New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Darkness Plans

Compared with terrorist attacks, the big blackout of August 14, 2003, was relatively mild. How could you take 36 hours of fritzed A/C and melting ice cream as seriously? But for co-op and condo directors, the blackout should have triggered a warning. Even if this one passed in a wave of block parties, many power failures can cause injuries and other serious consequences for residents - and they can cost a lot more to recover from than it costs to prepare for them.

Many co-op boards are looking for emergency lighting and escape solutions that can keep shareholders safe and calm during a power outage or other crisis. You want to enable people to get downstairs, to see in the hallways, and to escape in an orderly manner if the blackout should be part of another disaster.

"Every landlord is obliged to foresee reasonable kinds of things," says John Delmar, a Manhattan lawyer who specializes in co-op and condo sales. "If a meteorite lands in the Pacific Ocean and the United States is covered under water, that's not reasonable [to expect a board to anticipate]. But what might be reasonable is: do you have some mechanism in place that, if the lights go out, people won't stumble?"

Many co-ops and condos, in a city that has seen three blackouts since 1965, do not. For one thing, nobody demands it. The National Electrical Code, which New York City incorporates in its building statutes, requires the posting of exit signs and the provision of 90 minutes' worth of backup power in a blackout. But it doesn't explain much about blackouts that last longer than an hour-and-a-half.

Moreover, boards may mistakenly guess that blackout management has to involve complex changes in a building's electrical system. Not so. A plan for how to get frail residents out and a means of saving battery-powered backup electricity - and some common sense - can protect against adverse consequences the next time the juice goes down.

Joan Liebman chairs the safety committee for 555 Kappock Street, a 411-unit, 26-story co-op in Riverdale. She's been catalogue-shopping for electricity backup since August, but she knows she'll have to persuade the board that whatever investment she recommends is sound rather than indulgent.

"It's an unfortunate situation that we don't have any kind of guidelines for co-ops," she says. At a minimum, Delmar urges boards to "check the elevator hatch and deal with areas that are going to be totally black." The federal Access Board, which provides prototype evacuation plans for hi-rise commercial buildings, does not manage standards as energetically for apartment towers.

Yet the same hallways and stairwells that commercial tenants use in a blackout should also concern co-op and condo board members and managers. "Our hall, if you go back and forth twice, it's a mile," says Liebman. Since most blackouts last well over 90 minutes, some buildings invest in technology to keep power available (and parsimonious) during the blacked-out hours.

"In most instances, you can replace the existing stairwell fixture with a similar fixture that contains a backup battery," says Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management. "And lights should be controlled by a timer or photocell to ensure that lighting goes on at sunset and off at daylight."

Motion detectors, which operate lights only when bodies are nearby, can save even more energy. They can also lower energy bills throughout the year, since they'll keep electricity off in stairwells during their empty hours in normally functioning elevator buildings. Robert Beranger, until recently president of Halston House, a Tarrytown condo, oversaw the installation of motion-sensing fluorescent fixtures, from Cooper Lighting, over the summer. That was very useful during the blackout, he notes.

Ross Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, counsels boards to "pick the right motion sensor for the application." An infrared sensor detects a warmer surface, like a body, passing through its line of sight and switches lights on. An ultrasonic sensor responds to a disturbance in sound waves. So infrared sensors may suit hallways, which are long and straight, while ultrasonic devices may work more efficiently in stairwells.

Leslie estimates that sensors can add $50, on average, to the cost of a fixture. His institute's website,, offers product evaluations and case studies. An unscientific search of online stores shows that the most rudimentary sensors cost around $30, while more advanced ones run around $60 per unit. Boards need to buy commercial-grade sensors and determine how much ground each unit can cover.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) offers rebates between $10 and $100 per control for motion-detection systems. Many resellers provide products from multiple vendors, and some can help apply for rebates. Note that NYSERDA's rebates come per control, so rebates can add up just as costs can. NYSERDA's sensor specs are all available at their website:, which constitutes an application.

Some incentives include a $10 rebate per hardwired occupancy sensor (either infrared or ultrasonic), and a $75 rebate for each lamp installation that can switch between low- and high- wattage depending on occupancy. The rebates expire on December 31. According to spokesman Ryan Moore, a similar program "was oversubscribed" on its first offering, so NYSERDA renewed it. Based on this, and on Governor George Pataki's interest in energy efficiency, NYSERDA will probably renew the program again.

For boards that need to take smaller steps, Leslie ticks off a few possibilities. One can buy photo-luminescent strips, which rely on the same chemistry that children use to affix glow-in-the-dark stars to their bedroom ceilings. You can also outfit your stairwells with tactile cues, such as a change in surface at a bottom step. Be warned, however: the strips can lose their glow and the cues can fail to communicate. "A clear and lit walking path should be provided for all," cautions Wolfe.

Some boards may expand on that principle. Chairs with handbrakes and grooved feet can help frail occupants descend staircases. But these are not cheap: the top-of-the-line EvacuTrac, one of the more elaborate devices, costs $2,195. They also don't come with clear rules of use or liability (see box, below).

"Fewer than 10 percent of our sales are to apartment complexes because nobody is really responsible for the well-being of all residents," says Norm Cooper, director of marketing for Garaventa Accessibility, which makes the EvacuTrac. If a building buys an evacuation chair, Cooper urges the board and manager to test its use a couple of times annually. A chair needs someone who knows how to operate its handbrake and how to transfer passengers from wheelchairs. "We think it is best to allow the emergency services to use their own equipment," notes Wolfe.

Each board ultimately must decide how thoroughly it trusts emergency workers to provide for all residents in a disaster, and how likely a disaster seems. Evacuation plans, models of which are at, may help directors determine what they need to test and buy.

For the very ambitious, NYSERDA will cost-share up to $100,000 with any owner who can match that amount toward a feasibility study of on-site power generation. At the other extreme, boards can encourage residents to keep flashlights and spare batteries in their apartments. Midboro, Wolfe says, is considering a bulk purchase of lightsticks, which generate electricity through the interaction of chemicals. These would "have a long shelf life," Wolfe reasons, so a board might distribute them to all apartments in advance of a blackout.

Delmar and Wolfe both advise boards to make choices that can negate claims of negligence. Wolfe notes that emergency workers should have authority over the means of getting frail people out of a building, and Delmar stresses lighting solutions over evacuation devices. (He also says that boards should take responsibility for elevator hatches.) Wolfe points out that buying flashlights for residents doesn't provide any assurance that residents will use them properly; others have suggested that putting someone in an evacuation device may create liabilities.

Whatever a board chooses, it should do so quickly. "We've had three blackouts in 40 years; we hear that the grid itself is defective," says Delmar. "It's likely we'll have one in the next ten years." It's easy to imagine shareholders becoming angry or, worse, finding themselves in the dark the next time the lights go out.


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