All Wired Up? Your Lease Should Have Known Better

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Why has the typical office lease figured this out, but the typical office lease has not? Figured out what, you ask? Getting rid of the old tenant’s cabling when it leaves is what. Notice, we didn’t say wiring. We said cabling. What’s the difference? Cables are for low voltage applications, such as for communications, signaling or alarms. There are also optical cables, often called “fiber” or “glass.” Wiring is for delivering power, generally high voltage (120 volts and up), but sometimes lower voltage.

Why are we writing about cables and not wires? That’s because “abandoned” wires are usually removed, whereas cables, such as computed (Ethernet) wiring are not. Besides that, most electrical wires remain in use after a tenant has left.

Why is this an issue? It’s not only because the National Electrical Code (NEC) requires that abandoned cabling be removed and the NEC in incorporated by references into many local building codes. It’s really because cabling is a fire hazard. Yes, it isn’t because of the electrical current that passes through cables. If it were, then optical cable could remain under the NEC. Cabling is a fire hazard not so much because the insulation will burn, but mostly because burning insulation creates smoke. Think “burning plastic.” Even fire-resistant insulation generates smoke. It may not sustain a flame, but when it encounters a flame, the insulation burns (and smokes).

It isn’t our intention today to write about what kind of “rules” should be made about installing wiring or cabling in the first place, but we do need to mention a couple of things. Cabling can be installed inside raceways. Think “conduit” or pipe, but don’t limit your thinking to round ones. Cables inside raceways pose less of a fire or smoke problem than cables placed in plenums. What’s a plenum? A couple of examples will “draw a picture.” The space above a drop-down ceiling and the floor or roof above is a plenum. So is the space beneath a raised floor.

What makes plenums relevant to today’s blog posting? – simply because in almost all cases, plenums are part of the building’s HVAC system. Typically, cold or hot air will be “ducted” into rooms, but the air returning to the “air handlers” will flow through the plenum. It could be the reverse – conditioned air flows through the plenum into the rooms and ducts “pull” the stale air out of the rooms. That’s why many ceiling tiles have small, nearly invisible pinholes throughout them.

Imagine smoky, burning cable insulation inside a plenum.

Yes, there is such a thing as “plenum rated cable” covered with a material with low smoke and low flame characteristics. Building codes require its use in plenums and it isn’t much more expensive than non-plenum cabling. The labor cost is the same for each. Nonetheless, “plenum rated cabling” is not “non-smoke” or “non-flame,” it is only more resistant. [So, where economically feasible, landlords might want to require the use of raceways even though building codes do not.] Keep in mind; however, it cost a lot to run raceways. They (and chases and risers) are common in office and high rise buildings, and are usually part of the original building’s construction. [Note to sticklers: There may be a technical difference between and among a conduit, a raceway, and a chase, but Ruminations just thinks of them as being big, bigger, and biggest. To us, a “riser” is just a vertical chase even if someone knowledgeable would have a more precise definition.]

As Ruminations has often written, two questions always need to be asked: “Who does the work and who pays for the work?” It’s not simple. You have to think about your particular situation. Absent unusual circumstances, tenants would have financial responsibility for removing what they installed and landlords would have financial responsibility for what was there in the first place. Ordinarily, if a landlord put cabling in for its tenant, the tenant would pay for its removal. As with all things “lease,” bargaining power in each instance will dictate the outcome. Whatever the outcome, be aware that industry sources estimate removal costs to be in the neighborhood of five dollars per square foot. We don’t know how such an estimate can be made without knowing the intensity of the cabling, but that’s what the literature heralds.

