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Better Backup at Liberty House

Merriam-Webster defines proactive as “acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes.” The board at the Liberty House Condominium in Battery Park City fits the definition – and then some.

This 239-unit, 27-story tower overlooking the Hudson River managed to escape the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s fury. Thanks to its link to the Brooklyn electric grid, Battery Park City was the only downtown Manhattan neighborhood that wasn’t plunged into darkness when power failed. And thanks to the whims of nature, the building was not flooded, in contrast to many neighborhoods on the East River and even some nearby buildings on the Hudson. Despite this good fortune, the proactive condo board at Liberty House decided to prepare for an uncertain future that promises only one thing: more chaotic weather.

“There’s been a sensibility since 9/11 about the need for emergency preparedness,” says Libby Hawkins, vice president of the Liberty House board. “We decided we needed to upgrade our backup generator. Not only did unit-owners expect that from us, but living on the river, you’d have to be insane not to wonder what could happen next.”

So the board called in RAND Engineering & Architecture to upgrade its International Electric backup generator, which is powered by a John Deere diesel engine and has been in place in the basement since the building opened in 1986. In its original configuration, the generator could provide emergency lighting in the stairwells and hallways, plus power for one of the building’s three elevators and the booster pump that sent water to the top floors in the event of a fire. Not good enough, the board decided.

“It was a manual system,” says Kenny Shane, who has been the resident manager in the building since the day it opened. “During the blackout in the summer of 2003, I had to make my way to the basement with flashlights and throw the power switch. If we’d had a blackout in wintertime, all our pipes would have frozen. With an upgrade, we could make ourselves self-sufficient enough that we could shelter in place during any emergency.”

Ideally, the board wanted to buy a bigger generator and put it on the roof. But the stratospheric price tag killed that dream. Instead, Norbert Gorgowicz, an electrical engineer at RAND, devised a way to supercharge the old generator by adding new breaker panels and computerized transfer switches. The retrofit enables the generator to run both boilers and one elevator, power the emergency lights throughout the building, pump drinking water to the 10,000-gallon rooftop tank, power a pump that circulates domestic hot water, run pressure-boosters for domestic water on the upper floors, and run two sump pumps in the event the basement floods. Quite an improvement.

The work took about six months, and the $140,000 cost was covered by the reserve fund, without an assessment or increase in common charges. “The work went pretty smoothly,” says Eric Clark of RY Management, the property manager. “I was involved in the bidding process, and Kenny oversaw the actual work.”

The consensus is that residents got something money can’t buy. “I think the condominium got peace of mind,” says Shane, the resident manager. “Now there’s a sense of security.”

Hawkins, the board’s vice president, agrees: “We definitely feel more stable now.”

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