Don’t Guess – Know Elevator Maintenance

We have all had the experience: your car just stops going. The engine revs, but you just don’t go forward well at all. You “baby” it as best you can to your local mechanic, he hooks it up to a zillion diagnostic gizmos with plugs and wires, he updates the operating system, performs all the recalls and finally, after the plethora of the clamps and diodes are removed and the computer goes dark, your car is pronounced good to go. The problem is when you pick the car up, it makes it home, but the next day isn’t good to go at all. As a matter of fact, the vehicle isn’t going anywhere.

Guess what? Misdiagnosis.

Now you have to trudge back to the garage, make arrangements again to have it worked on, line up a ride and get ready to argue the bill.

In the world of elevators, building owners and managers see the same thing. The elevator is busted, a frantic call is made, tenants are freaking out and your phone is lit up like a Christmas tree with complaints. When the repair guy finally shows up, because you have seen this movie before, you strategically place yourself in the repair guy’s most likely path, with arms folded and foot tapping impatiently.  He fidgets with his tool belt as he walks, acting as if he is all set to dive in. As he nears, knowing that he can’t avoid a conversation, he spits out an excuse, a weak apology about being late and then says, “It probably just needs to be reset.”

Here we go again.

Then the waiting game begins as you pace like a striking teamster; all you need is a placard stapled to a strip of pine wood. When he finally emerges from the machine room door an hour later, he says, “All done, must have had a power surge.” After thank you’s all around and a hearty hand shake, he exits the premises. But then, not an hour later, it breaks down again. By this time it is after hours and the response is not so prompt.

DISCLAIMER: Before I go any further I just want to say that the vast majority of elevator mechanics are extremely capable and competent. I am talking about the small minority.

What was the problem? For some reason, the elevator mechanic was just guessing. The other options are limited. Either something else broke that miraculously presented the exact same symptoms, or the technician is just not that bright. So let’s be generous and assume incompetence instead of ignorance. How do you respond?

Rock and a hard place.

Let’s face it: at the time the elevator mechanic is in charge as only he can get the elevator running right then.  Only in extreme cases (or never) should a verbal confrontation ensue.  However, the next day, if you have seen this pattern repeatedly, specific actions should be taken:

  1. Contact the company that maintains the elevator. Go over the head of the elevator mechanic, other technicians, the sales guy or the dispatcher.  Especially if this has not been a one-time affair, consistent problems require a manager or owner of the maintenance company. Don’t settle for less.
  2. Don’t discuss the matter over the phone in detail. Instead express your displeasure and schedule an in-person meeting on your premises. If they won’t schedule a visit, it will show you how much they really care about your business. Skip to number 9.
  3. Prior to the meeting, review your contract! Know what you signed on for, before the meeting.
  4. Document, if you aren’t already keeping a list of ongoing problems and failures, costs associated, poor service, and failures of service do so or compile one. Check the elevator log in the machine room for visits and notes regarding the unit. Make a complete list of issues that need to be addressed.
  5. Don’t accept an apology until the problem is resolved. Far too often, the apology is just a tactic to diffuse a situation. It seems to be in everyone’s current customer service playbook. Instead, when someone starts with, “I understand how you feel, and I am sorry…” cut them off! Explain that the most important part of the apology is making the aggrieved party (you) whole. Sorry’s can be handed out, when the problem is fixed. “I’m sorry” has become meaningless, and the easiest words to speak in the English language.
  6. In the meeting, address the immediate situation first. Keep in mind, it is OK to ask for a different technician. Not all are created equal and you might have drawn the short straw when it comes to mechanics.
  7. Once the immediate problem has been resolved, start working on the longer-term or systemic issues.
  8. Take good notes, record action items and email a list of duties going forward so everyone is on the same page.
  9. Most importantly, regardless of how things have gone, send a certified letter to the elevator maintenance company and indicate that you wish to terminate the maintenance agreement. This will prove you are serious and give you leverage when negotiating future contracts. Also, if things prove to be an ongoing problem, then you have officially served notice. Keep in mind in most cases your letter will not kick in for a few years! That’s right you are tethered to this company for a while, but the certified letter will severe you relationship when the contract is up. Then you can find another, hopefully better company.

If you follow these steps, you at least can have a plan when it comes to the few times that there is consistent poor service provided.

 

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Kids, iPhones, Technology, and Elevators

hal-gatewood-336679-unsplash
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Just seeing a small child with a cell phone drives me a bit crazy.  Maybe I’m getting old, but have you recently had to have a one-on-one or heart-to-heart with a young child or even a teen that is holding a cell phone? Because they are trained so young and distracted, rest assured the conversation will be a bit one-sided. You will see glazed-over eyes darting back and forth and fingers fiercely and frantically, fleetly flying from icon to icon. Forget finding depth of soul or a modicum of understanding. It is a wasteland of mumbles and stares and epitomizes the bane that is technology.

