Residential managers troubleshoot in flood zone

Toronto power outage contributes to exceptional situation
Monday, July 15, 2013
By Barbara Carss

Commercial property managers watched tenants head out into Toronto’s epic storm last week, while residential managers greeted theirs in dark and sometimes waterlogged buildings. The timing of the early evening storm, floods, power outage and subway system shutdown caught city residents in transit from workplace to home, meaning many highrise dwellers arrived late and bedraggled to face a walk upstairs to apartments with no power or water.

Meanwhile, property managers and superintendents were responding to water in unusual places such as underground garages and elevator pits. A chaotic combination of factors – the power outage idled sump pumps, municipal emergency services rapidly acquired a lengthy backlog of calls and road closures hindered access to many of the hardest hit areas of the city – left many residential managers largely on their own to deal with the crisis.

“I have been a property manager for 35 years. I have gone (through) many fires, floods and bad things that can happen in an apartment building, and I have never experienced anything like this before,” says Steve Weinrieb, senior property manager with Park Property Management Inc. “It was really just me, the property manager and the superintendent. We couldn’t count on emergency services unless we had an outright disaster because there were at least a few hundred calls ahead of us. We really had to count on our own knowledge of the building, its systems and what we could do to protect them.”

In this case, the nearly 24-hour power outage at the company’s 600-unit complex in Toronto’s west end was essentially a secondary crisis to flooding. However, the two incidents were intrinsically linked.

When the storm triggered a massive power outage, a backup generator immediately came on to operate life safety systems, critical lighting and one elevator in each of the complex’s three towers; however, sump pumps were not connected to the emergency power supply so water soon collected in below-grade areas. The hydro vault’s location on the ground floor was likely a saving grace.

“In some apartment buildings, they are located at the underground garage level,” says Weinrieb. “When those big transformers get flooded, you have huge problems.”

Nevertheless, he maintains that sump pumps would have been ineffectual against the intensity of the storm at its height, which dumped approximately 120 millimetres within a few hours.

“There was water spewing out of the storm sewer grates like a fountain just from the pressure, so even if the sump pumps were working there was no place to put the water,” he says.

Although the parking garage was inundated, effective troubleshooting saved elevator equipment from damage. Managers had moved and locked down elevator cabs on an upper floor when the pits first began to fill with water, and once the storm subsided, power was diverted from other systems to get the elevator’s sump pump operational.

“Within three hours, we had an elevator in service. That was important because there are seniors living in the building and some of them were waiting in the lobby,” notes Weinrieb. “The main sump pump, we didn’t deal with until the next day. In most of the garage, the water was up to midway on the wheels of parked vehicles. In a 100-stall garage, that’s a lot of water. From the time we started pumping, to the time we finished, it took a day.”

Turning to other troubleshooting tips, Weinrieb recommends photoluminescent glow-sticks that emit light for eight to 10 hours, and can be taped in stairwells and hallways or given to tenants to use in their units.

“I carry a package in my car and it is a good thing to stock in a building,” he advises.

Emergency plans should likewise account for tenants’ potential lack of preparedness and their need for information when something unexpected and disruptive occurs.

“We did have our (customer service) 310-MAXX line inundated with calls asking, ‘What happened to the power?’,” reports Lachlan MacQuarrie, vice-president with Oxford Properties Group, which manages approximately 3,100 residential units in Toronto.

Proactive management can also provide reassurance.

“I’d say the tenants took it all in stride,” reflects Park Property Management’s Weinrieb. “All the tenants I met – and I met a lot – were polite and understanding that this was an exceptional situation. I think it helped that we were visibly present dealing with things.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies and Sustainability magazines.