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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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A Bronx co-op board found out that what it didn’t know about its water tank would cost it money

Richard Silver got word early this year that a co-op in the Bronx was having a problem with its water tank. The tank wasn’t leaking water. It was leaking money. The reason, it turned out, was that the city had once again rewritten regulations – in this case, the rules governing rooftop tanks that contain drinking water – and an unsuspecting co-op board and property manager had once again gotten blindsided.

Sound familiar? It should. Thanks to a string of preventable deaths in elevator accidents and construction crane collapses, various city agencies have been rewriting rules, tightening inspections, imposing fines – and angering a lot of people in the process. In addition to concerns about safety, the city is driven by the pesky little fact that it is desperate for cash.

The Bronx co-op that ran afoul of the new water tank rules called Silver, 71, the third-generation president of the century-old American Pipe and Tank Lining Company. Silver says that the building code requires an annual inspection of every water tank with potable water and that the company that installed and serviced the tank in 2005 should have notified the board or property manager that an inspection had to conducted.

The old rules required the building keep records on the site, with most annual inspections by the city’s three water tank companies and some done by licensed master plumbers or inspectors certified by the Department of Health (DOH). The inspector would check for leaks, damage to structural steel, and any foreign objects that might have gotten into the tank, such as pigeons or other vermin. The cleaning of an average-size tank takes about four hours and costs less than $1,000.

The code also requires that all tanks must be drained, then disinfected with a chemical called hypo-clorite. In the past, only Department of Health officials could inspect the records. As a rule, DOH inspectors appeared only after a complaint was filed.

This old way of doing business began to change when the city council convened a public hearing in early 2009 and was told that only about one-third of the water tanks in a sample study had been inspected the previous year. So to remedy the situation, in February 2009, the city council ordered that, in addition to the existing regulations governing annual inspection and cleaning, buildings must now keep records on hand for the past five years and post a notice where the records can be reviewed by city inspectors or building residents. No filing with the city is required. Failure to prove annual inspection and cleaning could result in a fine ranging from $200 to $2,000. Failure to post a notice of where the past five years’ worth of inspection records are kept could result in a fine up to $250.

“They took the position that they’re not going to take the building’s word that they’re going to do their duty,” Silver says. “The Department of Health is sending out inspectors to make sure the notices are posted.”

That’s where the Bronx co-op ran afoul of the new law. The building installed a new rooftop water tank in early 2005. Since the tank was new, the board didn’t order an inspection that year. When a new property manager came in the following year, the building again skipped the annual inspection.

Cut to January 2010. A DOH inspector visits the co-op and demands to see the posted notice and the past five years’ worth of inspection and cleaning certifications. The notice has not been posted, and after some scrambling the super and property manager are able to produce records for 2007 through 2009, but not 2005 or 2006.

Silver, who by then had signed a five-year contract to handle the co-op’s annual tank inspections and all paperwork, accompanied a board representative and the property manager to a hearing in April. The board agreed to pay a fine of $700 – considerably less than the maximum of $4,250 they faced for missing two inspections and failing to post the notice.

The hearing officer was “very reasonable,” says Silver, who believes the new rules are long overdue. “I addressed the city council 15 years ago and proposed this,” he says. “Some leading engineers helped me put forth a very strong argument for mandating that existing codes be enforced. A law isn’t a law until it’s enforced. If you raise awareness, people who want to do the right thing will comply. This law was written because there are always people who try to avoid what they’re supposed to do.”

Silver’s enthusiasm for the change is not shared by everyone. “A lot of violations have crossed my desk,” says David Hochhauser, vice president of Isseks Brothers, one of the handful of companies in the city that manufacture and install wooden and steel tanks. “I hate to be cynical, but like all cities, this city is not flush with cash. One of the great ways to raise cash is through the construction industry. They’ve figured out ways to levy taxes and fines that are making it difficult to do business in this city. I think the city’s misguided. I don’t fault the city for trying to keep the water clean. But they should be issuing violations for failing to clean the tanks, not for failing to keep inspection records available.”

Co-op shareholders and condo owners who get hit in the wallet are not the only losers, in Hochhauser’s view. “For property managers,” he says, “it’s a lot of additional work with no compensation.”

The property manager at the Bronx co-op agrees. “As managers, we have to deal with so many things,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So we rely on our vendors to know things and keep us in the loop, whether it’s water tanks, elevators, laundry rooms, asbestos abatement, whatever. I’m not sure how you can watch out for what you don’t know. I hope the [water] tank companies get proactive with boards and let them know there’s this specific new little law. It would be helpful if it came from the industry – the people you’re paying to work on your water.”

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