PROPERTY OWNERS AND MANAGERS MAY NOT REALIZE IT, but regular maintenance of a building's electrical systems is among their most important duties. Electrical failures are the second leading cause of fires in commercial buildings in the United States behind incendiary sources, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Imagine the cost of snaking new wiring through the walls of a high-rise to replace burnt-out cabling. Then include the toll taken by business interruption, and you're talking about millions of dollars in losses. For example, electrical arcing caused a fire at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, headquarters of NBC, in October 1996 and caused more than $20 million in property damage and business interruption losses.

In a 1996-1997 study, insurance inspectors from The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn., visited 200 New York City buildings to assess the condition of electrical systems. What they found was alarming.

On the outside, the hotels, office buildings and other commercial structures boasted prestigious addresses and elegant décor. But deep inside the walls and basements, much of the electrical equipment that distributes power was in dire need of maintenance. The inspectors found that 25% of the buildings had electrical systems in “critical” or “severe” conditions.

In some buildings, water flowed over the electrical cables and switchgear. Connections were dirty, loose and frayed, raising the possibility of short circuits and electrical arcing. Trash was stuffed inside high-voltage electrical boxes. Cables and other electrical components were overloaded. In some cases, snakes, rats and insects had chewed through wiring and insulation to nest in the warmth of the electrical equipment.

Many of these buildings were public safety hazards with the potential for an outbreak of an electrical fire. More than two-thirds of the building owners were warned about electrical problems that required correction.

Pinpointing The Danger

Hartford Steam Boiler used the experience to develop a risk profile model identifying 12,000 of its insured buildings that appeared to be most at risk. Loss-prevention specialists visited locations and talked with building owners to identify problems and suggest corrective actions.

But how many other buildings are in need of attention? Thousands may be at risk for a fire because the electrical systems haven't been maintained properly.

More buildings than ever are vulnerable to electrical breakdowns and fires. Many technologies need power, increasing the risks of overload as demand for electricity grows faster than a system's capacity to handle the load. Older buildings were not designed to handle electrical equipment, yet new buildings also are at risk.

To make matters worse, equipment interconnects on the power grid. That means a short circuit in a basement can damage elevators in the lobby, office equipment on the 10th floor or air conditioning units on the roof.

Electrical Maintenance Pays Off

Many building owners don't understand that electrical systems require maintenance. Or they assume the condition of the electrical system never changes from the time it is installed. In fact, electrical connections can loosen, and panels can accumulate dirt. Loose connections can short circuit and are responsible for more than 30% of electrical failures. In all, a whopping 75% of all electrical failures can be traced to poor maintenance.

An effective maintenance program includes regular inspecting, testing and servicing of equipment. The first step is a visual inspection by a qualified technician, such as an engineer or inspector affiliated with an insurance company or electrical contractor.

Making repairs before equipment breaks down is cost effective and reduces the risk of electrical fires. In addition, an electrical maintenance program improves equipment efficiency and reduces utility bills. The need for electrical maintenance is clear. The hard part is getting building owners and maintenance personnel to pay attention.

Matthew T. Glennon is assistant vice president with the electrical loss control unit of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn.