Understanding your building's systems

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June 11, 2024
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Understanding your building's systems


Welcome to the board of your building! As a board member, you've taken on the important responsibility of ensuring your building runs smoothly. While there are many aspects to manage, the two foundational elements are smart financial management and systems maintenance. Understanding and properly maintaining your building's systems not only ensures residents' comfort and safety but also helps with compliance, avoids fines, prevents costly repairs, and makes your building more desirable. In this guide, we break down the basics of these systems, common issues, maintenance tips, and essential questions you should know to be an empowered board member.


How it works

The HVAC system controls the heating, cooling, and air quality in your building. It includes components like furnaces, air conditioners, ductwork, and thermostats. 

Key terms

- Furnace: Heats air for the building.

- Air conditioner: Cools air and removes humidity.

- Ductwork: Channels through which heated or cooled air is distributed.

- Thermostat: Controls the temperature by regulating the HVAC system.

Common issues

- Filters: Clogged or dirty filters can reduce efficiency and air quality.

- Leaks: Refrigerant leaks in the air conditioning unit can lead to decreased cooling performance.

- Thermostat problems: Faulty thermostats can cause uneven heating or cooling.

Impact of issues: If your HVAC isn’t working properly not only will residents be frustrated and uncomfortable, there are basic housing laws that require buildings to ensure minimum temperatures. Additionally, an issue with any of these systems leads to inefficient energy use - wasting money, dollars, and emissions.

  • NYC Heat Law:
    • Minimum indoor temperature: 68°F (20°C) during the day (6 am to 10 pm) when outside temperature is below 55°F (13°C)
    • Minimum indoor temperature: 62°F (17°C) at night (10 pm to 6 am) during heating season (October 1 to May 31)
    • Fines: $250 to $500 per day for initial violations, $500 to $1,000 per day for subsequent violations

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Schedule annual inspections to ensure all components are working correctly.

- Filter replacement: Replace filters every 1-3 months.

- Professional servicing: Hire certified HVAC technicians for regular maintenance and repairs.

Questions to ask

- Is the filter clean?

- Are there any unusual noises or smells?

- When was the last professional inspection?

- Are all vents and ducts clear and unblocked?

Maintenance schedule

- Filters: Check monthly, replace every 1-3 months

- Annual inspection: Once a year by a professional


- Furnace: 15-20 years

- Air conditioner: 10-15 years

- Ductwork: 20-25 years


How it works

The plumbing system includes pipes, drains, fixtures, and appliances that provide water and remove waste. It's essential for daily activities like cooking, cleaning, and bathing.

Key terms

- Pipes: Carry water to and from your building.

- Fixtures: Sinks, toilets, and showers where water is used.

- Drains: Remove wastewater from the building.

- Water heater: Heats water for use in the building.

Common issues

- Leaks: Can occur in pipes, fixtures, or appliances, leading to water damage and increased water bills.

- Clogs: Often occur in drains and toilets, causing backups and slow drainage.

- Water pressure: Low water pressure can be a sign of bigger issues like pipe corrosion or leaks.

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Check for signs of leaks, corrosion, and water damage.

- Drain cleaning: Use drain cleaners or hire professionals to prevent clogs.

- Water heater maintenance: Flush the water heater annually to remove sediment buildup.

Maintenance schedule

- Pipes and fixtures: Inspect annually

- Water heater: Flush annually

- Drains: Clean as needed, but at least once a year

Questions to ask

- Are there any visible leaks?

- Is the water pressure consistent throughout the building?

- When was the last drain cleaning or water heater flush?


- Pipes: 50-70 years (depending on material)

- Water heater: 8-12 years

- Fixtures: 10-15 years


How it works

The electrical system includes wiring, circuit breakers, outlets, and lighting. It powers all the electrical devices and appliances in your building.

Key terms

- Wiring: Carries electricity throughout the building.

- Circuit breakers: Protect the electrical system by shutting off power during overloads.

- Outlets: Provide access to electricity for devices and appliances.

- Lighting: Fixtures that provide illumination.

Common issues

- Outdated wiring: Can pose fire hazards and may not handle the load of modern appliances.

- Tripped circuit breakers: Often occur when circuits are overloaded.

- Faulty outlets: Can cause devices to short-circuit or not receive power.

Maintenance tips

- Professional inspections: Have a licensed electrician inspect the system annually.

- Upgrade wiring: If the building has old wiring, consider upgrading to meet current safety standards.

- Monitor load: Ensure circuits aren't overloaded by distributing electrical load evenly.

Questions to ask

- Are there any signs of wear or damage on wiring?

- Have there been frequent tripped breakers or flickering lights?

- When was the last electrical inspection?

Maintenance schedule

- Wiring and circuit breakers: Inspect annually

- Outlets and switches: Check during annual inspection


- Wiring: 50-70 years

- Circuit breakers: 30-40 years

- Outlets and switches: 10-20 years


How it works

Elevators use a system of cables, pulleys, and a motor to transport passengers between floors. They are essential for accessibility and convenience in multi-story buildings.

Key terms

- Hoist way: The shaft in which the elevator travels.

- Cab: The compartment that carries passengers.

- Control system: Manages the operation of the elevator, including stops and speed.

Common issues

- Mechanical failures: Can occur in the motor, cables, or control system.

- Door problems: Issues with doors not opening or closing properly.

- Slow operation: Can be caused by wear and tear on mechanical components.

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Conduct monthly inspections and follow a strict maintenance schedule.

- Professional servicing: Hire certified elevator technicians for regular maintenance and repairs.

