Fire Protection in Aging Buildings is Paramount

While there are many building components that can cause considerable damage when they fail, nothing is as dangerous as a failure to the electrical system. Malfunctioning devices and aging wiring can cause fire, electrocution and even death under certain circumstances. The threat of fire is even more significant in multifamily housing because a fire in one unit can quickly spread to other units.

Statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reveal that the electrical distribution system in homes continues to be a leading cause of residential building fires each year. A home’s electrical system, like other utilities, will deteriorate with age and eventually require repair or replacement.

A homeowner’s general perception is that if the lights work and the vacuum runs then everything is fine, but this can be a disastrous mistake in an older home. Residential electrical systems over 30 years old may contain hidden hazards that require professional inspection and repair.

The following warning signs may indicate possible electrical problems. Contact a licensed electrician to inspect the electrical system and make necessary repairs if any of these warning signs are evident:

  • Flickering or dimming lights;
  • Switches or outlets are hot to the touch or emit an acrid odor;
  • Cords, outlets or switch plates are discolored;
  • Frequent blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers;
  • GFCI outlets will not reset; and
  • Electronic equipment and computers shutting off unexpectedly.

The primary concerns over 30 years old include electric panels.

Obsolete Wiring

According to Underwriters Laboratories (UL), most residential electrical systems are only inspected during the time of installation. While receptacles and switches are readily accessible and easily replaced when broken, the electrical wiring remains unseen and untouched.

Electrical wiring and wire insulation will deteriorate over time and can become cracked, brittle, or covered with oxidation that can cause circuits to overheat.

Subsequent modifications to the original circuits and overloading by the homeowner can increase the risk of electrical failure. This risk is increased in older homes where circuit capacity may not meet the requirements of today’s lifestyle.

By today’s standards, knob and tube wiring and aluminum wiring in branch circuits are obsolete. Knob and tube wiring is one of the oldest wiring methods and was common in homes until the 1930s. This wiring method involves separating two conductors in air by using ceramic knobs and tubes to mount the wire. The cloth insulation commonly used is more prone to deteriorate and cannot withstand high temperatures from increased loads like modern wiring with PVC insulation. There is no ground wire so you cannot use modern electrical switches and outlets safely.

Aluminum wiring was a common substitute for copper wiring in homes built between 1965 and 1973. Aluminum wiring was deemed unsafe after patterns of failures at splices and connection points developed. Many electrical professionals feel that the useful service life of aluminum wire is approximately 30 years.

Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) research shows that a home with aluminum branch circuits installed before 1973 is 55 times more likely to have a connection reach “Fire Hazard Conditions” than is a home wired with copper.

The CPSC recognizes two permanent repairs for aluminum wired branch circuits: rewiring the home with copper wiring and the COPALUM crimping repair. Both methods are costly repairs with their own disadvantages.

The COPALUM repair is effective only if an electrician completes the repair for ALL connections in the home and the repairs remain in place. In many homes, there may be unknown connections in concealed spaces that are not accessible. Another problem is the possibility that unit owners can remove the repairs later during renovations.

Considering that knob and tube and aluminum wiring are at or beyond their useful service life, rewiring the home is the preferred method of repair to ensure that the electrical system is safe.

Obsolete Electric Panels

Many residential electrical systems used fuse panels as over current protection until the early 1960s. Like obsolete wiring, these panels are beyond their useful service life and need to be replaced. Many fuse panels have a 30- or 60-amp capacity meaning that they have twoor four-, 15-amp circuits, not nearly enough capacity for the electrical load in a home today. As more appliances and electronic devices are used in the home, the higher the probability for an overload condition.

Aside from their age, the major problems associated with fuse panels are over fusing and bypassing the fuses. In older fuse panels, a resident could easily insert a higher amperage fuse or insert a piece of metal in the socket to avoid constantly replacing blown fuses. Though changes in the socket design and tamper proof fuses will generally prevent this from happening today, fuses are still considered obsolete protection and should be upgraded to circuit breakers.

Circuit breakers gained popularity through the 1940s and 1950s and became the standard in new residential construction in the early 1960s. As with many other technologies, electrical engineers developed better overload protection systems and panels over time. The circuit breaker panels installed through the late 1970s are now over 30 years old and considered obsolete. There are also reports that some of these panels may fail to trip when overloaded or fail to drop power when a breaker is turned off. Both of these conditions can result in a fire or electrocution.

Need More Information?

Additional information on aging electrical systems is available through several sources including Underwriters Laboratories (www., The National Fire Protection Association (, Electrical Safety Foundation International ( and your local electric supplier.

You are encouraged to have your legal counsel review all of your proposed plans and policies before implementing them.

Reprinted with permission from the Community
Association Underwriters of America, Inc.

Fire Safety: A Tragic Reminder of Importance

On December 28, 2017, New York City had the deadliest fire since the 1990s where there were 12 fatalities, three of them children. While this happened in a rental building, the construction is like many cooperative buildings in the city, and this incident reminds us all, regardless of building size or location of the importance of fire safety.