Based on the above, it is easy to see how the Luddite movement took hold among the English textile workers in the 19th century. They were so upset with technology and potential lost jobs that they vowed to destroy the weaving machinery in factories as a form of protest. Count me as  modern day Luddite. But before we smash the latest IPhone on the alter of dissent, we need to rethink the value of technology, because, whether we like to admit it or not, technology has and always will be a net-plus.

Technology increases productivity, employment in the long-term, wealth and knowledge. It makes our lives easier, in many respects, and often times better.

Take the example of a technology we rarely consider anymore because it is so common place: the lowly elevator. It is arguable that when Elisha Otis had that famous rope cut that was suspending him above the crowd on a platform at the New York Crystal Palace exposition, 1853 World’s Fair and it did not fall; the world changed forever.

Since then, New York and thousands of other metropolitan areas were literally able to grow “up”.  Before the safe elevator, the growth of cities was relegated to horizontal space or how high a person was willing to walk up, one step at a time. After old Elisha, the push of a button made it easy and quick to be whisked away to a different floor, sometimes hundreds of feet higher, in a matter of seconds. Even the term “skyscraper” was not in use regarding buildings until the elevator made it possible.

So why is this important? We are living in an age that has embraced the technology of elevators so much that we barely notice it anymore. “Ding” and we step in; of course unless the “out of order” sign is taped to the hall call. So when that elevator is down, it is more than an inconvenience.  We expect to push the button and to go up or down with ease and we are disappointed, and even angered, when it does not work like we want. When broken, we are forced to trudge up a flight of stairs or two. Oh, the inhumanity!

So, as a building owner or manager, making sure the elevator runs properly is a big must. People are relying on that technology probably more than a teenager and a phone, and the taller the building, the more reliance.

To make sure the elevator is functioning properly with precious few shutdowns, you have some work to do. You must stay in contact with the elevator company. They are more than a friendly face that pops in occasionally, they are your maintenance partner.  Hold their feet to the fire because your relationship with the users (your tenants and visitors) are reliant on them.  The elevator maintenance personnel must be able to do the following:

  1. Diagnose – If it takes multiple times to get the problem figured out, there is a problem. Are they diagnosing or guessing?
  2. Explain – No one wants a problem but when there is one, a courteous explanation is required. They must be willing to take the time, go over the issue, and explain it all.
  3. Solutions – Solving the problem is a must. Constant guessing and return trips shows a lack of experience or ability.
  4. Fast – The maintenance provider should be willing to stay longer and work harder when needed. No one should stand for a slow-motion repair.
  5. Honesty – This is often reflected on the bill. Sometimes, if you don’t keep tabs, you end up paying for dropped tools, long lunches and nap time, instead of repairs.

If you suspect a lack of ability in any of the above, send a certified letter canceling the service contract. You probably should do that anyway, so you won’t get stuck with another five year contract you can’t get out of and that has automatic rate increases (but that’s another blog post). Sending the cancellation letter will not get you out of your current woes; however, it will serve notice with your provider. Secondarily, open a line of communication. Don’t just rely on the person that shows up to do the job, to relay concerns, especially about them! Likewise the scheduler at the office is probably the wrong person to contact about your concerns. Start climbing the ladder. Eventually you will get someone that cares about your problems. If not, then aren’t you glad you cancelled?

 

 

Recently modernized elevator car. New fixtures and interior are just part of a modernization.

Tips – Dealing with an Elevator Modernization

Recently modernized elevator car. New fixtures and interior are just part of a modernization.
Recently modernized elevator car. New fixtures and interior are just part of a modernization.

The cost of a complete pit to roof-top machine room makeover can easily run in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the total travel distance, type of elevator, and work to be done. But writing the check is just the tip of the hatred iceberg.

Why the hate? Because modernization comes with a myriad of problems. As the building owner or manager, you have to make all sorts of decisions and accommodations, coordinating the intricate dance of building tenants with elevator personnel. Some need to get in and out and others up and down. Schedules have to be merged, communications opened, storage areas coordinated, parking and unloading allowed, inconveniences avoided, and ruffled feelings assuaged. Patience is the watchword, as modernization work can drag on from a couple months to often over a year. In that time span, patience can wear as thin as crepe paper. Then the anger and hate sinks in as reasonable people become less so.

It is best to snuff out the reason for the hate before you get hip deep, and proactive communication and understanding can keep you from that point of burning rage. Two lines of communication need to be opened, maintained, and nurtured, first to the tenant and then to the elevator company.

