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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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BUILDING OPERATIONS

HOW NYC CO-OP AND CONDOS OPERATE

Plumbers Balking at Gas-Line Inspections Over Liability Fears

Bill Morris in Building Operations on June 25, 2021

New York City

Gas explosions, mandatory gas-line inspections, liability, master plumbers.

This lethal gas explosion in the East Village in 2015 led the city to pass Local Law 152.

June 25, 2021

In response to deadly gas explosions in East Harlem and the East Village, the city passed Local Law 152, which requires all building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to have their gas lines in common areas inspected by a licensed master plumber every four years. Since the law went into effect last year, an unexpected wrinkle has developed: fearing exposure to legal liability, some plumbing companies are declining to take on gas-line inspection jobs.

When Co-op City, the massive, 15,373-unit development in the northeast Bronx, got ready to do its first round of mandated gas-line inspections last year, it was in uncharted territory – and so, it turned out, were the plumbers who bid on the job.

“After we sent out Requests for Proposals, 15 vendors showed up at the mandatory bidders conference,” says the co-op’s property manager, Bob Klehammer of Douglas Elliman. “We got a total of three bids.”

Klehammer speculates that some of the bidders were surprised by the scope of the inspection job at a property that has 35 high-rise buildings, eight pump rooms, three commercial malls, a school building and a power plant. “And,” Klehammer adds, “some of the companies may not have been aware of the special qualifications their plumbers need. Having to walk all of our hallways and stairwells with a gas sniffer took a lot of time.”

And it wasn’t cheap. “It cost us $375,000 just to do the inspections and filings,” Klehammer says, adding that the inspections revealed the need for only a few minor repairs. “I’m used to big numbers here. My frustration is with all these city mandates. They’re usually the result of a tragic event, but the cost gets added to co-op and condo budgets. I’m not belittling the tragedies of the gas explosions, but I don’t see the benefit of putting these additional costs on building owners.”

Mike Smith was not surprised when he heard that so many plumbing companies were unwilling to perform gas-line inspections at Co-op City. That’s because Smith, a licensed master plumber who runs a small family business called East Meadow Plumbing & Mechanical, declines all Local Law 152 jobs. “Anybody calls for a gas inspection, I won’t do it,” Smith says. “Too much liability. After I do an inspection, maybe something happens that’s out of my control. If there’s an explosion, they’re going to go after me, and I have to prove that somebody did something after I did my inspection. I don’t need the aggravation. I’ve got plenty of sprinkler work.”

It’s not just the little guys who are balking. Phil Kraus, president of century-old Fred Smith Plumbing & Heating, has decided not to send crews out to inspect gas lines. His reasoning is twofold: inspections expose the company to liability, and they have the potential to damage the company’s hard-won reputation.

Of the exposure to liability, Kraus says: “If you test a system and you don’t find anything wrong, you write up your report, and everything’s fine. But I know for a fact that you can test a gas line in a basement, and one day it passes. If the temperature drops sharply, say 30 degrees, that pipe might leak, and they shut the building down. We could be blamed for not testing properly. It could cost thousands of dollars to get service back. If a building gets shut down or there’s a loss of life, insurance companies are going to think twice about insuring us.”

The threat to the company’s reputation puts it in a lose-lose situation, as Kraus sees it. “On the one hand,” he says, “co-op and condo boards could end up blaming us for shutting their building down. On the other hand, if my crew points out potential problems, I don’t want somebody to say I’m trying to drum up work for the company. I’ve been around too long, and I don’t want people to misconstrue my intent.”

For Kraus, it’s a risk that’s not worth taking: “One bad mistake, and you’re out of business. And they can come after you personally. We don’t need to expose ourselves to the liability.”

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