Property owners and managers may eventually face not only frustrated residents and tenants when elevators have to be taken offline, but also a time limit for elevator repairs. Toronto City Council voted at its June meeting to have staff look into the feasibility of establishing service standards to this effect as part of an ongoing review of the city’s property standards.
Toronto Centre-Rosedale Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam proposed the move after fielding a steady stream of calls from residents in her ward complaining about frequent, lengthy and multiple elevator outages in their buildings.
“Some buildings only have one elevator or two elevators, so if that one elevator is down, if you’re pushing a stroller, or you’re trying to push a walker, or you happen to rely on your wheelchair, I don’t know how you’re going to get home,” she says.
The councillor’s motion focuses on establishing service standards for elevator repairs in buildings and housing that serve vulnerable people or people with disabilities. She is calling for an enforceable bylaw that sets clear expectations for property owners and managers.
Coun. Wong-Tam allows that, in some cases, repairs may be held up, for example, by the search for hard-to-source replacement parts. But in most cases, she doesn’t think it’s reasonable for elevators to be out of service for longer than 48 hours, though she adds she will leave it to staff to determine what time limits are appropriate.
“It’s not just about the inconvenience factor — I think we can all handle a little bit of inconvenience here and there — but in a state of emergency, a medical emergency, we need those elevators working,” she says.
In Coun. Wong-Tam’s experience, the problem is most prevalent in older, lower-income buildings. But even well-resourced condominium corporations experience elevator issues.
Indeed, Roger Thompson, executive vice president, Ontario, FirstService Residential, says often, sophisticated new elevators face their share of problems. And that’s after they’ve been rigourously tested, inspected and approved for use.
“During new construction in particular, they might put online one or two of maybe the four elevators, so those are getting used much more, especially with all the construction crews, and one of the concerns is that usage rate is putting more strain on a new system that really hasn’t settled down yet,” he says.
Working for a large property management company, Thompson says elevator repairs come up on a daily basis. He is quick to escalate any major service issues.
“Oftentimes, we’ll have the leadership of the elevator companies come to board meetings to explain exactly what is going on, what’s needed and why there might be consistent issues that are arising,” he says.
When an elevator is down, Thompson says front desk staff and signage will notify residents that a technician will soon be, or already is, working on the issue. If the outage is causing line-ups and residents are visibly frustrated, FirstService Residential may use its mass communication system to send out a resident alert by email or phone so residents know what to expect upon arriving home.
He says a condo board may also want to communicate to residents what is being done to resolve any recurring problems.
“The issue is that all trades in the condo industry are busy, so sometimes it’s difficult to respond to things in a timely fashion because of resource constraints,” says Thompson.
Rob Isabelle, chief operating officer, KJA Consultants, echoes Thompson, saying that the elevator industry in particular is busy. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that an elevator requiring only a minor repair could be turned over in 48 hours, Isabelle adds.
“A majority of repairs can be addressed on the spot, assuming the elevator is no more than 25 years old,” he says. “Within four hours, the elevator should be placed back in service.”
By law, all elevators in Ontario must have a service schedule available on site in order to be licensed. Starting May 1, 2013, all elevators have required a maintenance control program. Instead of continuing monthly inspections, this move included giving elevator companies the flexibility (within established minimum mandated frequencies) to determine the best maintenance schedule for a particular device based on factors such as its age and usage level.
Isabelle still likes the monthly maintenance schedule.
“It gives the mechanic the opportunity to ride each elevator in the building, at least once, and to enter the machine room to find out if there are any smells, any unusual noises, and so on and so forth,” he says.
On average, Isabelle says the rate of callback in the elevator industry is four callbacks per elevator per year. (Callbacks refer to any service visits outside of the maintenance schedule.)
Property managers can be proactive by watching for trends of increasingly frequent callbacks, which signals to the elevator consultant that the root problem is not being addressed. He says increasing callbacks may also suggest an elevator is near the end of its life expectancy — usually about 20 years — or is suffering from accelerated wear and tear or poor maintenance.
When major repairs come up, they tend to take longer to resolve. Elevator mechanics carry fuses and small components in their services vehicles, Isabelle says, but parts such as cables need to be ordered and delivered. Then a busy elevator company may not have a service crew available for a few days.
“It’s not an easy answer to say every elevator should be fixed within 48 hours,” he says. “I think you have to look on a building per building basis to be able to establish guidelines. If it’s a mandatory service building, if it’s a hospital, for example, hospital repairs should probably take priority over office buildings, because they provide a critical service.”
Toronto city staff is expected to report back on its findings as part of the broader property standards review around mid-2015.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.