What Goes Up … Must Break Down

ElevatorElevators may be the most complicated and expensive asset in your building. Fix your contract, know the basics and minimize legal risks before your community finds itself out of order.

The passenger elevators in a 90-year-old, 62-unit, 16-story condominium complex in Chicago were so small and vintage that residents often used the freight elevators. Unfortunately, the freight elevators had never been renovated, and down times became so frequent the buildings’ doormen were regularly called to help residents who got stuck when elevators malfunctioned. The doormen left their posts, walked up several flights of stairs and got the elevators working again.

The board was concerned its up-and-down problem could affect its otherwise positive image and harm unit sales. It finally decided to do something about its failing elevators.

Once work began, the association faced months of logistical challenges, including forcing residents to use only the tiny passenger elevators and coordinating new resident move-ins.

It wasn’t easy, and it cost $500,000. “But the end result was the elimination of many problems that had plagued the building for years,” recalls the association’s former manager Lou Lutz, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president of Chicago-based Realty & Mortgage Co.

If there are elevators in your community, chances are they’re the only means of easy access to some units and potentially the most expensive and maintenance-intensive commodities you own. From the simple—faulty call buttons and debris in the door tracks—to the complex—not leveling with the floor—and the dreaded breakdowns, elevators can create disgruntled residents and legal problems.

“Community residents and guests ride in them every day, and they expect that the elevators are safe and well maintained,” says Marc Rodriguez, CMCA, assistant director of management services for Association Services of Florida.

Outages are usually difficult to track and, according to Rodriguez, it’s hard to get a clear explanation of why problems persist.

In addition to the mechanical problems are the people problems: improper use, abuse, vandalism and then panicking when elevators stall.

Steve Wright, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, general manager of the Watergate at Landmark in Alexandria, Va., recalls the hysteria when a resident got trapped in an elevator in the middle of the night.

“The person didn’t read the control panel and overlooked both the alarm button and emergency phone,” he says. “He began screaming and didn’t stop until the fire department opened the door some 25 minutes later. Even the presence of other residents (talking to him) outside the elevator cab couldn’t calm him.”

Elevate your Contracts

Lee Rigby, president of Tallahassee, Fla.-based Vertical Assessment Associates, cautions associations to beware of standard service contracts. He says contracts should be full maintenance, which means the association would pay a flat monthly fee no matter the repairs or parts that need to be replaced.

Lutz recommends contracts specify that service be performed within a few hours of a request during normal business hours and days, and that they detail expectations for evening and weekend response times.

Elevator contracts also should stipulate that:

  • All mechanical or electrical maintenance and repairs—everything from light bulbs to large pump loaders—be included.
  • Expensive parts replacement cannot be deferred until the contract terminates.
  • The contractor spend a certain amount of time on site when performing preventive maintenance. Callbacks and repairs should not count toward the time requirement.
  • The company submit a log documenting the reason for a visit, arrival and departure times, service performed and parts replaced.

Rigby recommends associations review the logs periodically and keep them on hand for reference. “Newer elevator safety codes require that some of the maintenance and repair records are to be retained by the building owner for five years,” he says.

Some experts also suggest retaining an independent elevator consultant every three or four years to review the machinery, service and maintenance records, the level of service being performed and the remaining useful life of the equipment. At the least, a consultant should examine operations several months before a contract expires to ensure all appropriate maintenance and parts replacements have been completed.

“The association will be assured that the work they are contracting for is done properly and that they are not over-paying for unneeded services or upgrades,” Rodriguez says.

Contracts should be prepared by or reviewed by the association’s counsel. They typically include a list of excluded services that aren’t covered; those exclusions can significantly increase maintenance costs. Boards should be familiar with those exclusions and what it may cost for those services to be performed.

Lift your Knowledge

Some associations can rely on building engineers or facilities managers to be the experts on elevator maintenance, repair and replacement, but not all have that luxury. Board members and community managers should know at least a few basics:

  • The procedure to follow in case of a power outage, malfunction or entrapment.
  • What building maintenance staff can do. By code, only licensed individuals can perform elevator maintenance and repairs. Without a license, staff typically can clean debris from door tracks, clean the electric eyes or electronic edges, and check for stuck operating push-buttons.
  • The parts and services included in your contract.

Rigby warns that some contractors recommend modernization when it may not be necessary. He recalls when an association was told to replace elevator door detectors as a solution to cabs staying at a floor for a long time with the doors open.

“The proposal from the elevator firm was for several thousand dollars,” Rigby says. “As it turns out, not only were the devices covered under the maintenance agreement, but they weren’t the cause of the problem.”

So, how’s a board supposed to know when there’s a serious need for renovation or replacement? Your independent consultant can confirm the contractor’s recommendations.

“The major clues for serious repair will come from the amount of calls that have to be made to the company,” Wright says. “The number of outages, especially those involving trap calls, will play a big part in our discussions with the maintenance company.”

Annual inspections also provide a good indicator; any findings should be included in the association’s reserve study so that the board can be sure it has enough money set aside for major repairs and replacements.

Downgrade your Risks

Elevator experts stress that associations be aware of—and stay in compliance with—local laws and codes regulating elevators. Some local governments employ their own elevator inspectors who conduct annual safety code assessments; others may require the association to hire a third-party inspector.

Proper insurance coverage, an up-to-date registration and documentation of events and maintenance are important, especially because a significant number of liability claims are filed due to incidents that occur in or around elevators. If there’s any abnormality in operations, take the elevator out of service and call your service provider.

“Elevators pose a safety risk for all if they aren’t properly maintained,” Rodriguez says. “The association needs to be mindful of its liability if licensed and insured vendors aren’t used or if repairs are shoddy. Associations also can face large fines from the local building department if work isn’t done properly.”

If an elevator ever causes harm to a person, the association could be liable, warns Jodi A. Konorti, an association attorney in San Diego. “This is why associations need to follow a proper inspection and maintenance schedule, and promptly repair defects and operational issues as soon as boards become aware of them.”

Another consideration: accommodating the elderly and disabled.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to renovated and new elevators and has provisions for handicap access, such as cab door width and call station height. Usually, state and local laws have grandfather provisions in their elevator codes. If major repairs or renovations are planned, however, the association may need to accommodate the ADA.

Rigby says the ADA notes that isolated or temporary interruptions in service are unavoidable. “However, failure to take prompt action on repairs could constitute a violation of federal laws,” he says.

If elevators are shut down for long periods of maintenance, the association can assist disabled or elderly residents by arranging for the elevator to be in supervised service at a certain time of day, says Rodriguez.

Matthew W. Gaines, an association attorney with Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks in Massachusetts, believes a board should even consider paying for living accommodations for the disabled and elderly when an elevator is out of service.

“The board doesn’t have to pay for the resident to stay at the Ritz, but it also shouldn’t be the cheapest hotel in town,” he says.

By Dana Wilkie 

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