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Electrical Upgrades

I live in a prewar co-op with a very old electrical system. Fuses blow regularly, even when running light appliances such as a toaster or an iron.

Several other shareholders I've talked to are experiencing the same problem.

How does the board determine if the building as a whole needs to upgrade its electrical system or if the problem lies within the individual apartments? And who is responsible for the cost of the upgrade: the cooperative or the shareholders who are affected?

If you and other shareholders are constantly blowing fuses in an old building, chances are the problem is building-wide, especially if the original electrical system has not been replaced or upgraded in a long time (if ever). Upgrading the building's electrical system will increase the overall electrical capacity. This increased capacity will give shareholders the potential to use more electrical power, but only if the existing wiring in the individual units can handle it. So even after the main upgrade, shareholders may still need to address deficiencies in the electrical components in their individual apartments.

In New York City, Consolidated Edison supplies power to properties. In a typical setup, Con Ed's main service feeders enter a building within a property line or "end" box. This point is the beginning of a building's internal electrical system. Main conductors extend from the end box via a conduit or wireways to service switches, which in turn provide power to various panel boards, equipment load centers, and/or meter banks.

In some cases, a master meter is in place to measure the amount of electricity being used in the building as a whole. Residents pay that as part of their monthly maintenance bill. In other cases, individual apartment meter banks are provided and residents pay for their own electrical consumption directly to Con Ed or to an alternate submetering firm.

From the meter banks (or main panel boards), common or individual electrical risers bring service up to either a line of apartments or to individual units, respectively. In the case of common line risers, branch feeders connect the risers to each apartment panel. In either case, electricity is delivered to a fuse box or circuit breaker panel in each apartment, upon which the electrical supply is carried to separate circuits that supply power to outlets and lights.

Many prewar buildings have only two or four circuits per apartment, which was more than adequate when the buildings were constructed. Modern-day electrical demands, however, often outstrip the capacity of older electrical configurations. Frequently blown fuses may be a sign that the existing setup in your apartment is not sufficient to handle your typical electrical usage.

Adding new circuits, and therefore more outlets, in your unit will reduce the load on existing circuits. In particular, you may want to consider dedicated circuits for heavy-duty appliances, such as air conditioners, dishwashers, dryers, and the like. Such heavy-capacity circuits will help prevent overload and reduce the potential for electrical fires, especially in old wiring systems that may be fraying.

In any event, the first step in determining what components need to be upgraded is for the owners corporation to conduct a survey of the building's electrical system to evaluate reported deficiencies and complaints and determine the condition, life expectancy, and anticipated replacement cost of electrical components. Residents who are experiencing problems may also want to have an evaluation done of the electrical components in their own apartments, especially if the building's overall electrical system is found to be adequate to handle current loads.

If shareholders request additional power into the building because of increased usage, the electrical evaluation should entail a load calculation to determine how much additional capacity, if any, is required. The New York City building code specifies three types of electrical loads: a lighting and general receptacle load, a kitchen appliance load, and an air conditioning load. Current usage and requirements for reasonable future demands are often calculated as well. The load capacity for all the apartments and common areas are totaled and compared to the building's existing load capacity to determine whether an electrical upgrade is necessary.

If the demand load outstrips capacity, then the main power into the building will eventually need to be increased. Before adding additional electrical service, however, the owners corporation must submit a request to Con Ed, stating why the extra power is needed (for example, for the installation of window air conditioners). If only a few residents want more power for their apartments, the demand may not justify the need for more power from Con Ed.

Sometimes, the demand for increased power is within the building's overall capacity, except for a few residents who have especially heavy usage. In such cases, the upgrade will be limited to bringing additional power to those individual apartments, usually through new risers. Once a few residents are permitted increased electrical capacity, however, others may request the same. The owners corporation may then find itself in the position of needing more power for the building as a whole, and, as described above, it will have to request it from Con Ed.

The answer to who pays for the cost of an electrical upgrade is determined by the reasons and extent of the upgrade. If the upgrade is driven by an overall shareholder demand for greater power, especially if the demand outstrips current capacity, the owners corporation typically assumes the costs. Individual shareholders, however, are responsible for any costs associated with bringing additional power to their apartment service box because of special demands or extra heavy usage. Similarly, any upgrade of electrical components located after the apartment service box (e.g., new circuits or wiring within the apartment) is also usually paid for by the shareholder.

After the upgrade, the owners corporation will have to decide how to charge for the additional electrical capacity. If each apartment has its own submeter, then the shareholder will pay the electrical charges directly to Con Ed or a submetering firm. If, however, the owners corporation is charging for electrical usage as part of the monthly maintenance fee, then it will have to determine how to apportion the costs to fairly reflect the different levels of usage among residents.

Finally, keep in mind that an electrical upgrade is a disruptive process, involving the temporary suspension of power, demolition of walls, and the possibility of disturbing asbestos and, especially in prewar buildings, lead-based paint. Work permits must be obtained from the Department of Buildings, and an asbestos survey will also need to be conducted before work can begin.

Rand Engineering has been providing integrated engineering and architectural services to the co-op and condo community since 1987.

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