The East Village gas explosion of March 2015 did more than kill two people and reduce three buildings to rubble. It led to manslaughter charges against three people and a trial that started in September. It also helped bring forth 10 new city laws requiring, among other things, that gas pipes be inspected by the Department of Buildings (DOB) every five years, and that all gas-piping work be done by a licensed master plumber or a gas-work-certified professional. New York State followed with a new requirement that natural-gas suppliers do residential leak inspections every three years.
By most accounts, all this has spurred DOB and the area’s two natural-gas utilities, Con Edison and National Grid, to heightened vigilance and to be quicker to shut off the gas when a leak is detected. That has left an untold number of buildings without gas for cooking, for laundry-room dryers, and even for heat and hot water. While heat and hot water can be restored by renting an external boiler, that’s an expensive proposition – especially since shutdowns can last from 4 to 15 months. In severe cases it can cost up to $500,000 to repair or replace gas risers and related system parts.
What should an alert co-op or condo board expect when the building’s gas is shut down? And exactly what must your board and your management professionals do in keeping with the law, financial prudence, and the desire to placate residents?
This primer can help guide you through the process, which is usually laborious, expensive, and a little maddening. But knowing what to expect and what needs to be done, you’ll get through it more easily.
This can begin two ways: when a staff member or resident detects a possible gas leak, they call the utility or the fire department. The utility can shut down just one or two gas lines or, if it determines there’s an “unsafe condition,” it will shut down the entire system and place a warning tag on the affected piping.
Next you summon a licensed master plumber, who will run a pressure test on the piping. This involves connecting an air compressor to the bottom of a riser, pressurizing it to three pounds, and letting it sit for some hours. If the needle moves, indicating a drop in pressure because of a leak, that riser needs to be repaired or replaced. Note: if a pipe has been painted, possibly to hide defects, that arouses suspicion with inspectors, who may require a higher-pressure test.
“If you do get shut down, don’t panic,” advises Ed Ermler, a property manager at Midboro Management. “Everyone reacts to this with ‘Oh my God, my gas was shut off!’ But stay calm and bring in a master plumber. If you try to cut corners with an ‘I-gotta-guy’ kinda guy, that can lead you down a road that can cost you extra thousands of dollars.” The added costs come from fines, shoddy workmanship, and delays due to paperwork being done improperly.
Concurrently, the board prepares its first communication with residents. “After the master plumber assesses what needs to be done, you’ll have more insight to provide residents,” says Michael Mintz, chief executive of the MD2 Property Group, a management company. “The plumber might not have done a pressure test yet to know the full scope, but you’ll have information and can convey that message to everyone.”
Dee DeGrushe, a property manager with Orsid Realty, says you should send follow-up communications every two to five days. DeGrushe followed this procedure during a shutdown at a Chelsea condominium. “Even if we were at a standstill, waiting for this or that, we would tell residents,” she says. “That really kept people calm.”
Inform your insurance company. Be aware most policies cover only the immediate cause of the shutdown, such as a leak in one particular pipe. Your plumber may find pressure-test failures in multiple pipes, especially in older buildings, but insurance generally won’t cover those since companies consider that normal wear-and-tear.
For pipes that do not pass a pressure test, the plumber isolates them by installing lockable valves and submitting a pressure-test affidavit to the utility, noting only the areas that have passed the test. Before repairing the failing pipes, the plumber gives the utility a letter of intent to file for a DOB permit.
With large, complicated systems, especially old ones, you may wish to have an engineer determine if repair or replacement of the affected system is the better path. Some managers say a master plumber can do this, thereby avoiding the cost of an engineer.
“You don’t always have to bring in an engineer if you know where the risers are,” says DeGrushe. “The plumber doing the work knows the codes. The codes change year after year, and the plumbers are the ones who keep up with them. If you need to do any construction to open walls, the engineer can provide advice. But they’re not always needed. A gas shutdown and the work involved to bring everything up to code can be quite costly, so bring in an engineer only if necessary.”
The plumber submits a repair or replacement plan to the DOB through the Plumbing Permits & Applications page on the department’s website, then waits for DOB approval. This generally takes only days, but as with any bureaucracy, delays can occur.
The plumber and his team make the approved repairs or replacements. With large, complicated systems, especially old ones, this may involve a capital project, requiring all the usual steps, including financing. This is generally the most time-consuming part, since replacing multiple risers, particularly in large buildings, is a costly and labor-intensive process that can take months and often involves making appointments with multiple residents to open their walls to get at piping.
After work is complete, the plumber again pressure-tests each line. If the lines hold pressure at required standards, the plumber contacts the DOB for inspection and sign-off. It can take two or more weeks for an inspector to arrive. After obtaining DOB authorization to reintroduce gas to the affected area, the plumber contacts the utility.
In the past, when a short-staffed DOB could not readily get an inspector to the property, plumbers were allowed to self-certify. “No longer,” says Sal Nikocevic, president and owner of Sal-Tech Plumbing & Heating. “There has to be physical inspection by DOB.”
A utility representative tests the completed DOB-approved repairs. If the system passes, the utility will issue an Integrity Test and Gas Turn-On Affidavit.
With both Con Edison and National Grid, prior to performing the integrity test, a tester must gain entry to a minimum of two apartments on each affected riser, including the apartment farthest from the riser. In each apartment, the utility has to check off a list of specific technical points. The tester will also perform a “riser continuity test.” If the test fails, the supervisor shuts off and locks the riser valve. The master plumber continues the repair or replacement work, then the test is repeated.
If the system passes the test, the utility representative puts in a request to have gas service restored. According to one manager, Con Edison usually takes from one to three weeks to restore service. A National Grid representative says, “When all work is complete and approved with DOB along with access to all required meters and appliances, National Grid will restore gas service within one to two days, not exceeding five business days.”
The board must restore any apartments that have been affected by the work, repairing walls opened in order to get at risers. “Plaster and primer,” says Ermler of Midboro Management. “You’re not going to restore things cosmetically, but you have to restore structurally. If you tear down cabinets, you have to put them back up. The proprietary lease makes clear what each building has to do.” So do condominium governing documents.