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Hard Lesson: Buildings Without Backup Generators Are Fooling Themselves

Jennifer V. Hughes in Board Operations on November 26, 2013

Morgan Court, Chelsea Lane, New York City

The Need for Backup Generators
Nov. 26, 2013

It was October 29, 2012, and Morgan Court, at 211 Madison Avenue, faced the consequences of procrastination. The emergency generator didn't operate in the kind of emergency it was designed to battle. The 40-unit property, like much of the city, was without power for five days – no computers, spoiled food, long walks up the stairs – a situation that could have been prevented if the board had followed the Boy Scouts' motto.

According to board president Dennis B. Sprung, that incident was a wake-up call. The condo decided to install a new backup generator. "It's like an insurance policy," he says. "You don't need it until you need it."

Generating Talk

After Sandy, everyone seemed to be getting into backup. One year later, however, only a handful of buildings are considering taking the plunge. One of those is the board at the Chelsea Lane cooperative at 16 West 16th Street, which asked the architectural and engineering firm Lawless & Mangione to come up with a feasibility report.

Some boards think something

like superstorm Sandy

probably won't happen again.

This plan called for a diesel generator, about 150 to 175 kilowatts, located in a courtyard that serves as a roof to the building's garage. The project would cost approximately $250,000 to $300,000, which means the average apartment would be assessed roughly $650.

In October, the co-op board polled its residents to gauge their interest in such a machine, reports Judith Goldstein, an onsite management executive at Akam Living Services. "There was such an overwhelmingly favorable response," she says, noting that about two-thirds of the 485 residents participated in the survey. The building has not inked the deal, but it seems very likely.

Wishful Thinking

Yet, 16 West 16th Street is more an exception than the rule. More typical are the properties handled by Midboro Management, 10 of which lost power during Hurricane Sandy and asked the firm to look into portable backup generators that could be kept in the basement for use in a blackout. One year later, none of them has bought one, according to Michael Wolfe, principal of the company.

A small, portable generator could power some common-area lighting, a critical pump and perhaps a charging station in a lobby, according to Dave Brijlall, energy team leader for Rand Engineering & Architecture, making it suitable for smaller residential housing. "You're looking at maybe a six-story building, or perhaps a garden-style apartment," he says. This generator could even be parked in an interior courtyard during an emergency, and city laws would allow the condo or co-op to keep a small amount of diesel fuel on hand, Brijlall adds.

That may sound appealing, but apparently not to some boards. "It's expensive," says Wolfe. "And the boards think that something like Sandy probably won't happen again."


Illustration by Jane Sanders

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