needs.
These days, apartment-dwellers often have air conditioners, dehumidifiers, air purification systems, washer-dryers, sound systems, computer setups and many other gadgets, all of which draw power through the building's electrical system. While a person may live in a fine old historic building, he and his neighbors' 21st century needs can make the building's electrical system seem not so fine. Such antiquated buildings may need upgrades to their electrical system or to individual units, and those upgrades may or may not be the resident's financial responsibility.
Though the process can be challenging, older buildings do have some options for upgrading their electrical systems. For each board member or property manager concerned with the need to upgrade a building's electrical system, the first question in the electrical upgrade process should be, how much work needs to be done? Sometimes an individual unit can be upgraded, but there are buildings that might require a complete electrical overhaul to catch up to date.
Historically Speaking, Buildings Not Updated
Generally speaking, the city's historic and landmarked residential buildings have not been completely re-wired over the years, because such upgrading can be difficult and expensive. Upgrades to buildings' electrical systems in the city have often been done piecemeal, which in some cases, actually require a more comprehensive approach. If a building's residents are constantly upgrading their units and improving their electrical systems, the structure might need an overall building electrical upgrade, says Jeff Heidings, president of Siren Management Corp., a property management company in Manhattan. "In a lot of prewar buildings, the current power is insufficient," he says.
In a way, electrical upgrades in residential buildings are an example of the law of supply and demand at work. People are bound to upgrade their tools and electronics to fit their lifestyle, sometimes way ahead of what the building's electrical system is capable of handling. Making the building's electrical infrastructure conform to residents' needs is not simply done, or quickly accomplished. In many of the older residential buildings in the city, it can be difficult to do a complete overhaul of the building's electrical system, because of the methods and materials used in historic construction, says Matthew Detore, owner of Detore Electrical Construction in Manhattan.
But the limits of the construction of century-plus-old buildings need not hold back the expectations of a 21st century apartment-dweller. Tim Gold, vice-president of electrical system distributor Midtown Electric Supply, says that in many cases, a resident can get whatever electric supply they would like to get to their unit. How that is accomplished depends partly upon the construction of the building, he notes.
"The problem is, in a lot of these older buildings, you can't drill into those poured-plaster walls. So you have to surface-mount your wiring," Gold says. He adds that the walls of older residential buildings often have a 11/2-inch layer of plaster, underneath which is a layer of sheet rock, beneath which is a layer of wire lathe or wood lathe. "If you need to get wires into the wall, you need to chop [into] the wall," he says.
Certain types of molding that hide electrical wires and that are meant to look like normal baseboard are available as a less costly alternative to a full-fledged electrical renovation, or in cases where the building's construction prevents an in-wall placement of electrical lines. Radio-controlled electrical systems are also available for those residents who find such technology more fitting with their needs.
For an overall building upgrade, the electric utility company may need to add a transformer or two to its lines in front of the building. Or, new wires connecting the transmission lines to the building may need to be installed by the utility company, said Kenny Moscowitz, co-president of Avon Electrical Supplies in Hauppauge. An electrician or an electrical engineer should determine what work would be needed for the upgrade.
Note Signs of System Failure
Residents and property managers should be aware of the obvious signs of an overburdened electrical system, because an overburdened system could result in a fire in the building. Usually, telltale signs are apparent before a system breakdown. When circuit breakers are tripping due to seeming overuse of electrical outlets, or when fuses are blowing due to the same reasons, these occurrences may be symptoms of an overburdened electrical system. If the lights dim suspiciously, that may also be a sign of an overtaxed system. Outlets that are warm to the touch could also signify a problem with the electrical system.
These symptoms may plague older buildings because many of them have not had comprehensive updates to their electrical systems. Electrical lines that were sufficient for an apartment many years ago are now so antiquated that the mere use of a few appliances at once might blow a fuse.
While there is a possibility that a building's overtaxed electrical system could spark a fire in the structure, the possibility is fairly remote, Detore said. "That's what your breakers and fuses are for. The breaker protects an electrical wire from a fire happening," he says. Many older buildings are in need of an upgraded electrical panel, Detore adds.
Completing an Electrical Upgrade
The first step in an electrical upgrade of a co-op or condo building is assessing the building's maximum electrical capacity. An electrician or electrical engineer should be hired to do the assessment. In such an assessment, the professional will go to the basement of the building to see how many electrical switches the building has, and calculate what the electrical system's load is.
"It's a matter of measuring what the draw of electricity in the building is," Heidings says. Factors such as the square footage of the building and the number of users and units in it are considered when calculating electrical capacity. In addition to the possibility of having the utility upgrade its equipment and lines servicing the building, property managers overseeing a complete electrical upgrade often will find that they need also to add new switches and meter banks.
While upgrades of individual units can be trickier than complete building upgrades, neither process is simple when people are living in the building while the work is being done.
"Typically, you try to not leave people without power," says Detore, whose company specializes in electrical construction and alterations. "We set up panels in the apartments in the first place. If they got a 40-amp panel, we would just run the feed up from the basement."
The ideal situation obviously would be one in which the contractor inconveniences residents as little as possible. But one person's inconvenience is another person's hassle. The fact is that doing an electrical upgrade to a building is very difficult when people are living in the apartments, especially when the electrical contractor has to open up walls to do the work, Detore says. "You don't want to be living there when we're getting new [electrical lines] in the apartment."
Costs and Benefits
At first glance, doing an overall upgrade of a building's electrical system might seem prohibitively expensive, but such a major improvement could have the effect of making the building a much more attractive place for prospective (and current) residents. A major electrical upgrade could also make the building safer, by lowering the chance of electrical fires, and ultimately could lead to lower (or unchanged) insurance premiums. Money spent on improvements now also could save money through tax benefits gained for doing the work.
In some cases, financial aid in one form or another may be available for electrical improvements that are planned for a building. Depending upon the scope of the renovations, some upgrades to a building's electrical system could be partly financed by government incentives, such as New York City's J-51 capital improvement tax benefit program. The city tax benefit is available for qualified improvements that are done on a building-wide basis. Housing Preservation and Development, a department of New York City government, also provides incentives for upgrading residential buildings. A certificate of capital improvement will allow a building owner to not pay state tax on materials and labor used in a building renovation.
Additionally, Con Edison has rebate programs that it offers to encourage property managers of residential buildings to put in energy-efficient lighting. That rebate is available when management is having a complete overhaul done of the building's lighting system. Other programs, through the Department of Energy, also are available for building improvements that contribute to greater energy efficiency in a building.
Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Cooperator and other publications.