Before we Ruminate about “who” should do the work, here is some additional information. The NEC is a minimum requirement and even if a particular jurisdiction’s construction code hasn’t yet caught up with the NEC on this issue (hard as that is to believe), the NEC should be the minimum standard set forth in a lease. We say, “minimum” because the NEC cuts a “break” as to certain cabling. For one, it only requires removal of “accessible” cabling. Its concept is that one shouldn’t have to destroy a building to get the cabling out. That’s a valid general principle, but in any particular lease situation, the parties can identify the specific “trouble spots” and cover those situations. Keep in mind that just because cabling is inside a drywall clad wall doesn’t mean it is inaccessible. [Here’s a little known fact: “Sheetrock” is a registered trademark of the U.S. Gypsum Company; so, use “drywall” in your lease.]

Also, the NEC only requires removal of “abandoned” cabling and has an exception that allows cabling “reserved for future use” to remain. Let’s start with “abandoned.” Basically, a cable that is not abandoned is one that is connected at each end (such as to ports or devices) and is in use or is in place for a bona fide current or stand-by use. You won’t find that definition anywhere in the NEC. So, we’ve expressed our concept of what an “active” cable looks like as contrasted to what an “abandoned” cable looks like. More directly, something is abandoned when it is not in use and there is no intention to use it.

As noted, some “abandoned” cables may remain in place under the NEC – the ones that are “reserved for future use.” We don’t think this a useful exception when a tenant leaves its space because that tenant has no “future use” for the cable. It is possible that a landlord may want to leave one or more cables in place “for future use,” but there are rules. Such cables have to be tagged at both ends. The tags need to say what the future use will be and give the date of such expected future use. Certainly, pretexts or flat out lying is possible, but not really right.

Leases should specifically deal with cable removal. General text such as: “All installations will belong to Landlord (when installed? when the lease is over?)” or “Tenant must remove its personal property…” or “Tenant must remove its trade fixtures” is less than useful. Similarly, if the lease says that the tenant doesn’t have to restore what the landlord has approved as initial work, then it matters whether cabling is shown on the approved drawings or not. Lastly, when you get down to it, it isn’t very easy to decide what is personal property and what is real property (or a real property fixture) when it comes to cabling. If you are interested, click HERE and HERE and HERE for some thoughts about this problem.]

Keep in mind that the next occupant of the space will have no interest in using the existing cabling. It is harder and more expensive to re-route someone’s old cabling. Moreover, cable specifications improve over time. You can bet that a new occupant will install a complete cabling package of its own.

There is a big difference between properties with relatively independent leased premises (such as the typical shopping center or a single-tenant industrial building) and densely multi-tenanted properties such as multi-storied office buildings with lots of offices on each floor. In the case of those office buildings, the tenants need to get their cables to a central connection point such as a utility closet. Basically, those tenants have cables than run over or under other spaces and tenants compete with each other for plenum, raceway, chase or riser space. So, where a particular tenant’s cabling really doesn’t overlap with anyone else’s, it makes sense that the tenant does the removal. That way, it controls the risk and the cost.

In the “tangled” cabling situation, the answer isn’t so easy. No tenant knows what any other tenant’s cables “do.” Pulling out another tenant’s cables would not be a “good thing.” Cutting such a cable could cause serious losses to the now disabled tenant. The smart thing, liability aside, would be for the landlord to do the removal at the departing tenant’s expense. Even smarter would be a requirement that each tenant identify (by tagging or otherwise) every one of its own cables and that the landlord have approval rights over the routing. That means a landlord’s improvement specifications and review procedures have to “think about” the future removal challenge.

If it hasn’t been obvious yet, a lease needs to deal with more than the minimum called for by law. Landlords need to get that cabling “outta there.” So, their leases need to say exactly what will be required. That means getting everything out but for what can remain, not leaving everything but for what is identified.

If local law requires the cabling to be removed, the authorities won’t be coming after the tenant. Ultimately, the property’s owner is responsible for these legal requirements and for the cost of non-compliance. Governmental enforcement may be spotty, but you’ll learn just how many government employees there are when there is a smoky fire and people are injured for that reason. And, then there’s the moral responsibility, something lease negotiators often find convenient to ignore.

Here are our last two thoughts. First, just because it’s already a jungle up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start somewhere. Second, wireless communications make more and more sense.

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