Going Up? Maintaining Elevator Safety

If you’re a board member, a manager or just a unit owner of a typical New York City-area co-op or condo, chances are you use an elevator every day, except if you live in a “garden apartment” complex in one of the outer boroughs or the suburbs. We’ve all seen those elevator inspection reports, but chances are that we don’t think about the inner workings of elevators very much. And it seems like the only times that elevators make the news is when something goes wrong, like the time a Chinese-food deliveryman was stuck for three days inside an elevator in a Bronx high-rise.

But if you look at the elevator, it’s a technological marvel, something we couldn’t do without. Like the automobile, it’s a fairly recent development. There have been elevator-like hoist devices throughout history, but in 1853, American inventor Elisha Otis invented a freight elevator equipped with a safety device to prevent the elevator from falling in case a cable broke. This increased the use of elevators. And when, around 1920, New York City finally allowed the use of self-service elevators in apartment buildings, as opposed to those operated by elevator operators, the number of apartment houses built with elevators grew dramatically.

How They Work

Today, there are basically two types of elevators in use—hydraulic and “rope-driven.” If you’re thinking in terms of a rope similar to the one you used to climb in gym class, however, you’re way behind the times—today’s rope driven elevators contain six to eight lengths of wire or steel cable. These cables are attached to the top of the elevator cab and wound around a drive sheave in special grooves. The other ends of the cables are attached to a collection of metal weights equal to the weight of the car and a little less than half of its rated load. The counterweight slides up and down the shaftway on its own guide rails.

Chains or cables loop through the bottom of the counterweight to the underside of the car to help maintain balance by offsetting the weight of the suspension ropes. Guide rails that run the length of the shaft keep the car and counterweight from swaying or twisting during travel. Rollers are attached to the car and the counterweight to provide a smooth ride along the guide rails. An electric motor then turns the sheave. These motors are able to control speed, and allow for the elevator's smooth acceleration and deceleration. Signal switches also stop the cab at each floor level.

In a hydraulic elevator, the car is lifted by a hydraulic-fluid driven piston mounted inside a cylinder. The cylinder—containing oil or a similar substance—is connected to a pumping system. The pump forces fluid into the tank leading to the cylinder; when enough fluid is collected, the piston is pushed upward, lifting the elevator car on its journey. When the car is signaled that it is approaching the correct floor, the control system will trigger the electric motor to gradually shut off the pump. To get the elevator to descend, the control system will send a signal to the valve operated electronically by a switch. When the valve is opened, the fluid flows out into a central reservoir, and the weight of the car and its cargo pushes down on the piston, driving more fluid out and causing the cab to move down.

Rope elevators are generally much more common than hydraulic elevators in the New York City area, and, says Kenneth Breglio, president of BP Elevator in the Bronx, they are more practical for low-rise than for high-rise buildings. One famous group of hydraulic elevators can be seen at the former Abraham & Straus (now Macy’s) store in Brooklyn.

Many of the most recent improvements in elevator design are safety-based, particularly in the newer computerized, solid-state systems. One device mentioned by Breglio is a rope gripper—if an elevator should move on its own (because of an error), the rope gripper will sense this and grip the cable, preventing it from moving further. And in general, in newer solid-state elevators, the car won’t move unless all the circuits are operating and all the doors are closed. Of course, computerization can give rise to its own errors—this reporter was once in an elevator heading to the ground floor when, sensing a signal from an upper floor, the elevator hovered for a second or so, then changed directions and headed up!

In general, though, today’s motors, drives and controls are more efficient. Modernization makes it more difficult to get parts for older elevators, and indeed, some of the older elevator companies are out of business. Together, these are good reasons for recommending upgrading, according to Anthony Giordano, vice president of Vertical Systems Analysis, a Manhattan-based elevator and escalator consulting firm.

Keeping Them Safe

In New York City, it’s the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) that has jurisdiction over building elevators. Donald Gelestino, president of Ver-Tech, an elevator company with locations in Manhattan and Queens, points out that the elevator codes originate with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The city then “enhances that code,” and the DOB has the final word.

All in all, not only are the codes very complicated, but they’re constantly being updated and modified. The professionals interviewed for this article strongly recommend that board members and managers find a qualified, licensed elevator consultant to help them keep their elevator equipment up-to-code and rule-compliant. “Retaining the services of an elevator consulting firm for witnessing, scheduled maintenance audits, proposal reviews, preparation and competitive bidding of modernization and maintenance contracts will keep the owners, property managers and superintendents up to date with all aspects of their elevator/escalator equipment,” says Giordano. He adds that performing one or two hours of preventive maintenance per month per unit is considered the industry standard.

