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Riser Replacements

Robert Bischoff, a shareholder in the 15-story, 60-unit co-op at 33 Fifth Avenue, vividly recalls the warning the board gave the shareholders when it was trying to convince them to pay for a full replacement of the building's antiquated plumbing system: it was a "ticking time bomb" and a costly and devastating eruption could happen at any time.

It was hardly an exaggeration. As early as 1986, when the building was converted into a co-op, the new shareholders were warned that the plumbing needed to be replaced. "We had an engineer come in and evaluate what work would need to be done and he prepared a prioritized list of major capital improvements," recalls Bischoff, now the board president. "We put this off as long as we could, because it was the most disruptive and the most expensive." As the years passed, however, the ancient pipes began acting up. Apartment renovations revealed risers that were paper-thin, water pressure that was low, and an unusually high level of pipe corrosion.

By 1998, the situation had deteriorated to a point where it was inevitable the building would have a catastrophic eruption, says Bischoff. "If we didn't get active soon, we would be dealing with pipes rupturing as they neared the very end of their life expectancies."

The shareholders approved the project, bids were drawn up, and, after a year-long search, a contractor was hired. By 2002, the work finally began. Today, Bischoff estimates that the work on all the lines will be finished by early spring of this year. "We could have done it at a faster pace, but just for financial reasons, we opted to stretch it out. It's actually going pretty well, despite the cost," which will come in at just under a million dollars.

The last thing a board wants to deal with is problems with the risers. Opening up walls means opening up a can of worms with residents: not only does it create a mess, with dust and debris everywhere, but it means barreling through decorative finishes that homeowners have paid lots of money to have carefully and lovingly installed. Richard Posner, a consulting engineer, warns that boards need to marshal all their efforts in presenting the issue to shareholders and then overseeing the flow of the replacements itself. "It has to be very carefully planned - like a military campaign."

Shareholders need to understand that the work is critical. They should appreciate that they will be inconvenienced as contractors replace the hot and cold risers that run behind the bathroom and kitchen walls. Tile has to come down, cabinetry has to be removed, and walls must be opened for workers to get at the pipes. If possible, says Posner, the board should try and time the replacement with ongoing renovations in shareholder apartments. "It's best if someone is doing an alteration and their bathroom is already gutted and the riser is accessible. Kitchen lines probably run behind the cabinetry so you have to take out the cabinetry and then put it back." The project can quickly become a mess, so any board that is planning on tackling a riser replacement in a building needs to be good at planning an involved project and then seeing it through.

So when is it time to replace risers, and can you do them piecemeal? Most engineers recommend that the replacement be done all at once, with the board tackling each separate line in the building, from bottom to top. Otherwise, the workers run the risk of creating more problems by attaching new risers to old risers and causing breaks on the line. "Where people have tried to correct one floor, they create a break on another. There are times when it comes time to bite the bullet," and completely replace everything, notes engineer Christopher Kelly, the principal of his own firm.

Full replacements can be expensive, however, as the shareholders of 33 Fifth Avenue have learned. But in the long run, say engineers, the building will be better off. "It's always cheaper to do a full replacement," maintains Peter Varsalona, a principal with Rand Engineering, who is serving as the consulting engineer for the property.

So how does a board know when it should begin to tackle a riser replacement? Low water pressure on the upper floors is the first warning sign, as is debris in the water - pieces of corroded pipe that are being flushed through the branch lines and through the fixtures, into sinks, showers, and bathtubs. Knowing the age of the building's pipes and their make-up is also important: galvanized steel pipes last only about 50 years, while brass lasts about 70 years; copper, longer than that.

"Generally, you would go back to what was the original composition of the piping? How well has it been maintained? Has it corroded? Is the water pressure maintained?" asks Kelly, ticking off the questions a board should be asking its physical plant manager or an engineer. "It's a simple process, and yet at the same time, it's fairly complicated, dealing with an existing system. Running the piping isn't that difficult. It's opening up the wall, removing the old pipe and putting in the new pipe" that gets messy and complicated.

While replacing the risers in and of itself may be straightforward, getting access to them is time-consuming and expensive to the homeowners. Walls and floors are ripped out to allow contractors access to the pipes in the bathroom and kitchen, and for those co-op owners and condo owners who have paid for extensive renovations, it can be "very disheartening" to see all their work torn apart, as one engineer puts it. "It's very important to give [the shareholders] as much information as possible. That was one thing we got wise to, allocating time for night-time meetings," says Varsalona. Those gatherings were critical in addressing shareholders' concerns and ensuring support for the project.

One way to mitigate the disruption to the shareholders is to hire a contractor who can work behind the riser replacement crew, repairing walls, and, as much as possible, replacing tiles that are taken down. At 33 Fifth Avenue, the board hired a general contractor, distinct from the company doing the riser job, to put back bathroom walls, tiles, and cabinetry.

"We asked [the shareholders] if they had a specific tile, if they could track it down, and then we would have the general contractor replace it," explains Adam Zerka, the building's property manager. While the building paid for all the work done by the general contractor in replacing tiles and cabinetry after the plumbing work was done, shareholders who hired their own contractors to remove expensive cabinets or tiles and then replace them bore that cost themselves, says Zerka. Over the four years that the risers were discussed, the shareholders were told "that we would never be able to recreate what was ripped out," explains Zerka. Shareholders were urged to hire their own contractors if they had ornate cabinetry or tiles they wanted removed before the renovation, and then to replace them after the renovation.

In the end, the most important aspect of the job was explaining it thoroughly to the shareholders. "It's a very intrusive project. You're ripping up walls, creating a lot of dust, a lot of debris," says Zerka. "We tried to give people as much of a heads up as possible." From start to finish, "it's a lot of work - a lot of planning, a lot of monitoring and a whole lot of luck. When you are opening up walls, you never know what you are up against."


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