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Home > Projects & DIY Toolkit > How-To Articles > When it’s Time to Update Electrical

When it’s Time to Update Electrical

Laura Schlereth

Tenants used to rely on electricity for the basics, such as lighting and kitchen appliances. Nowadays, people depend more on electricity to accommodate their air conditioning, washer/dryer and computer needs, not to mention their elaborate televisions and sound systems. So if you manage an older building, it might be time for an electrical update. We’ll tell you how to decide if you need an update, and the cost, time and labour involved.

Determining if you need an update

There are multiple symptoms of an overburdened electrical system, such as lights dimming unexpectedly, circuit breakers continually tripping or fuses consistently blowing. If the problem does not appear localized to a single unit (i.e. one tenant has six appliances plugged into one electrical outlet), then the issues are usually due to an overall building problem. John Vinken, M.Sc. Eng., CEM, CET, FMP, IFMA instructor and Canadian director of FM Operations for Sun Life Financial, points out that, like most mechanical structures, your electrical system has a life cycle of around 30 years (depending on the building type and size). So if your property is reaching that milestone, and yourtenants are experiencing the telltale symptoms, it’s likely time for an upgrade.

Taking the first steps

The first thing you should do is contact the building engineer or electrical engineering consultant, Vinken says. “They’ll evaluate the load system based on building square footage or number of units and tenants, and then speak to the local municipality to discuss the infrastructure and if you need to upgrade service from the municipal utility company.”

Then it’s time to budget—an intimidating task for any large project. “It’s important to know that the process can be phased,” Vinken explains. The shortest electrical upgrade Vinken typically sees is 12 to 18 months, but “it can be as long as you need it to be based on your capital renewal budget,” he says.

Establishing the scope of work

An electrical overhaul is undoubtedly a complex undertaking, which is why it’s crucial to understand what your unique building requires. To give you an idea of what some electrical overhauls require, here’s a brief list of common updates:

  • New switches, meter banks or panel boards might need to be added or replaced/updated.

  • The utility company might need to add a transformer or two to its lines in front of the building. Or the wires connecting transmission lines to the building might need to be replaced.

  • Additional circuits might need to be added to each apartment as many pre-war buildings have only two or four circuits per unit.

  • Heavy-capacity circuits might need to be installed for heavy-duty appliances, such as air conditioners and dryers.

Luckily, there are some simpler, less costly options. According to Vinken, some lower cost upgrades include installing a whole house surge suppressor, which will protect tenants’ televisions, computers and appliance electronics, or replacing the main breaker with a multi-feed unit that can accommodate an emergency power generator and/or solar power supply.

Considering your green options

As with any project concerning energy, it’s important to note where you can conserve, for environmental and financial reasons. Mike Marchant, P.Eng., CEM, CMVP, manager of CDM Technical Services for electric company Toronto Hydro, says there are many options to explore, such as:

  • Converting to LED lighting.

  • Changing fan, booster pumps and pumps to a variable frequency drive so that they only run when they need to (usually based on a schedule, pressure, temperature or even CO levels sensor).

  • Using occupancy sensors in less frequently used areas, such as auxiliary rooms, common use rooms or corridors.

By implementing energy-efficiency measures that impact electricity use, you’re likely making your building eligible for incentives. “In Ontario, there are common rebate programs across the province,” Marchant says. “I’d recommend property managers to contact their local utility company to see what’s available. But make sure you get approvals prior to initiating the project.”

Facilitating the project

Keeping projects timely is a challenge in the construction industry, but it’s especially important for property managers who must work with tenants. “The first and most important thing is to keep everyone to a schedule so tenants face as little disruption as possible,” Vinken says. “The next important step is keeping the budget and scope of work in line.”

One advantage with electrical work is that it’s highly regulated and code-driven, says Vinken, so you can trust that accurate work is being done if you hire qualified, trained individuals. However, this can also put you at a disadvantage as it can limit the control you have over the project. Consistently communicating with your electrical update team will keep you abreast of any problems or changes. Vinken highly recommends hiring a third-party commission agent to verify the work is being done the way you planned it. You might not have a say on codes, but you do have control over other aspects, such as placement and wiring of outlets, Vinken says.

Without question, an electrical update on your building will make it safer with a lower risk of electrical fires, which also might translate to lower or unchanged insurance premiums. You’ll also make tenants happier, encouraging retention or decreasing vacancy by attracting new tenants. If you haven’t considered an electrical update, there’s no time like the present.

Note: This content is for informational purposes only. Lowe's makes no warranties and bears no liability for use of this information. The information is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal, tax or investment advice, or a legal opinion. Always contact your legal, tax and/or financial advisors to help answer questions about your business's specific situation or needs prior to taking any action based upon this information.

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