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New Video Intercom Upgrade Mixes Old School and High Tech

Bendix Anderson in Bricks & Bucks on November 6, 2019

Forest Hills, Queens

Intercom Upgrade

The Aero's new video intercoms will be attached to old copper wires.

Nov. 6, 2019

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 apartment complex in the Forest Hills neighborhood of 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 towers 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,” says Krahn. “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 National Cooperative Bank. A few hundred-thousand dollars were 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,” says Krahn. 

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,” says Krahn. “None of them guaranteed it would work.”  

Krahn had some experience with new intercom systems that had failed. Vision had replaced intercoms in several older buildings, including several brownstones, where workers tore out and replaced older wiring. “Within three years, the intercoms were already giving us problems,” says Krahn.

The Aero board decided to go with a company that is not on the young side. Academy Mail Box, founded in 1948, had successfully updated the co-op’s mailboxes, and it installs more than 100 new 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 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 upwards from the ground floor. 

The new intercom system needs just four wires to serve all of the apartments in each line. Two wires carry video signals to and from the linked intercom boxes in every apartment; 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. 

So a technician installing the new system needs just four wires in optimal condition in the cluster of wires serving each line of apartments, with no breaks in the PVC coating that would lose or weaken the signal. “If I have a problem with a wire, I have a lot of spares,” says Matthew Arnold, president of Academy. 

Workers began installing the first of the new intercoms in October and should be finished by mid-December 13th. The new system will cost about $130,000 to purchase and install, and it’s hoped that the marriage of old wires to new technology will bring years of reliable service. Recalling previous jobs where old wires were replaced, Krahn says, “Everything else has failed, so this is superior.” 


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