Fabrizio Salimbeni, trained as a chef in his native Italy, has been reduced to making spaghetti carbonara on a hot plate. Last September, Con Edison shut off the gas to his circa-1927 co-op building, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. A check of the integrity of the pipes had revealed leaks, and now shareholders have to replace all the gas lines, a huge and costly job that will require breaking into walls all over the building. It also means (along with the aforementioned hot-plate cuisine) ordering food in and sending laundry out. “It’s a lot of time and money, and I didn’t plan it,” he says.
The gas system can be a hidden pitfall of what we all think of as “prewar charm.” Under normal conditions, gas pipes hold up pretty well. But when they’re shut off for a renovation, Con Edison won’t turn them back on without a stringent safety test. Sometimes the rattling of renovation induces new little breaches; sometimes old pipes would’ve actually been unable to pass those tests for decades. It can happen in one line of apartments or a whole building. Either way, owners are in for a lot of unexpected spending.
Con Edison spokesperson Bob McGee explains that connection points are known to weaken during renovations, and older buildings tend to have had more of those than newer ones. “Flex hoses which connect stoves to the building piping can become brittle if painted over, not maintained, or if the stove is moved away from the wall repeatedly,” he explains. It’s “normal wear and tear,” adds Lynn Whiting of the Argo Corporation, which manages dozens of residential prewar buildings. She says she’s seen extended shutdowns happen in their prewar stock only. There’s no denying the hardship, and unfortunately, there’s no recourse—no reduced maintenance payments or abated rents. Buyers of prewar apartments would do well to ask about the condition of the pipes before closing a deal.
There’s only one upside: Once it’s fixed, it’s done for a couple of generations. Another resident in Salimbeni’s building admits, “It’s a pain we’re going through this,” but says it will help make their apartments much more salable. “It could actually work to your benefit. Because you can say it’s prewar, but it’s got new pipes.”