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Elevators aren’t the only things going up. Managers say inspections – and infractions – seem to be on the rise.
Are New York City elevator inspectors being arbitrary in finding violations, or is something even more troublesome going on?
“My super will say, ‘The [elevator]inspector was here today,’ and we go through the process with our service company to get costs on fixing the violations and deciding how to do this most cost-effectively,” says Grant Varga, a longtime board member at the 13-story prewar co-op 17 West 67th Street, near Central Park. “Then, a couple of months later, a different inspector will come here and we get more violations. Why didn’t the first inspector catch what the second one called violations?” he asks.
Other board members, building managers, and elevator experts all claim that inspections – and violations – by multiple inspectors are on the rise. In response, Department of Buildings (DOB) press spokesman Tony Sclafani notes: “On average, an elevator in New York City makes 500 trips a day. Due to this constant use, elevators must be maintained on a regular basis, and new violating conditions can arise between inspections.”
But is that the whole story?
A March 2012 report by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer indicates that inspections have actually decreased. It found that, from January 2006 through September 2008, the DOB averaged 7,930 inspections a month, but between January 2009 and May 2011, it averaged just 5,723. This, says the report, marks “an increasingly poor job of keeping up with elevator inspections in New York City over the last three years.”
But even though inspections are down, professionals say there appears to be more activity. That’s because “there are more violations per inspection,” explains Ken Breglio, president of the maintenance firm BP Elevator. “There are more items under the new code that haven’t been complied with yet, and that allows the inspectors to write up more violating conditions.” To explain the violation blitz, experts point to December 14, 2010, when the city’s new “Safety Code for Existing Elevators and Escalators” took effect. That included some radical changes in the way the city reviewed elevators. “[The inspection process] changed absolutely because of the mandates,” says Joe Caracappa, vice president of the elevator consultancy the Sierra Consulting Group, and east region director of the International Association of Elevator Consultants.
“Before, an elevator company would inspect and self-certify that the elevator was okay,” says Breglio. “But it didn’t make any sense that the elevator company was certifying the elevator it was maintaining. [Under the new code,] the management company has to hire an outside agency to witness the testing.”
There are also private agency elevator inspectors (called PVTs, an abbreviation for “private”), who make periodic inspections on elevators. The PVTs are outsourced individuals who must pass an exam and a background check
In addition, continues Breglio, the new rules increased the frequency of the testing. It required a Category 1 “no load” test every year (not every two years) and a Category 5 “load” test every five years. (That means, says Breglio, “You put in weights, whatever the capacity of the elevator is, and make sure it lifts the load.”) There’s also a triennial test required for the very few hydraulic elevators in the city. A DOB inspector or a PVT must perform one inspection every 12 months, witnessed by an approved, unaffiliated agency – a third-party witness, to help prevent bribes and to sign off on the inspection.
The city’s elevator code, Breglio says, “is very vague. It’s open to interpretation and everybody looks at things differently.” He asserts that when you have three sets of eyes – the DOB inspectors, the PVT inspectors, and the elevator consultants – you’re inevitably going to have three sets of violations. Also, “everyone’s looking at their license and they want to do the right thing. They err on the side of safety.”
(Some observers say that the PVTs have an extra incentive to find violations because some claim the PVTs are paid for each violation found. The city’s Sclafani says that is not true.)
The 2010 law also required additional safety features. “If you have an elevator that didn’t have certain components installed on it [and they are added], retroactively, you are required to inspect these components,” explains Caracappa.
No one disputes the need to have elevator safety equipment be, well, safe. “A lot of these new city regulations they’re enforcing are very good,” says management executive Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management, citing in particular the requirement for a safety bracket on horizontally sliding doors. The new code requires two guides on every door panel plus a third safety bracket.
In fact, no one disputes inspectors calling even for more prosaic fixes, such as covering bare light bulbs or installing a ladder in the elevator pit at the bottom of the shaft. “Our freight elevator hasn’t had a ladder in the pit for 80 years and now all of a sudden we’ve got 30 days to put a ladder in the pit,” says board member Varga – who nonetheless concedes a ladder could help someone escape if they’d fallen in.