- Emergency plan: Ensure there is a plan in place for elevator malfunctions.

Questions to ask

- Are there any unusual noises or delays in operation?

- When was the last professional inspection?

- Are all safety features functioning correctly?

Maintenance schedule

- Monthly inspection: Check mechanical components and operation.

- Annual professional servicing: Comprehensive check and maintenance by certified technician.


- Elevator system: 20-25 years (with proper maintenance)


How it works

The boiler heats water or produces steam for heating and hot water in the building. It is a crucial component of the building's heating system.

Key terms

- Burner: Burns fuel to heat water.

- Heat exchanger: Transfers heat from the burner to the water.

- Expansion tank: Absorbs excess water pressure.

Common issues

- Leaks: Can occur in pipes or the boiler itself.

- Pressure problems: Low or high pressure can affect boiler performance.

- Pilot light issues: A faulty pilot light can prevent the boiler from igniting.

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Schedule annual inspections and maintenance.

- Pressure checks: Regularly check and maintain proper pressure levels.

- Cleaning: Keep the boiler clean and free from debris.

Questions to ask

- Is the pressure within the normal range?

- Are there any signs of leaks or corrosion?

- When was the last professional inspection?

Maintenance schedule

- Annual inspection: Comprehensive check by a professional.

- Regular pressure checks: Monthly pressure monitoring.


- Boiler: 15-20 years

Cooling tower

How it works

A cooling tower removes heat from the building by cooling water through evaporation. It is typically used in conjunction with HVAC systems to provide efficient cooling.

Key terms

- Fill media: Material that increases the surface area for water evaporation.

- Drift eliminators: Reduce water loss by capturing water droplets.

- Fan: Increases air flow to enhance evaporation.

Common issues

- Scaling: Mineral deposits can reduce efficiency.

- Biofilm: Bacterial growth can affect performance and safety.

- Leaks: Can occur in the tower or connecting pipes.

NYC law

  • Local Law 77: Requires registration, inspection, cleaning, disinfection, and testing of cooling towerssome text
    • Annual certification: Required to confirm compliance with maintenance and operation requirements
    • Fines: $2,000 for the first violation, $5,000 for the second violation, and $10,000 for subsequent violations

Maintenance tips

- Regular cleaning: Remove scale and biofilm buildup.

- Water treatment: Use water treatment chemicals to prevent scaling and bacterial growth.

- Professional inspections: Conduct regular inspections by a certified technician.

Questions to ask

- Is there any visible scaling or biofilm?
- Are the fans and drift eliminators functioning properly?
- When was the last water treatment performed?

Maintenance schedule

- Monthly cleaning: Remove scale and check for biofilm.
- Annual professional inspection: Comprehensive check by a certified technician.


- Cooling tower: 15-20 years

Water tank

How it works

The water tank stores water for the building's use, including drinking, cleaning, and firefighting. It ensures a reliable water supply even during peak usage times.

Key terms

- Tank liner: Material that lines the inside of the tank to prevent leaks.

- Overflow pipe: Prevents the tank from overfilling.

- Sediment trap: Collects sediment to prevent it from entering the water system.

Common issues

- Leaks: Can occur in the tank or pipes.

- Sediment buildup: Can reduce water quality and tank capacity.

- Contamination: Risk of bacterial or chemical contamination.

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Check for signs of leaks and contamination.

- Cleaning: Periodically clean the tank to remove sediment.

- Water quality testing: Regularly test water quality to ensure safety.

Questions to ask

- Are there any signs of leaks or rust?

- Has the tank been cleaned recently?

- When was the last water quality test?

Maintenance schedule

- Annual cleaning: Remove sediment and check for contamination.

- Regular inspections: Inspect for leaks and signs of wear.


- Water tank: 10-15 years (depending on material and maintenance)

Fire extinguishers

How it works

Fire extinguishers are critical for emergency response, allowing occupants to put out small fires before they spread. They contain extinguishing agents like water, foam, or chemicals.

Key terms

- Class A: For ordinary combustibles like wood and paper.

- Class B: For flammable liquids like oil and gasoline.

- Class C: For electrical fires.

- Class D: For flammable metals.

- Class K: For kitchen fires involving cooking oils and fats.

Common issues

- Pressure loss: Can render the extinguisher ineffective.

- Damaged components: Hoses, nozzles, or handles can become damaged over time.

- Expired certification: Extinguishers need regular certification to ensure they are functional.

Maintenance tips

- Regular inspections: Check pressure gauges and physical condition.

- Professional servicing: Have extinguishers serviced and certified annually.

- Proper placement: Ensure extinguishers are easily accessible and correctly placed.

Questions to ask

- Are all extinguishers easily accessible and clearly marked?

- Are the pressure gauges within the green zone?

- When was the last professional inspection and certification?

Maintenance schedule

- Monthly check: Inspect for physical condition and pressure.

- Annual professional inspection: Full inspection and certification.


- Fire extinguisher: 5-15 years (depending on type and maintenance)


As a board member, understanding and maintaining your building's systems is essential for the safety, comfort, and overall success of your community. Regular inspections, proactive maintenance, and leveraging technology can help you manage these systems effectively, avoid costly repairs, prevent fines, and ensure compliance with regulations. Stay informed and vigilant to keep everything running smoothly and make your building a great place to live!

If you've got a good property manager, you're not alone - they’ll create maintenance plan to ensure your systems are inspected, cleaned, and updated proactively. By working together with your property manager and staying informed, you can foster a thriving community that attracts and retains happy residents.

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