A number of different codes and standards can apply to electrical systems in rental properties based on their size, use, and location. There’s the National Electrical Code (NEC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the International Building Code (IBC) — just to name a few. The local building authority that governs the jurisdiction in which your property is located has probably adopted some combination of the codes and added a few rules of their own.
The good news is that if the building has been granted a certificate of occupancy, the electrical system meets the requirements applicable to the building type, occupancy load, use, and appliances present. But if as an owner you want to maintain adequate service to tenants and the building’s value for resale, you’ll need to understand its electrical system and enforce a disciplined inspection maintenance plan. Most of the maintenance for your electrical system is basic and involves keeping it clean and dry, but always contact a licensed electrician to perform any repairs, installations, or electrical tests. Do not attempt to work on the system yourself.
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Electrical System Basics
A building’s electrical system starts with a service entrance — the spot where the utility company’s feed joins an electric meter. Since most multi-tenant commercial properties have separate meters, they’re likely to have more than one set service entrance, which can originate under or above ground. Everything on the other side of the meter is the owner’s responsibility.
From the meter, the service runs to a load center — in a multi-unit building, there are more than likely a number of service panels and sub-panels through which power is distributed to various circuits. Each panel is equipped with a main breaker, which is used to turn all the breakers in the panel on and off, and individual circuits are protected with breakers rated for the anticipated loads. To prevent fires, the breakers trip when they sense an overload, short, or other fault on the circuit.
Many larger, multi-unit buildings are required to have backup power systems for lighting, fire alarms, and other critical circuits to keep things safe and comfortable when utility power fails. Backup power is usually supplied by a generator and distributed to service panels with transfer switches.
The table below provides information about the service life expectancy of electrical equipment typically found in rental properties. Some of the items listed are typical components within load systems and lighting circuits; others are typically used in HVAC, alarm, and security systems. To attain their normal life expectancies, electrical systems must be inspected, maintained, and repaired routinely.
Recommended Electrical Inspection and Maintenance for Rental Properties
Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, an influential standard setter, asserts that electrical equipment failures result in millions of dollars in business losses each year as the nation’s infrastructure ages. Two-thirds of those failures could be avoided by adherence to a routine preventive maintenance program, the insurer says. They recommend performing regular preventive maintenance on electrical equipment at least once every three years — or more frequently in moist or dusty environments. Below is a summary of key maintenance procedures.
Equipment Rooms and Switchgear
- Inspect electrical equipment rooms and keep them clear. They should not be used for storage. Electrical equipment rooms or vaults should be kept cleaned of dirt and/or dust accumulations on a regular basis.
- Inspect electrical equipment rooms or vaults for evidence of water seepage. Examine the tops and bottoms of electrical equipment enclosures for evidence of water, since this is a common entryway that often goes undetected until a failure occurs. Identify the source of the water (often a poorly sealed service entrance) and contact a licensed electrician to immediately correct the condition.
- Make sure that enclosure panel doors operate smoothly and close tightly and that any locks and latches are in good working order. Panel doors should be marked with signs or label warning of the danger of live electricity. De-energize panels and vacuum to remove dirt, dust, and debris. Dirt and other buildup that can’t be removed by vacuuming should be cleaned away with a lint-free rag and solvent recommended by the equipment manufacturers.
- Ensure that all contacts are clean, smooth, and in proper alignment.
- Ensure that spring pressures are maintained according to manufacturer’s specifications.
- Clean silver contacts with alcohol or silver cleaner using non-abrasive cloths. Discoloration is not usually harmful to silver contacts unless caused by insulating deposits.
- Manually close the breaker to check for proper wipe, contact pressure and contact alignment, as well as to ensure that all contacts make at approximately the same time. If possible, an electrician should perform a contact resistance test should be performed to determine the quality of the contacts.
Insulators, Supports and Connectors
- Inspect insulators and conductor supports for signs of cracking, broken pieces, and other physical damage or deterioration.
- Clean all loose dirt with lint-free rags. For contaminates that will not remove easily, solvents approved by the manufacturer may be used.
- Examine for evidence of moisture that may lead to tracking or flashover while in operation.
- Examine surrounding areas for signs of tracking, arcing, or overheating.
- Have an electrician repair or replace damaged insulators and supports as necessary.
- Examine all bolts and connecting devices for signs of deterioration, corrosion, or overheating.
- Ensure that bolts and connecting devices are tight according to manufacturer’s specifications. Be careful not to over-torque bolts and connecting devices since insulators are easy to damage and difficult to replace.
- Where copper and aluminum conductors and/or connectors are used together, examine connections for signs of galvanic action. Have an electrician ensure that the connectors are properly used and installed in accordance with manufacturer’s specifications, and apply an antioxidant compound to all aluminum-to copper connections.
- Examine insulation for signs of deterioration, cracking, flaking or overheating.
- Examine all connections for signs of overheating, cracked or broken connectors and signs of tracking or arcing.
- Ensure that conductors are clean and dry.
- Examine and clean all connections and torque to manufacturer’s recommendations.
The recommendations above cover maintenance for equipment likely to be found in relatively simple multi-unit buildings. More extensive inspections and maintenance and more frequent testing may be required for larger properties with complex HVAC, security, and emergency power requirements. It’s good to budget ahead of time for this work and to have all inspections, maintenance, repair and alterations performed by licensed electricians and verified by engineers. Make sure they keep records, pull permits for alterations, and get the work inspected when necessary.
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