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After Electrical Upgrade, Prewar Co-op Is Ready for the Future

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on September 21, 2022

Upper East Side, Manhattan

Electrical upgrade, prewar co-op, Local Law 97, carbon emissions.

The new service disconnect switch (left) and the new supplemental meter bank.

Sept. 21, 2022

It doesn’t hurt to be lucky. Just ask Brooks Clark, board president at the 30-unit co-op at 108 E. 86th St. In an effort to bring more electricity — and more amenities — to the 14-story prewar building, the board wound up putting itself in prime position to comply with looming Local Law 97 of the Climate Mobilization Act. That law will require large buildings to reduce their carbon emissions to specified levels beginning in 2024 — or face stiff fines.

This co-op’s journey began back in 2016, when the board brought in RAND Engineering & Architecture to study ways to amp up the building’s electrical capacity. When the building was erected in 1924, each apartment could handle a 40-amp demand load. When it was converted to a co-op in 1982, an electrical upgrade meant that half of the apartments could handle 60 amps — enough to run a refrigerator and window air conditioner, but not enough to handle an electric stove, dishwasher, or washer and drier. Modern buildings can handle about 125 amps per apartment.

“We knew we needed to get more electricity,” Clark says, citing today’s appetite for an ever-growing array of electrical appliances, devices and conveniences.

Phase one of the project, which cost $70,000, involved calculating the building’s electrical needs, then upgrading the service end box, where Con Edison wires enter the building, and replacing electrical distribution equipment in the basement. A supplemental electric meter bank was also installed to handle future upgrades.

While this work was under way, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act in 2019, and the game changed. Suddenly “electrification” was the big buzzword, as policy makers began urging building owners to switch from fossil-fuel-powered infrastructure to electrical heating, cooling and cooking. As the electric grid becomes greener, the thinking goes, getting rid of fossil fuels will reduce carbon emissions.

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Nzinga McBain, an electrical engineer and project manager with RAND, was brought in for phase two of the project, which involved figuring out a way to run higher-capacity wires from the new infrastructure in the basement up to the 30 apartments.

“There was no space inside the building to run new feeder lines,” McBain says, “so we decided in phase two to run the feeders on the exterior of the building." 

Thirteen vertical metal conduits — one per floor above street level — were run up the side of the building. These conduits, known as wire ways, can accommodate wiring that can handle up to 125 amps, enough to power electric ovens, air conditioners, dishwashers and washer-driers without tripping the circuit breaker. Installing the 13 conduits in advance of individual unit upgrades had another advantage.

“It will save the expense of putting up new scaffolding and installing a conduit every time a resident wants to add wires,” McBain says.

Phase two of the project cost $150,000, Clark says, and that money will be recouped through a $17,500 fee shareholders will pay when they opt to upgrade their apartment’s wiring. What started out as an amenity upgrade had turned, by a stroke of good luck, into a timely preparation for an uncertain future.

“The work is done,” Clark says. “With this upgrade, we have enough electrical capacity so that we have the power to comply with Local Law 97, even if we haven’t yet figured out exactly how we’re going to comply. I want boards at prewar buildings to know that they’ve got to plan for this. They need to know they’ve got to upgrade their electrical systems — and it’s something they can do now.”

After a pause, he adds, “The Climate Mobilization Act is the thing that keeps me awake at night.”

McBain believes that, despite Clark’s anxiety, the co-op has put itself in a good place. “At the time they started this project,” she says, “it was about supplying amenities residents were asking for. Now, with Local Law 97 on the books and buildings trying to reduce their carbon emissions, this co-op has electricity available that puts them ahead of the curve.”


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