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Evolution: Computerization

Twenty years ago, the most exciting thing in computerization was probably Mattel's Intellivision, the successor to Atari, which was the follow-up to the outmoded Commodore 64 and Pong. Computers were in the workplace, but they had those tiny, barely readable screens and keyboards that the user had to really hammer.

A lot has happened since then. Computerization has revolutionized almost every field it has touched, making things easier, more accurate, and faster. Just look at your building:

The heat sensors of yesterday were, essentially, your superintendents. In many cases, untrained in all the variables of boilers, the task was often not given the importance it should. With the introduction by U.S. Energy Controls of the first heat control system, the industry hoped to provide more accuracy in monitoring the heating of the building. The first system 20 to 25 years ago, developed mostly for private landlords, allowed the owner to pick up the phone and "dial into the building."

For example, he/she could find out how much oil was being used and the level of heat in the building. Most of the sensors were on the boiler, but a few were placed in apartments throughout the property. The system would then average out the temperature. The data that was gathered — and is still being gathered — was strictly informational. Any changes had to be made at the site.

Today, some buildings are looking at the possibility of boilers monitoring and even adjusting themselves. "The housing authority is really on the leading edge on this. Extremely experimental," notes Dick Koral, director of the Apartment House Institute of New York City Technical College. "They are looking at entirely web-based technology. They will be able to zero in on a particular floor, see the temperatures in each apartment, and make adjustments based on that. Just like all apartments have hard-wired smoke alarms, the same sort of wired communication will be able to communicate these other things. This system will allow the user to virtually and literally go down to the basement from their computer."

The boilers themselves have changed, as well, according to Greg Condon, director of operations for Easco Boiler Corp. in the Bronx. Whereas 60 to 70 percent efficiency was the standard back then, 80 to 85 percent is expected today. (Solid fuel was also once used, like coal, which has been replaced by oil and gas.) They have also become smaller, more compact. Mobile boilers are now available, as well.

As the technology has improved, so has the sophistication of those that maintain and monitor it. According to Peter Grech, vice president of the Superintendents Club of New York, the role of the superintendent will become even more technical in the next five to ten years. "It won't be the get-your-hands-greasy type of technical, but the lose-the-notebook-and-pen and pick up the palm pilot type," he notes. Grech expects that eventually the super will do much of his reporting right into a small handheld computer.

Security and resident access were the responsibility of the concierge or, if the building didn't have one, the residents themselves. This resulted in all sorts of security issues for boards as hundreds of sets of keys floated around and/or poor video monitors were ineffective as safeguards. Toss into this the menu deliverer, package delivery, and renovation work, and suddenly buildings were swarmed with strangers walking their halls.

For many buildings, computers have jumped in and improved matters. The concierge now mans his own computer and, with smart card access and other technologies, knows who is in the building and when. Packages, left at the front desk, bring an e-mail to the owner, announcing their arrival. Digital cameras have improved the security inside the building and in its garages.

"With today's modern digital video surveillance systems, the task of picking out key information takes less than with the old analog systems," notes Barry Taylor, a board member at Troy Towers, a co-op in Union City that updated its security systems recently. "The quality of the picture is better and there are fewer mistakes because people are no longer required to change tapes."

In addition, computers have changed the way your meters are read, at least those that have taken advantage of it. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), through a program that offers a credit of $500 per water meter, can install a Reactel + MDAS Teleprobe. Basically, a node is installed between a series of sensors/switches and a telephone line extension jack. Each node then independently collects timed measurements and can alert personnel of unusual conditions, as defined by the user. With automatic meter reading, data is automatically transferred to a central computer for analysis and to the DEP for billing. Monthly reports are generated and boards are able to track water and sewer expenses better, thus saving money and improving conservation.

"One moderately leaking toilet can cost over $175 a month," says Alan Rothschild, president of The Vantage Group, a water conservation and measurement firm. "The probe units will detect these leaks quickly."

Electric metering has changed in similar ways. Twenty years ago, individual submeters were about the size of a shoebox and, with many codes and regulations about how and where they could be placed, they ended up taking up a lot of space. Today's submeters can be much smaller — 8 by 3.5 inches and recessed into the wall — and are much more accurate as well, according to Jason Kim, director of business development for Quad Logic Controls Corporation, which designs and manufactures meters. The shoebox-sized unit, now called a "mini-closet" (because of where it is placed), handles 12 apartments instead of one. Like water meters, electric meters can be remotely read today and the technological improvements have made for more in-depth information.

"The most important improvement in the past 20 years has been the amount of information you can gather," says Kim. "You'll be able to tell how much electricity is being used, at what time of day, and during what periods of the year. Co-ops and condos can then use this to help the building become more efficient and save money."

Computerization has even made its way into that old staple of community living — the laundry room. Tokens, slugs, coins — all the traditional methods of paying for the wash — have had to make room for smart card technology. While installation and service companies like Mac-Gray Services, which has about 60,000 machines, estimate that around 30 percent of their units are operating on smart card technology, they expect that number to get higher than 50 percent as new business comes in. The cards work much like your MetroCard: you fill it up with a cash deposit into a value transfer machine and then you slide the card into a reader on the machine which deducts each load. No more pockets of quarters. The technology also allows boards to increase the cost of wash in its own increments. Before, it had to be in 25-cent jumps.

Where may this lead in the years to come? Pilot programs are already in the works that will hook the laundry room up to the internet. Just by logging on, the owner would be able to see if any washers are available or would get an e-mail notification that their load is done. No more walking down to discover that someone else has already felt the need to pull your laundry out of the machine and dump it on a table.

Many other areas, from roof to basement, have been affected by the advent of computers into cooperative maintenance and management. Although there have been profound changes in technology, one truth still holds: the marketplace hasn't necessarily followed the technology. For example, according to Tom Sahagian, project manager of Power Concepts, old-fashioned meters are still used and are still being installed. Many buildings are still read manually and not through wireless or remote systems that are available. The different costs involved in installing newer technology may be one reason.

That's just the story with meters. When you look at how computers have changed everything, you realize that each property evolves at its own pace, based on its own needs. For some that means the newest thing now; for others that means, "Where can I find a tape deck that plays eight- track?" Eventually change comes.

 

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