The Tenant

For the manager and building owners, it is important not to forget the tenant. These are the people that the elevator folks seem to forget to the point of being considered a near nuisance. The elevator techs feel that the tenants want in or out of the building in the middle of a crucial aspect of the elevator work, or that they interrupt the work with questions and complaints. However, it is important to remember that they, the tenants, are in essence paying for the modernization, as their rent is where the funds come from. But too often, their concerns are ignored or given the back seat. In both apartment buildings and office complexes, reliance on the elevator is the reality for the people who use and pay rent in the building.

Keep in mind that early on, for a day or so, hoofing it up a flight or two doesn’t seem all that inconvenient.  But a week and a couple bunions later, you’ll see the best of tenants question the need for the new elevator equipment and wonder why it is taking so long. Be aware, of this and go the extra mile in communication and convenience. Part of that is being ready and willing to discuss the following in an open and forthright manner if you are the building manager or owner:

  1. Why the update is needed. Is it safety? To bring the elevator up to code? Both? More? Be ready to explain everything, warts and all, pluses and negatives.
  2. The timeline agreed to. Nothing is worse than mentally preparing yourself for a big inconvenience and then having it drag on for weeks past the promised deadline. Give updates often.
  3. The noise. Let the tenants know that working on an elevator can be loud. There is sometimes drilling and hammering involved and heavy equipment being moved.
  4. Dust, dirt, and grime. Let the tenants know that, although every effort will be made to contain the mess, some will sneak through. It is a work area.
  5. Tenants’ needs. Ask how you can help your tenants out or if they have a significant need on the horizon. Sometimes it is nothing more than hiring some strong backs to do extra lifting or getting a hand truck.
  6. Safety.  Remind your tenants to follow directions and signs that warn of dangers.

The Elevator Contractor

There is a similar list for dealing with the elevator contractor. Often they will hedge, but a reputable and experienced elevator company will be able to give you the following information:

  1. An honest timeline in writing. A day or two leeway is nice and forgivable, but beyond that and you should lower the boom. If the contractor is off the target more than a couple days, they either don’t know what they are doing, didn’t do a good job with the site survey, or didn’t follow the Modernization Checklist produced by NAEC. The bottom line is that if they are days or weeks off, it is not your fault but theirs. Let them know about it.
  2. A list of your responsibilities. This should be contained in the contract you sign. Highlight them and make sure you are not the problem. If you promised the contractor after-hours access, then you must provide for that. If you promised them onsite storage, then you must give it to them. Don’t get in the way of the job finishing on time.
  3. Special concerns or needs in writing. Memories are short, so don’t rely on yours. Also, no contract is carved in stone. Add anything that you want to make sure you are clear on compensation and to see to it that the concerns are addressed.
  4. Comparative contracts. Let’s just say that you need to keep everyone honest. Sometimes they all come in close, but watch out if one is really low. They could be missing something big. Check what they are going to do in comparison to what the other companies are offering in writing–not just a nebulous “replace jack,” but each step and item required.
  5. References. No, really, check references.
  6. Non-propriety parts. Proprietary parts are nothing more than a gun to your head for a lucrative, one-way maintenance agreement with the installer. Don’t budge on this point; non-proprietary parts will cost you more in fees and maintenance over the life of the unit than the cost of the unit itself overall.

I know these lists of pointers cannot fully extinguish the angst of dealing with a modernization, but I certainly hope it helps. Whether we like it or not, every elevator will need updating at some point. So take your time, consider how you can help, and drop the hate.

A view from under the elevator car of an in-ground jack.

Hydraulic – Don’t Believe What You Hear

A view from under the elevator car of an in-ground jack.
A view from under the elevator car of an in-ground jack with the piston extended.

Rumors are not relegated to the far reaches of society or the hoi polloi.  They can encompass the middle and upper classes, sometimes making the chatter even more believable. This idle talk can be about subjects as innocuous as elevators. One of the fabricated tales often heard by those in the periphery of the elevator industry is that hydraulic elevators are bad for the environment. This old canard is based on out-of-date technology and just plain old poor information, but yet the rumor still survives. Just like JFK assassination theories, stories of aliens visiting with Donald Trump in the White House, and Hitler living in Brazil with Elvis, the persistent fable rears its ugly head all too consistently. The truth of the matter is that modern hydraulic elevators pose no real threat to the environment and to say otherwise is a prevarication of the worst order.

However, true anti-hydraulicists often echo this line as if from the mouths of angels:

The elevator will cause the groundwater to be infiltrated by the poisonous oils that make the elevator go up and down. These contaminants will travel through underground aquifers to the local lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers, thus choking off fish and other wildlife and harming children that swim in them. 

