Bill Morris in Building Operations
AS Silver, 71, the third-generation president of the century-old American Pipe & Tank Lining, explains it, the building code requires an annual inspection of every water tank with potable water. That part hasn't changed. Most annual inspections are done by the city's three water tank companies or by licensed master plumbers or inspectors certified by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). An inspector checks for damage to structural steel, leaks and such foreign objects as pigeons or other vermin that might have gotten into the tank. The code also requires that all tanks be drained, then disinfected with the chemical hypochlorite. Cleaning an average-size tank takes about four hours and costs under $1,000.
The old rules required that buildings keep records onsite, and that only DOH officials could inspect them. But the old rules began to change when New York City Council convened a public hearing in early 2009 and learned that only about one-third of the water tanks in a sample study had been inspected the previous year. So to remedy the situation, the Council in February 2009 ordered that, in addition to the existing regulations, buildings must now keep records on hand for the past five years and post a notice saying where not only inspectors but also building residents can review those records.
No filing with the city is required. But failure to prove annual inspection and cleaning could result in a fine ranging from $200 to $2,000. Failure to post a notice of where the past five years' worth of inspection records are kept could result in a fine up to $250.
"They took the position that they're not going to take the building's word that they're going to do their duty," Silver says. "The Department of Health is sending out inspectors to make sure the notices are posted."
That's where the Bronx co-op ran afoul of the new law. When the new tank was installed in 2005, the board didn't order an inspection that year. When a new property manager came in the following year, the building again skipped the annual inspection.
The Five-Year Itch
Cut to January 2010. A DOH inspector visits the co-op and demands to see the posted notice and the past five years' worth of inspection and cleaning certifications. The notice hadn't been posted — and the super and the property manager could only records for 2007 through 2009, but not 2005 or 2006.
Silver, who by then had signed a five-year contract to handle the co-op's annual tank inspections, accompanied a board representative and the property manager to a hearing in April. The board agreed to pay a fine of $700 — considerably less than the maximum of $4,250 they faced for missing two inspections and failing to post the notice.
The hearing officer was "very reasonable," says Silver, who believes the new rules are long overdue. "I addressed the city council 15 years ago and proposed this," he says. "Some leading engineers helped me put forth a very strong argument for mandating that existing codes be enforced. A law isn't a law until it's enforced. If you raise awareness, people who want to do the right thing will comply. This law was written because there are always people who try to avoid what they're supposed to do."
Silver's enthusiasm for the change isn't shared by everyone. "A lot of violations have crossed my desk," says David Hochhauser, vice president of 120-year-old Isseks Bros., one of the handful of companies in the city that manufacture and install wooden and steel tanks. The city, he believes, is being overzealous in order to raise revenue. "I don't fault the city for trying to keep the water clean," he says. "But they should be issuing violations for failing to clean the tanks, not for failing to keep inspection records available."
The Bronx co-op's property manager agrees. "As managers, we have to deal with so many things," she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So we rely on our vendors to know things and keep us in the loop, whether it's water tanks, elevators, laundry rooms, asbestos abatement, whatever. I'm not sure how you can watch out for what you don't know. I hope the [water] tank companies get proactive with boards and let them know there's this specific new little law. It would be helpful if it came from the industry – the people you're paying to work on your water."
Adapted from Habitat July/August 2010. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>
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