Comprehensive fire legislation had been enacted in NYC in the 1860s in the wake of the “Great Fire of 1835,” in which 300 buildings were destroyed, and many lives lost. The Great New York Fire destroyed the New York Stock Exchange and most of the buildings on the southeast tip of Manhattan around Wall Street on December 16-17, 1835.

The fire began in the evening in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street (now called Beaver Street) at the intersection with Pearl Street between Hanover Square and Wall Street in the snow-covered city and was fed by gale-force winds blowing from the northwest towards the East River. With temperatures around 17 below zero (F) and the East River frozen solid, firefighters had to cut holes in the ice to get water. Water then froze in the hoses and pumps. Attempts to blow up buildings in its path were thwarted by a lack of gunpowder in Manhattan. Firefighters coming to help from Philadelphia, Pa. said they could see signs of the fire.

About 2 a.m., Marines returned with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and blew up buildings in the fire’s path. By then the fire covered 50 acres, 17 blocks of the city, destroying between 530 and 700 buildings. The losses were estimated at 20 million dollars, which, in today’s value would be hundreds of millions. Only two people were killed.

The 2017 tragic incident in the Bronx started when a 3-year-old boy was playing with knobs on a gas burner on a ground floor apartment. The extent of the fire was exacerbated when the family left the door to the apartment open after fleeing, allowing the fire to spread faster and more extensively throughout the building.

The violations on record were found to be not directly related to the actual incident. This fire serves as a reminder that not only is violation abatement important in terms of fire safety but so is the maintenance of the fire safety measures already in place.

Here are some items to review and consider ahead of an inspection or incident to help keep on top of fire safety.

FIRE DOORS: As with the Bronx fire, certain doors are rated to be fire resistant per code. However, if the door is damaged or has been tampered with, it will not perform as needed. Be especially aware if the glass within a door is cracked or broken and if the door does not fully close properly into the frame.

SELF-CLOSERS: Related to the doors, some doors have spring hinges or hydraulic arms along the top to ensure that after opening the door returns to the closed position. If the door sits ajar when left alone, then the door or the selfcloser needs to be fixed or replaced. Also, note the people, who get annoyed at having to re-open common doors, prop them open with a doorstop: this action can be dangerous and replicate what happened in the Bronx fire.

BLOCKED PATHS OF TRAVEL: We can all relate to knowing the family whose belongings routinely land outside their unit. Strollers, push carts, umbrellas may seem temporary and benign, but they can block an important path of travel, especially when fire can make a passageway difficult to maneuver with smoke. This scenario is also important for older buildings where fire has escaped along the outside; flower pots, laundry, holiday lights may seem innocuous, but they need to be removed.

ILLUMINATION: Of course, lights in passageways always need to be maintained. But in the event of a fire or other situation, power may go out. Some lights can be fitted with their own in-unit battery-powered backup; depending on the location and situation, it may even be code required. Beyond that, there are photo-luminescence (glow-in-the-dark) decals and strips that can be easily applied to certain elements (like stairs) to help people navigate in the event of a fire or loss of power.

FIRE EXTINGUISHERS: They expire. Always make sure required fire extinguishers are current and not past expiration.

SMOKE DETECTORS: They run out of power. Always make sure these units are functioning and located where required. Some jurisdictions also require carbon monoxide detection units, which can be in a combination unit.

GAS COOKING: The Bronx fire started with a gas stove. Connections to units should be reviewed for needed repairs. If a unit has children, safety cover products are available for gas cooking equipment.

The above are just some of the fire safety maintenance matters to keep in mind. Each cooperative community will have their own matters to track. In general, what is important is to keep abreast of them before a tragedy occurs.

This article is for general informational purposes. NAHC and Walker urge cooperatives to consult with a qualified industry professional for analysis and for answers to specific questions and sites. The author thanks the History of N.Y. Fire Departments for select information.


Leon Yudkin Geoxavier is a registered architect (NY/ NJ/PA) and restoration consultant with Walker Consultants in New City, N.Y. He is a former president of Southridge Cooperative Section #1, Inc., in Jackson Heights (Queens), N.Y.

Effects of Carpet on Exterior Masonry Balconies

By Mitchell H. Frumkin

Balconies can be a promotional highlight of a building, giving residents an opportunity to step outside and enjoy the view. While sipping evening coffee and reading a good book, most residents will notice the cool breeze long before thinking about their balcony’s stability.

However, structural stability should be aforethought in the owner’s mind because balconies are more vulnerable to deterioration than any other building element. Balconies can be a nightmare if water penetrates the concrete base and compromises its structural integrity. For this reason, water-retaining carpets are strongly discouraged and waterproofing paints and sealants are recommended for new and existing decks.

Impermeable paints or sealants are required to prevent concrete corrosion. However, when constructed, the vast majority of balconies are

left without any waterproofing protection. Water is destructive because when combined with concrete and steel, an electrochemical reaction results in oxidation. The by-products of oxidation take up more space than the base metal and cause the concrete to spall away from its reinforcing steel. Simply put, when balconies are not waterproofed,

water can seep into the porous concrete and rust the structural steel reinforcement within it.

Rusted, steel expands which then causes the concrete to crumble and fall.

