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Having Your Wifi and Hardwiring It, Too

A simple question can sometimes spark a huge debate. Such as: do wifi-enabled intercom systems violate New York City’s building code? For boards considering upgrading to a door-entry system that can be controlled by residents’ smart phones, it’s a question that is answered many different ways by many different people. Unfortunately, the answers are anything but clear.

A good place to start is with the building code. Written in 1968 and updated in 2014, there is a very specific section which deals – sort of – with the issue:

1008.4.4 Intercommunication System

Buildings containing eight or more dwelling units shall be provided with an intercommunication system located at the door giving access to the main entrance lobby, consisting of a device or devices for voice communication between the occupant of each dwelling unit and a person outside the door to the main entrance lobby, and permitting such dwelling unit occupant to release the locking mechanism of said door from the dwelling unit. In buildings provided with a full-time lobby attendant, the intercommunication system may be between each dwelling unit and the attendant’s station.

A bit more clarification is offered by the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) Construction Codes Team, which answers general questions related to the city’s construction codes via email. When asked for clarification, the team said that in addition to this section of the building code, the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL), which reiterates almost exactly the above requirements, “is applicable to buildings which are rented or leased as the permanent residence of three or more families.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually clarify anything. Can you install a wifi-based system and still meet the building code? According to the Construction Codes Team: “The requirement is that each unit be provided with such a system. A building owner may elect to install systems or features beyond those required by law. A wifi system is not prohibited by the code, but it likely would not satisfy the code requirements if it were the only system provided [because the] code requirements would necessitate a permanently installed device” – rather than the cell phone or tablet usually used with a wifi-based system.

So back to the original question: do wireless intercom systems violate the building code? The confusion seems to center on two things. First, can the door-to-lobby communication be transmitted over wifi, or must it be over wire – or does it matter? And second, does there have to be a permanent device in each apartment that can open the door, regardless whether if it’s wifi or wired?The answer to the second question is a decisive “yes.” While the building code does not specifically mention the method of communication between a unit and the front door, it’s very clear that units must have a permanent device in-unit. But even that is open to interpretation.

“If I live in a building and the only thing I have is a smartphone and a tablet,” says Dan Arnold, vice president at intercom-installer Academy Mailbox, “theoretically, what I could do is take the tablet, keep it plugged in because it would need power pretty much all the time, and [use a] very inexpensive bracket to mount it onto the wall. Some people would say that that fits the protocol because it’s plugged in and it’s constantly getting power.” But as for whether that permanent device needs to be hardwired or if a wifi system will suffice, it’s anybody’s guess. Because the code does not address the method by which the “open door” signal reaches the unit, many professionals believe that it doesn’t matter whether the signal is hardwired or wifi-based – as long as that device is permanently installed in the unit. “It could be interpreted either way,” says Arnold. “I think a lot of it has to do with the unit in the apartment. This is the biggest concern: let’s say my wife and I go out to dinner and leave the kids home with a babysitter. [If] there’s an emergency and the babysitter has to let somebody into the building, there needs to be a device in that apartment that allows the babysitter to buzz in emergency personnel.”

No matter what your interpretation, though, there are ways of making everyone happy. “What most of my buildings have done is installed, basically, hybrid systems,” says Ira Meister, president of Matthew Adam Properties, a management company. “They offer people the option to put a unit in their apartment where they can work through their phone [or] from a mobile device. I have somebody who just did two jobs for us. Both of them went with similar systems. They kept the older system in place, and they gave people the option. They gave everybody the panels in their apartment, plus they gave them the mobile version.”

So there is a way to have your wifi and hardwire it, too. The only thing left to do is for someone to bring the building code into the 21st century.

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