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Your Building's Anatomy Systems That Keep Your Building Community Running

From the outside, the structure of a condo or co-op building may appear to be monolithic; just one big piece of brick and steel, punctuated with some glass here and there. That's an oversimplification, however. A multifamily building is perhaps more like a human body, with a multitude of organs and moving parts working together to keep the building healthy and vibrant. From the roof to the boiler and all points between, ensuring that systems are operating efficiently is a continual challenge.

The primary operating systems in a multifamily building include roofing, the building envelope, waterproofing, electrical, mechanical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, and in some cases, elevator systems. In high-rise or multi-unit buildings especially, the association is responsible for providing many of these basic utilities to unit owners.

RAND Engineering & Architecture Senior Engineer Jamey Ehrman explains that while there are other key systems such as electrical, refuse disposal and intercom, those systems are relatively maintenance-free.

Climate Control

When it comes to HVAC, the problems likely to beset a building are largely dependent upon the type of system installed. “For instance, a single-pipe steam system will require much less maintenance than a building that uses fan coil units with a steam-to-hot water heating plant, absorption chiller, cooling tower and roof level exhaust fans,” says Ehrman, whose office is in New York City. “However, both buildings can have significant unanticipated malfunctions and system downtime if any part of the maintenance regime is deferred or overlooked.”

And while the size of a building might matter in terms of scale and expense, the actual approach to maintaining systems is similar regardless of how many units they serve. For his part, Ehrman considers a small building to be one of six stories or less. “Small buildings tend to need substantially less maintenance, and can often operate with a staff of just one full-time and sometimes just part-time building superintendent. Larger buildings will have more complex systems, require more maintenance personnel, and when problems occur, they can occur on a grand scale.”

Beyond A/C

As a mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineer, Allan Samuels, managing partner at the Princeton-based Energy Squared, an HVAC and energy contractor, explains that he has worked on condominium projects across the country. “A building needs air conditioning, but also heating and ventilation. These are critical elements. These are the biggest energy users, and as such they require a lot of maintenance.”

These systems are often water-based, he says, and have an average life span of 20 years. “The water for these systems has to be treated and maintained on a regular basis.” If it isn't, Samuels says that can lead to everything from a shortened life span of the equipment itself to health hazards such as mold grown and even Legionnaires disease. To prevent these issues, most systems have chemical additives automatically fed into the system every 24 hours or so.

For air filters, Samuels says they should be maintained every three to four months. “Filters have to be replaced or cleaned, and all dampers checked to ensure they are operating properly,” he says.     

Samuels also notes that health codes generally require that buildings' HVAC systems bring in a certain volume of outside air, so systems must be checked and optimized to make sure those standards are being met. “During the initial design of the building, the plans are scrutinized by [the municipality's] building department to ensure that the correct amount of air is being brought in, but once the system is installed, it’s up to the board to maintain it.”

According to the professionals, the longevity of these systems can vary. A “typical” rooftop HVAC system might only last 15 years. “A reserve study will determine what the useful lifespan of a particular piece of equipment is,” says Samuels. “These systems are like cars. The day you buy one, it goes like a rocket and is really great. As the years go by, the performance of the car deteriorates—and it's the same situation for building systems.”

The Roof Above

The key components for keeping conditioned air conditioned—that is, cool or warm and safe to breathe—are the roof and the building’s envelope. If these systems break down, it can trigger a cascade of other problems.

“The building’s envelope defines the entire outside of the building, which is made of the façade—the outside walls—the roof and the foundation,” says Mitchell Frumkin, PE, RS, CGP and president of Kipcon, a North Brunswick-based engineering firm. “The façade has to protect the building from two things; the first is water intrusion, and the second is air infiltration, which can account for HVAC bills going up by 30 percent, in some cases.”

Water and Waste

One of the benefits to smaller buildings, especially those located in New Jersey, is that the domestic water requirements are often satisfied by street pressure. As a result, pumps or tanks might not be required to provide the building’s water demand.

“If there are no high water levels or drainage issues for this building, then it may not have any sump or ejector pumps which is one less maintenance item to worry about,” says Ehrman. “If this small building operates on a single pipe steam, which they often do, then maintenance of the heating system is rather minimal. As the buildings get bigger, the systems get more sophisticated with more maintenance requirements.”

While plumbing systems generally require a lesser degree of maintenance than HVAC or elevator components, properly functioning water and drainage services are critical for a building to function. To this end, Ehrman says a little bit of maintenance goes a long way.

“At the top of the plumbing maintenance list is knowing your pump maintenance protocols. Some domestic water house pumps, booster pumps and circulators need to be oiled on a periodic basis,” he notes. “A few minutes spent oiling a pump when required can prevent a costly pump replacement and very aggravating system downtime. It is recommended that you review the manufacturer’s literature to verify the maintenance requirements for the pumps.”

Going Up or Down?

For high-rise residents, the importance of a working elevator is a paramount concern. Whereas a new elevator might go several months without a service call, older systems may require a service technician on-site on a weekly or even daily basis. While other building systems might be harder to diagnosis with the naked eye, a broken elevator is plain to see, but even an operational elevator can be problematic. That’s why experts stress the importance of preventative maintenance and rigorous periodic inspections by a licensed professional.

“Elevators are systems that require the highest level of maintenance,” says Ehrman. “So much so that this level of maintenance is not performed in-house by building maintenance personnel. Instead, a multi-family building with an elevator should have a contract for preventative maintenance program with an elevator service company. The primary ailments or problems will be elevator controller issues, door closing problems and car landing issues.”

Getting It Done

At the end of the day, the responsibility of operating a sound building falls to board, says Ehrman. And with board members often in flux, he adds that it is important to remember the common elements of the property are always an association’s duty. Many boards have management companies and/or superintendents overseeing these various systems, but it is often hard to tell with the naked eye what is occurring inside the walls of a building.

“Maintenance is forced on buildings due to regulations,” says Frumkin. Kipcon Project Manager Leonard Tate adds that many issues can be easily overlooked. “With the naked eye, you won’t be able to tell if there has been water infiltration or corrosion occurring. You really need someone with experience inspecting the building envelope.”

Since the board is responsible for ensuring the seamless operations of all building systems, they are advised to maintain a close relationship with not only the property manager but third party contractors as well. “The board of directors ultimately authorizes the work that needs to be done regarding the system maintenance, but the board usually works with the advisement of the managing agent,” says Ehrman.

He adds that a good manager should be able to advise the board with the maintenance requirements for these systems and whether the work can be done in-house. “Quite often, the agent will call on us to work directly with the board on some of the maintenance issues so that details that are often lost in translation are minimized.”

“Since the board of directives represents the building owner, they are usually the first to get an earful if there is a problem, which is why they tend to retain managing agents, so that there is a professional who can perform this management work,” says Ehrman. “Hopefully, the managing agent is proactive with instituting the operations and maintenance programs with advising the board regarding the maintenance needs for a building.”    

W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.

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