Daniel Schnell, at work on a replacement coil assembly.
Photo: Felipe De La Hoz
Coils are a big deal. “It’s a heat exchange,” says Joe Militano. “It goes inside the tank and is probably one of our oldest pieces of equipment.” Militano is the New York City Housing Authority’s director of technical services, working out of NYCHA’s sprawling satellite office on 49th Avenue, just off the LIRR Hunterspoint Avenue stop. Coil assemblies like the one he speaks of, a dozen or more feet of self-coiling tubing mounted in a heavy base plate, are components of hundreds of apartment boilers, providing heat and hot water to thousands of social housing tenants. A lot of them are really old and nobody sells spares.
“As soon as the actual asset – the elevator or the boiler or the heating system – becomes obsolete and has exceeded its useful life, it’s impossible,” said Keith Grossman, senior vice president of support services. to operations. A set of out-of-service coils can and will disable a building’s heating system for days. The same goes for elevator control mechanisms and all sorts of other aging components. Six hundred thousand residents depend on elevators old enough to transport Biggie Smalls and heating systems that kept children warm while their fathers stormed the beaches of Normandy.
They all need to be replaced, of course, but that means finding $40 billion for proper system-wide renovation. (The estimate was 13 billion dollars less than ten years agoillustrating how divestment gets worse as buildings age.) There were no doubt some major management issues, but the original sin here is simple underfunding. The cavalry does not come on the horizon; the feds effectively, to paraphrase a famous headline, told NYCHA to drop dead. So the agency responded with a secret weapon lurking in the basement of this century-old building in Long Island City. It’s huge, a 650,000 square foot former Bloomingdale’s warehouse spread over seven floors. When the agency cannot buy parts, it manufactures them here, in its workshops, often from scratch.
At the center is a CNC machine, a computerized juggernaut that does much of the layout and cutting work that was traditionally done by skilled machinists. (That’s huge: NYCHA staff had to tear down part of a wall to get it inside.) Within minutes, they can drill through solid steel plates in the precise configuration to hold the tubes copper that form the basis of building heating systems. . Between the CNC machine, a high-tech lathe, and old-fashioned bench tools, NYCHA can not only make the base plates, but also shape and tune the coils that actually heat the water, re-groove the coils giant poles that hold back elevator wires, and even experiment with making non-NYCHA giveaways when other agencies need them. Javier Almodovar, Senior Director of Heating Management Services, holds up a prototype fire hydrant wrench his team is building. “A bestselling article,” he says. When it needs small elevator parts, like relays and operators, the agency refurbishes or rebuilds them instead of making them new.
The array of outdated technology that NYCHA must maintain is put in place on the second floor of the building, where banks of elevator controls are installed. Filled with buttons, wires and flashing lights, they regulate every part of an elevator’s operation: specific logic circuits will prevent doors from opening if certain conditions are met, controllers will adjust its speed, and more. The newer controls, with all their functions built into a motherboard-style controller board, are perhaps a quarter of the size of nearby 1990s models. “It’s important to continue training people on this type of equipment because it’s still around and it’s not going away anytime soon. We wish there was some of it, but it just isn’t, so we have to keep it going. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it can’t work well,” says Richard Sullivan, Senior Manager of Elevator Services.
Next to all the equipment, incongruously, is a row of classroom chairs facing a whiteboard. This is part of the teaching station, where elevator mechanics take courses on this array of systems spanning multiple generations. Ron Hall, who became a trainer here after years as a supervisor of elevator crews, explained that the machines allow instructors to create specific problems that student mechanics must then solve. He stands near a command panel made in 1993, eight feet tall and imposing, and shows a series of plastic buttons bearing a dizzying array of blue labels. “These are plug-in relays. Everyone has their own purpose,” he says; they control the doors or stop the car if a weight limit is exceeded.
Joey Koch, NYCHA chief of staff who previously held Grossman’s job, said the agency has been trying to manufacture or refurbish components for discontinued systems for as long as it has had discontinued systems, but the choice to buy the expensive CNC machine came three years ago, after a 2019 the elevator outage at the Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx lasted for months. Apart from general infrastructure issues, including a leaky roof, the breakdown “was related to the fact that this part was needed. And we had a machine and we had machinists, and they were making it, but it took days,” she said. Now, specific custom parts can be made much faster, sometimes in minutes. Heating coil base plates take a few hours. The stakes are a bit higher than a name on a leaderboard; the efficiency with which these tasks can be performed could make the difference between an elderly resident being able to leave their building on a given day or not.
The people overseeing these processes – including Richard, Joe, Ron and Javier, all powerfully built with laid-back demeanors and an affinity for short-sleeved button-down shirts – all have long experience in the agency. They oversee a handful of machinists, including a specialist who manages the CNC machine, and around 400 elevator technicians and assistants deployed throughout the city. Despite the headwinds, executives approach their work with a mixture of pride and a sense of duty. NYCHA residents will blame them for outages they can’t do much about, and every minute a system goes down is put at their feet. They and their bosses must also contend with shifting political management and legislative scrutiny. During this time, they will continue to manufacture and service the parts.
As impressive as the manufacturing and renovation processes are, the ultimate goal is to make most of this shop obsolete. “In the private sector, you redo your elevators every 15 or 20 years,” Koch said. Until then, even successful repairs can directly lead to further problems. Koch gives the example of the Berry Houses on Staten Island: “The 60-year-old boiler works wonderfully, but the steam pipe that brings heat to the apartments, also 60 years old, is collapsing and has never been replaced. You can have a whole new boiler and now you have more steam in the pipes – the pipes are starting to decay,” she said. “Until you are able to have the funds to thoroughly examine the building and the systems, you are going to be in trouble.”
Among the programs trying to address this issue are the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program, which is transferring some NYCHA buildings to a semi-privatized ownership structure, and the newly created Housing Preservation Trust, which will place some developments under the control of ‘a public. society, leaving the residents themselves to register or not. Both are efforts to secure Section 8 funding for capital improvements, with the probably correct understanding that federal Section 9 funding for public housing has dried up for good.
It remains to be seen how well these arrangements can work in the long term, but Koch hopes they can finally free up the capital to make real reviews. Until then, the stores will remain busy. At some point, however, even parts refurbishment and routine maintenance are likely to generate diminishing returns. “If we can’t do what we’re doing anymore, and the elevator goes out in a senior building?” It’s catastrophic,” Koch said. What happens if a system fails permanently, beyond the critical care capabilities of this team? There is a moment of silence before Koch replies, “I don’t think we know the answer to that question. We don’t want to know either.