There’s also another problem with increased violations: there isn’t a lot of time to correct them. With either Category 1 or 5, you have to file a “ELV36 Elevator/Escalator Test Notification Form” with the DOB 10 calendar days before performing your annual or quinquennial test. Afterward, within 45 calendar days, you have to file the “ELV3 Elevator Inspection/Test Report” with the DOB to record the results. Any defects found during the inspection test must be corrected and the “ELV29 Affirmation of Correction Form” filed within 15 business days of completing repairs.
“They give you 45 days to correct any deficiencies in that report,” says Breglio. “It’s almost impossible to do due to lack of manpower, [the inability to get] access to the building, [and the time needed for] sending out proposals [to bid] and getting the building to sign off [on the winning bid] and get back to you.”
Are there any provisions for extensions? “The department is aware of the industry’s concerns,” says DOB spokesman Sclafani, “and we will be working with them to address this issue.”
Compounding matters is that most elevator maintenance contracts don’t cover newly mandated improvements. “You have a contract with an elevator company for maintenance that says basically that the elevator company, at its own cost, will fix the elevator and keep it running,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc., a management firm, “except for the [specifically listed] things like doors and buttons that can be vandalized or broken accidentally.”
That means, for instance, that when an inspector says some newly mandated component has to be installed in what’s been a perfectly safe, working elevator, the building’s elevator-company contract doesn’t cover that improvement.
“Years ago, we kind of knew in advance when things would have to be replaced, like cables,” says Picaso. “We used to have elevator consultants come in and inspect elevators and you could figure out an improvement plan and start a budgeting item. Now, you really can’t do that with these new rules, especially since there’s nothing grandfathered in. All of a sudden, you get a list of things you have to do, and it’s expensive, and the boards of directors say, ‘How come we’re spending money for an elevator-maintenance contract when we have to do all this work and pay for it separately?”
“Out of the blue, we were required to install a phone for emergencies in the elevator,” reports Mindy Stern, board president of The Lathrop, a 101-year-old, 60-unit co-op at 46 West 83rd Street. Because of the complicated nature of an elevator phone line, this meant an unexpected $5,000 expense. “We questioned why this was necessary, since we have full-time on-site employees [to respond to an alarm bell]. Our super lives in the building; we have a porter as well, and so we made our poor service contractor produce the DOB code provisions so that we could to read it ourselves before saying, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
Stern hasn’t experienced multiple inspectors coming in and citing different things. But as Tyra Mann, Wolfe’s assistant at Midboro, relates: “We have two buildings that had a lot of work scheduled from a Category 1 testing, and after the work was completed on time, we then got three PVT violations for one building and seven for the other” when the independent inspectors did follow-ups.
And it isn’t just a matter of picking up a phone and hauling your elevator maintenance company back. “Let’s say an elevator has multiple deficiencies,” says Breglio. “We send a proposal for things not covered under contract. The board agrees, they spend $10,000 on the upgrade, and there you go. Three months later, a private inspection agency comes in and inspects the elevator and they write up different violations. [Another] three months later, an elevator inspector writes an ECB [Environmental Control Board] violation. Every time, that means a board has to get another proposal for more work,” whether by your regular company or by another who wins the bidding – causing the building to change horses in midstream.
What can boards do? In general, practice preventive maintenance, says Stern. “If you have an elevator that you have concerns about, the time to deal with those is not to wait until an inspector from the city shows up. You should have your service provider be proactive and alert you to issues beforehand.”
If you can, take the long view. “A lot of these violating conditions carry a big number to repair,” says Breglio. “If your equipment is really old, replacing your cables and other mechanical stuff can cost $20,000 to $30,000 – and yet the elevator will run the same, because fixing safety issues doesn’t enhance the ride. Why? Because the controls are old. In some cases, you should really look into upgrading the elevator, because if the work is extensive, you may be throwing $10,000 to $20,000 away on a Band-Aid if two years later you have to upgrade anyway.”
Finally, know your rights and pick your battles. “If you want to contest something the private guys hired by the city wrote, then the [DOB] will send down a city inspector,” Breglio says. Can you contest the city inspector? “Yes,” says the DOB’s Sclafani. “Violations are adjudicated at ECB [Environmental Control Board] court.”