As far as the frequency of elevator inspections is concerned, regulations that have been in force since 2009 state that in New York City, elevators have to have a basic test/inspection known as Category One every year and a more complicated test known as Category 5 every five years. (The regulations are somewhat different for hydraulic elevators.) Over and above this, several of the professionals interviewed for this article recommend a monthly maintenance program. In addition, building residents and managers should report if something, in Breglio’s terms, “doesn’t look right”—perhaps an elevator that habitually stops an inch or so higher or lower than the outer elevator door.

What happens during a test? According to Giordano, a Category 1 inspection and test includes tests of all safety devices (no-load test), all cables used for suspension, compensation and governors; the entire hoistway; clearances; alarms, communication devices and emergency lighting; and general housekeeping (the machine room, pit, top of the car).

A Category 5 test includes the above plus test weights to verify full load, full-speed operation of buffers, car safety devices and tripping speeds; electrical equipment, 125 percent of the rated load tests; and the ability to break and slip traction. Category 1 tests take about two hours per elevator, and Category 5 tests typically take a minimum of five hours, Giordano says.

If a Category 1 test turns up a relatively minor problem, such as a sheave/bearing noise, the elevator contractor has 45 business days to correct the condition and must file an “affirmation of correction.” In the event of a serious or hazardous condition, though, the elevator must be immediately removed from service, repaired, and restored to service only after it is retested and verified.

One of the biggest changes in the recent past, according to Gelestino, is that the DOB, since the overhaul of regulations in 2009, now requires inspections to be witnessed by a third party (in addition to the building owner/manager and the contractor.) In the past, your regular elevator contractor was able to do the test and certify it himself.

Now, “Every year you have to have two sets of eyes writing up the deficiencies of the elevator,” he noted. He added, however, that this makes things “a lot safer.”

What about costs? Giordano says that if not already covered under the terms of a maintenance agreement, elevator contracting fees will range between $800 and $1,000 for Category 1 inspections and $1,600 to $2,000 for a Category 5 inspection, per device. Gelestino adds that in general, inspections for larger freight elevators and auto elevators (such as those found in parking garages) cost more than the typical residential elevator. “It’s the same with high-rise elevators,” he says. “Inspections for them are more expensive than the seven-stop Brooklyn and Queens elevator.”

What are some of the most common problems affecting New York residential elevators? According to Breglio, “Doors get the most wear.” Their problems, he says, can include door locks not making contact, the outer (hallway) elevator door not being in sync with the door on the actual elevator cab, and more. Think of all those times when you’ve seen people holding the door open by force so that someone can else get in (although this situation, at least to this writer, seems to be decreasing because of newer, electronic elevators with motion-sensing devices). Over time, those things are bound to have consequences.

Gelestino says that in his experience, one of the most common problems are the effects of brown-outs (when Con Ed reduces, but doesn’t completely shut down, power to a building or neighborhood). In these situations, many elevators just shut down. Another is one we’ve already mentioned—when the bottom of the elevator door opens an inch or more above or below the actual hallway door. He called this a “mis-leveling” of floors.

Training Needed

So where do elevator repair and maintenance people get their training to deal with all this? Many of the manufacturers themselves give technical training classes to field personnel, and a lot of the companies give their own in-house classes. And here in New York, a union stronghold, much of this training is given through the unions. In New York, there are two locals related to elevators: International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1, which covers the people who actually build and install the elevators, although some also do maintenance and repair; and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, whose members do maintenance, modernization, testing and inspection.

Local 1 for example is urging approval of Assembly bill A08359, (i.e., the Elevator and Escalator Safety bill), which requires the licensing of persons engaged in the design, construction, operation, inspection, maintenance, alteration and repair of elevators and other automatic people moving devices and creates the New York state elevator safety and standards board. The bill was referred to the Assembly’s Labor Committee but has not been voted out.

According to DOB regulations, to become an approved elevator inspector for a private company, someone must have a minimum of five years working in the assembly, repair, installation, maintenance or design of elevators.

There are many sources to check out licensed elevator contractors: co-op and condo organizations; review sites; the union locals, and of course the pages and directories of The Cooperator.

If you live in a building with more than two or three floors—and here in New York City that’s most of us—you have an elevator...or wish you did! If your building is equipped with one, it’s vital for both livelihood and value that it be kept in top-notch operating condition. With good everyday upkeep, regular professional maintenance visits, and prompt attention to any abnormalities, your building’s elevator will be on the up-and-up for decades to come.

Raanan Geberer is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City.

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2 Comments

  • I really appreciated the information. I had not thought about all the work that is put into keeping the elevators in check. Thanks for writing the article for all of us to read.
  • Does anyone know where I can get step-by-step instructions on how to do a Category One Test (Load Test), on a Hydraulic elevator & escalators?