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Thinking Outside the Building After a Gas Leak

Marianne Schaefer in Building Operations on March 21, 2019

East Village, Manhattan

Gas Lines

Silver gas lines run up the exterior walls of the co-op at 50-54 East 8th Street (image via Google Maps).

March 21, 2019

When a minor gas leak was detected in the basement of the 121-unit, six-story co-op at 50-54 East 8th Street, the building’s gas supply was immediately shut down. That’s not big news in New York City today, where deadly gas explosions have led the city to tighten regulations on the inspection and maintenance of gas lines. What is news is what happened in this 1950s-vintage building when the inspectors arrived. 

“The gas pipes in this building were located in staircases and walls that divided hallways from apartments,” says Len Williams, master plumber with McCready & Rice Plumbing. “The problem is that when pipes have to be replaced, they are not allowed to go back in those locations.” 

Many buildings have their gas pipes in these places, and as long as no leaks are detected, the lines can stay there. But once repairs are required and pipes have to be replaced, then the gas lines have to be moved inside the apartment walls or under the floors. This scenario has nightmare written all over it. 

“When gas pipes are replaced,” says Williams, “you will need the cooperation of the residents. That’s often not that easy. It’s more than just inconvenient for them. The repairs involve the inside of the apartments and might cause damage to relatively new kitchens and stone and tile work.” 

The East 8th Street co-op caught a couple of lucky breaks. First, it is neither landmarked nor in an historic district, which means alterations to the building’s exterior don’t have to win approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. This offered the option of running the new gas lines outside the building, greatly reducing both cost and the magnitude of the headache. 

“They now have something like 25 to 30 gas lines running outside the building, and from there the piping goes into the apartments,” says Williams. “The logistics are always very complicated because when you have to repair the gas line on the sixth floor, floors one to five will also be affected.” Even so, he says, it could have been much worse. 

This is where planning and coordination between the contractor, the board and the property manager are key. In addition to scheduling the work, the board and management need to educate residents on who is responsible for various portions of the job. 

“Most proprietary leases say that the residents are responsible for any repairs inside their apartment, even if the workers damaged it,” says Jim Goldstick, vice president at the Charles H. Greenthal management company, which manages the East 8th Street co-op. “Further, if only one resident forgot to leave a key with the super and the workers cannot enter an apartment, no work can be done that day, which causes further delays to an already lengthy work schedule.” 

“Utility companies started to do inspections of gas piping, which is a new mandate, and more buildings are now checked,” Williams says. “Inspections are required in a three-year cycle. The piping is tested starting at he point where the gas line enters the building up to the gas meters. They are going in with electronic detection devices; such an inspection takes about a day.” 

Detection of any leak will trigger an immediate shutdown of the gas for the entire building. When the repairs are finally complete, there will be the dreaded pressure test. Three pounds of pressure are blown through the lines – 12 times the normal load of one-quarter of a pound. If the pressure test shows even one tiny leak, it’s back to the drawing board. “If a building doesn’t pass the pressure test, then it’s a big deal,” says Williams. “There are so many complications, and it happens more and more often. We see ever more buildings where the gas is shut down for months or even years.”

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