In reality, the facts about hydraulic elevators tell a much different story:

In ground hydraulic jack

Hydraulic elevators go up because hydraulic fluid pushes a piston or plunger inside a jack up by a motor and pump in a tank.  This causes the elevator to rise when you push a button. That much is true. It is also true that the jack can be in the ground. What the fear-monger fails to mention is that now elevator jacks are all encased in heavy PVC piping that catches any leaks.  No fluid will reach the ground, the groundwater, or the rivers and streams. Because the jacks are not in dirt or groundwater and because the casing is plastic, they tend not to rust out at all, giving decades of reliable service. 

Yes, but what if the the jack breaks, then the PVC fails? What then?

Well, believe it or not, hydraulic fluid has changed over the decades, and when a new hydraulic elevator is installed or the oil is changed, a biodegradable oil can be part of the package. For instance, AgriTech produces soy-based hydraulic elevator fluids that are designed specifically for use in elevator hydraulic systems for pressurized fluid. This oil is anti-wear, non-corrosive, and high performance.  But just as importantly, this oil is truly green and renewable. 

Another reason that hydraulic elevators are safe is that many hydraulic elevator jacks aren’t in the ground anymore. It is true that some jacks are still in ground. It is often the best option, depending on the travel distance of the elevator. But now for most operations between two and four stories, you will find two jacks that work in tandem to push the elevator to the desired height. These jacks are sitting on the bottom of a four-foot-deep, concrete elevator pit that is under every commercial elevator. The tops of these jacks are attached to a sling on both the sides of the elevator car. From there, even if there is a leak, it will never be more fluid than the pit can hold. If the sump pump tries to pump out the oil, many jurisdictions require an oil/water separator.

So you can see, the elevator industry has evolved, making the product safer for the elevator-traveling public and the environment. One hopes that once and for all, we can dispel the myth of the dangerous hydraulic elevator.

Traction Elevator Safety – A True Tale

Empirestate540**Disclaimer: Read to the end. Don’t stop halfway through, no matter how much you want to, or you will regret it.

The date was July 28, 1945. The time, 9:40 AM. The city, New York. A thick fog blanketed the five boroughs, and the buzz over the fog shrouded skyline was that of a two-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber winging its way to New Jersey from Bedford Army Airfield in nearby Massachusetts. Despite warnings of zero visibility, Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith Jr. pressed forward with the mission of transporting personnel.

Simultaneously, a 20-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver, originally from Fort Smith, Arkansas, was on duty in the Empire State Building, on the 80th floor in the #6 elevator.  Elevator operators were common in the 40s. They were almost always young women that had graduated from a charm school, and they did more than just punch buttons. They were expected to know the building inside and out so they could guide visitors to the right floor and represent the building owner to the public.

Miss Oliver was in the elevator when suddenly, the building shook, and the sound of crushing metal and disintegrating bricks and mortar filled the foggy air.

The disoriented pilot had hit the Empire State Building at the 79th floor, tearing a gaping 18×20-foot hole in the north side. The building was immediately engulfed in flames from the fuel, and pieces of the plane became projectiles.  Shards of glass and metal filled the air up and down 5th Avenue. One of the engines landed a full block away, while the other engine and some of the landing gear were thrown into the elevator shaft, where they  plummeted to the bottom. Miss Oliver was ejected from her post in the elevator car, suffering burns, a broken pelvis, and broken vertebrae in her neck and back.

The flames were doused quickly, and rescue teams entered the building, searching for survivors. Betty Lou was found in a pile of rubble, and although in significant pain, she was still alive. She received medical attention and was placed in an elevator to be evacuated to the ground floor. But then things went from bad to worse.

The engine and landing gear that had fallen down the elevator hoistway had hit the cables suspending the car, severing them in the process. When the button for the first floor was pushed and the elevator doors closed, the elevator car plummeted 79 floors to the basement.

This still remains the only elevator car fall due to a complete cable system failure. A standard elevator contains several cables (up to eight), and each can hold the weight of a fully loaded car. Also, there are braking systems in place that stop the cables if there is a problem. Unfortunately, the problem in this case was that there were no cables still attached to the car. So only in this extremely rare occurrence, when all of the cables failed simultaneously, would a fall ever occur. That is why, despite movies and horror stories, elevators are one of the safest modes of transportation in existence.

According to ConsumerWatch.com, “U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips per year.” All of those ups and downs result in about 27 deaths annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That works out to a fatality rate of 0.00000015 per trip. If you exclude people who pry open elevator doors and fall in the hoistway or who intentionally misuse the elevator, or elevator techs, then that number goes down even more.

So, what happened to Betty Lou Oliver, the woman injured in a freak accident only to face death again? Believe it or not, she survived. The thousands of feet of elevator cable cushioned her descent, letting her live another day and many more after that. She recovered in less than eight months and even went back to the Empire State Building to ride to the top once more. She then returned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with her husband, Oscar Lee Oliver. She had three children and seven grandchildren and died November 24, 1999, at the ripe old age of 74.