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The Smell of Gas

Every apartment dweller dreads it. Even the faintest odor can trigger panic among residents who fear a leak will lead to sickness, costly repairs, weeks without heat and hot water, or worse, an explosion like the fatal one in East Harlem earlier this year.

Rose Rosal, the former board president at 35 Mercer Street, a seven-unit co-op in Soho, recalls returning from a long trip last winter to the smell of gas in her apartment. She immediately called the fire department, then alerted the management company, and, finally, e-mailed shareholders. “The fire department said it was nothing, but I knew there was something,” says Rosal.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, Helen Mayers, the co-op’s property manager with the Andrews Organization, believed her and forged ahead until authorities traced the leak to an aging Con Edison pipe. “It was about a month before the [East Harlem] explosion. It was similar where people smelled gas but not too many people had pursued it,” says Rosal. “When you smell gas, it’s not going to be a good thing.”

“These things are taken very seriously,” agrees Mark Levine, executive vice president at Excel Bradshaw Management Group, who is painfully aware of the headaches of coping with gas leaks. This spring, an 18-unit apartment complex he manages in Chelsea had its gas shut off after Con Edison found leaks in aging pipes – a problem the co-op had to fix. Service was only partially restored in June after a tremendous repair job that shareholders are still figuring out how to finance. “It was a big problem for a small building,” he says.

As the city changes the way it copes with gas leaks – in June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the fire department will respond to all gas leaks first instead of the utility company – property managers say it’s more important than ever to understand what happens when there is a report of a gas leak.

The Protocol

Generally, when a resident smells gas, he or she should call 911 or the utility company. But property managers prefer that shareholders also contact them so they can send a plumber or the superintendent to supervise the response. This action, they say, may prevent an unnecessary shutdown in service. At the very least, they can inform residents about what is happening.

“I prefer to have the building super or plumber investigate things first because often it’s something that is simple and safe to repair without shutting down the building,” says Don Wilson, president of Blue Woods Management.

Con Ed, however, urges customers to report all potential gas leaks immediately. The odor, which is frequently described as smelling like rotten eggs, should be reported to 911. According to Con Ed, which provides gas to 1.1 million customers in New York City and Westchester County, residents should evacuate until the FDNY arrives. National Grid is the provider for Brooklyn, Staten Island, and parts of Queens. Its emergency procedures are the same.

When the fire department or a utility company arrives, it uses special equipment to measure gas levels. If the gas is dangerously high, it is shut off until the leak is plugged. Pipes that are on the street are the utility company’s responsibility to fix, but those in a building leading to gas meters are the building’s responsibility, and a plumber must make repairs.

Before turning the gas back on, the utility company conducts tests on the pipes. That involves pumping high amounts of gas through them to make sure there are no leaks. Since many are old and more pressure is being applied than would normally be needed, pipes often fail this test. In addition, the Department of Buildings must inspect the work to make sure it is compliant with building codes.

“Pressure testing is a big issue, especially in a large building. You can have a tiny leak, but if you don’t pass the test, they won’t turn the gas back on, so you are at their mercy,” explains property manager Wilson.

If the fire department doesn’t detect a gas leak, but the odor persists, it pays to be persistent, according to Helen Mayers, the manager. In the 35 Mercer Street incident, the FDNY initially cleared the property. “They came and used a gas [leak detector], but nothing registered. The following day, we got the report again and we brought in a plumber. We checked every pipe and we could not locate the source,” recalls Mayers.

At Mayers’s request, the FDNY and Con Ed returned as the smell got stronger, and they traced the leak to a corroded line that led to the street. Utility workers repaired the pipe and it was resolved within two days without any service disruptions.

Mayers’s persistence paid off. “It was my responsibility to make sure this building was safe and determine what this odd smell was,” she explains.

Who You Gonna Call?

It’s important to keep everyone in the loop. “We knocked on every door with FDNY to let owners know what was happening and I kept them up to date on e-mail,” says Mayers, who stayed at the building for two days until the problem was fixed.

Levine agrees that communication is key. “It’s not just affecting their daily lives; it may be affecting their pocketbooks,” he says. He e-mailed everyone in the building when the leak in Chelsea occurred and updated them regularly about steps being taken to tackle the problem.

When the board members realized they were dealing with a problem that affected each unit, they had meetings to discuss how to proceed, even if it meant more time without service. They collected multiple bids and hired a consultant to review them before going ahead with a repair with which everyone was comfortable. “We couldn’t move ahead unless everyone cooperated,” Levine explains.

The next step will be voting on how to pay for the ongoing repairs, deciding whether to burn through the reserve, borrow the money, or have shareholders pay an extra fee each month until the cost is complete.

“From a management standpoint, it’s a time-consuming process,” says Wilson of Blue Woods.

When the fire department shut down the gas in Skyview-on-the-Hudson, a 400-unit building he managed in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the building had to spend over $100,000 in upgrades before getting service returned after nearly two weeks. The co-op found it more cost- and time-effective to preemptively replace the hose connection behind the stove in every unit rather than find which ones had leaks.

Skyview board member Eva Becker also remembers that gas leak, which happened over Thanksgiving weekend about 10 years ago. “I had an electric oven, so I was the only one who could make a turkey, and people brought things over that they microwaved. It was a fun Thanksgiving and one of the most memorable,” she recalls, adding it’s not an experience she wants to repeat, despite the camaraderie.

“It’s a real inconvenience. It was a tremendous amount of coordination between shareholders and management,” Becker says, and has since advocated for calling the superintendent first.

Harlem: Con Dead

Gas leaks can be serious, but in a well-maintained building, they should not be a problem. “Your super is your best line [of defense] because he knows which line is where and where you turn it off,” Becker notes. “A good relationship between the board and shareholders is also essential when there is a gas emergency. There is tendency for board members to feel protective of information. You can’t do that. You have to be upfront and clear because you are neighbors. If you get on your high horse, that starts the spiral of distrust. Everyone is in it together.”

Fortunately, most reports of gas complaints are not leaks. Con Edison averages 33,000 reports of gas leaks annually, 40 percent of which turn out not to be natural gas leaks, according to Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury.

Still, since the March gas leak in East Harlem led to an explosion that leveled two buildings and killed eight people, more people are phoning in gas smells as a precaution. Con Ed reports an 85 percent increase in gas complaints since the accident, while the FDNY says it has responded to more than 10,000 gas reports in 2014, a 55 percent increase over 2013.

Another fallout of the explosion is that the fire department now responds to complaints of gas leaks first, a policy change the de Blasio administration argues will lead to quicker responses to a potential life-threatening problem. Traditionally, the utility company responded first and only called the FDNY to the scene if the leak was considered urgent.

Property manager Wilson fears the change will lead to more frequent shutdowns in gas service. “Con Ed understands its gas lines better than FDNY. So FDNY might shut down service while Con Ed wouldn’t,” he says. “The horse is out of the barn at that point. You can’t undo it once it is shut down.”

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