Deterioration rates vary due to the specific circumstances of the building. One of the most damaging factors leading to the rusting of reinforcing steel is outdoor carpeting. Like a sponge, carpets absorb moisture and remain damp for long periods of time. Carpets keep the balcony in a state of perpetual wetness, speeding up the deterioration process. Shallow concrete over reinforcing steel, water infiltration in railing embedment and insufficient drainage also accelerate the corrosion process. In winter months, the water that has seeped into the concrete freezes and expands then melts and returns to its normal mass. During these freeze/thaw cycles, the potential

increases for the reinforcement to corrode and the concrete to crack and spall. Once the decay begins, small cracks can worsen and lead to an accelerated attack of the balcony’s structural integrity.

To prevent water damage, the surface of outdoor balconies must be protected. Latex-based paint provide water protection for concrete with moderate wear. More durable alkyd, epoxy, or poly urethane- based paints are designed to rain-proof balconies that are subject to heavy foot traffic and patio furniture. Painting also allows for caulking, sealing and patching of any cracks or worn sections to further prevent possible moisture and ice damage. Take it a step further with surface sealers that penetrate the concrete surface and fill cracks to provide even more protection from water damage.

Whichever waterproofing finish you choose, it will be a vast improvement over any moisture trapping carpet sold as an outdoor product. Each layer of protection will help prevent further moisture absorption, enhancing the longevity of the concrete balcony and the property value of the unit. By reducing the amount of water reaching the concrete imbedded steel, owners/ managers can prevent the most common types of deterioration so that residents enjoying the open air can continue to drink their coffee and reading a book without a thought about the steel reinforced concrete beneath their feet.

The Key to DWV: What You Need to Know about Drain, Waste & Vent Piping Systems

Your drain waste and vent (DWV) system is probably one of the most important components of your plumbing system, allowing the flow and removal of grey-water and sewage down drains and through waste pipes. Unfortunately, as buildings age, the corrosion of cast iron DWV piping can become a severe problem. Depending on the external environmental conditions and the corrosiveness of the liquid waste and gasses within the pipes, major blockages and even complete structural collapse are not uncommon.

One of the keys to protecting your property is to educate your staff on the signs of potential problems. Knowing what to look for can help avoid excessive obstructions, total system failure and extensive water damage. Here are the top four things to look for as DWV pipes age:

  • RUST forms on the inside of the pipe, creating a crust of “tubercules.” Tuberculation slows water flow, eroding the metal and increasing the chances of
  • CORROSION appears in different forms: long cracks can form on horizontal sections. Pipes can disintegrate in certain sections. Fittings can often be problematic, and occasionally, pipes can become entirely blocked due to lack of maintenance.
  • CHECK the vent side of your Often, the vent side is in worse condition than the drain side, contributing to the release of sewer gas inside your building.
  • REPEATED backups, slow draining or unexplain- able odors are signs your DWV piping system could be

If your property is more than 20 years old  and you are experiencing any of these signs, we recommend a camera inspection of the DWV lines to investigate any issues. Another best practice is   to keep a record of leaks and blockages, reviewing them  every quarter. This report can help you determine when pipe replacement may make sense. Eventually, all drain and waste systems need to be replaced. Timely cast iron replacement will prevent recurring problems, system failure, extensive damage and toxic water contamination.  

Lead-Based Paint Final Rule Update

Lead-Based Paint Final Rule Update

By Judy Sullivan

On January 13, 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes Office issued a final rule amending the lead-based paint regulations by reducing the blood level in a child under the age of six that triggers an environmental intervention if the child lives in federally-owned or federally-assisted housing constructed before 1978. HUD adopted the revised definition of “elevated blood lead levels” established by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The final rule also establishes more comprehensive testing and evaluation procedures for housing where children live.

Scientific studies have shown that even low levels of lead in the blood can cause lifelong ill effects. The adverse health effects of lead in children include decreased bone and muscle growth, damage to the nervous system, kidney damage, blood anemia and damage to the brain, including behavior problems, lower IQ, hearing loss and learning disabilities.

The Lead Based Paint rule was published as a proposed rule for public comment on September 1, 2016. The Final Rule was effective February13, 2017 and enforceable July 13, 2017.

Major changes in the rule:

  • Brings the definition of Elevated Blood Lead Level in line with CDC’s threshold (reduce to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (μg/dL) or greater);
  • Enables HUD to change the Elevated Blood Lead Level in the future should the CDC threshold change;
  • When a child is found with an Elevated Blood Lead Level:
  1. Enhances the assessment in that child’s unit from a Risk Assessment to an Environmental Investigation;
  2. Adds a requirement that every assisted unit in the building occupied by a child under 6 years old receive a Risk Assessment with Lead Hazard Control of any lead-based paint hazards;
  3. Adds a requirement that HUD be notified for all types of housing assistance that have an Elevated Blood Lead Level requirement.

The final rule is at:

Requirements for Notification, Evaluation and Reduction of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Federally Owned Residential Property and Housing Receiving Federal Assistance; Response to Elevated Blood Lead Levels (24 CFR Part 35, [Docket No. FR–5816–F–02], RIN 2501–AD77). 

Judy Sullivan is NAHC’s government relations representative.