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Video Intercom Mixes Old and New

It took a long time to figure out how to get a new video intercom system installed in Aero Owners Inc., a 288-unit cooperative in Forest Hills, Queens. “We’ve been talking intercoms already for five years,” says Thomas Krahn of Vision Enterprises, the co-op’s property management company.

Since they opened in the 1940s, the three six-story brick buildings have been served by an intercom system that bears only the faintest resemblance to today’s high-tech, wireless intercoms. The old-fashioned design had three simple buttons: one to speak, one to listen, one to buzz in a visitor. No video, of course. Copper wires ran through the walls from the intercom panels in individual apartments down to the building entrances – three wires per apartment, plus a ground.

The old system was beginning to falter, and it was getting more and more difficult to maintain. “We did have a lot of panels breaking down,” Krahn says. “We couldn’t get replacement parts. No one is making them anymore.”

The Aero co-op board had completed a $3 million project to repair the facade in April 2019, using reserves plus $1 million from refinancing its mortgage with the National Cooperative Bank. With money left over, the board hoped to steer a middle course, installing new intercoms without too much demolition. “We didn’t want to replace all the wires,” Krahn says.

Finding a company to replace the intercoms was a challenge. The contractors that showed an interest were small and on the young side. “Everyone I talked to was a one-year-old company or a three-year-old company,” Krahn says. “None of them guaranteed it would work.”

So board decided to hire Academy Mail Box, founded in 1948. The company had successfully updated the co-op’s mailboxes, and it installs more than 100 intercom systems in and around New York City in a typical year. Academy said it could install a new intercom system with video using the existing copper wires.

Those old copper wires turned out to be a resource. They tend to last a long time because their polyvinyl chloride (PVC) wrapping does not degrade. Also, since the old intercom system required three wires running to every apartment, each six-story line has 18 of those old wires in a metal pipe running up from the ground floor.

Workers began installing the first of the new intercoms in October. The system, which will cost about $130,000, needs just four wires in optimal condition to serve all of the apartments in each line. Two wires carry video signals to and from the linked intercom boxes; two more wires carry sound. Because the system is computerized, each intercom box recognizes its own signal when that signal comes over the shared wires and ignores the others.

Technicians installing the system pick wires that have no breaks in the PVC coating that would weaken the signal. And since only four wires are needed out of the existing clusters, “if I have a problem with a wire, I have a lot of spares,” says Matthew Arnold, president of Academy.

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