Cable Removal's Myriad Questions

As much as 8.5 million miles of abandoned cable will, sooner or later, be removed. Who pays? How will it be done? What will go up in its place? Such questions emanate from new requirements in the 2002 National Electrical Code. Answers will come in time.

“Easy” is not the right word to describe network cabling since 2000. Recently, it’s become even rougher in some areas, but not for economic reasons.

“Basically, with the decrease in new installations, 80 to 90 percent of our member’s VDV business is in moves, adds and changes work,” said Mary Germershausen, director of systems technology for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). “But that work is different now. Inspectors are very concerned about the abandoned cable removal requirement.”

This major change is following the 2002 National Electrical Code around the country. As states and local municipalities adopt the new NEC as law, Articles 770.3 and 800.52 kick in—requiring the removal of datacomm cable that is not in use or “tagged” for future use.

A December check with the International Association of Electrical Inspectors found no leeway being granted: “It’s being enforced,” an official there told ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR.

What’s the problem? That’s the wrong question. There are many problems here—some already evident, others still obscured.

Sticking it to the landlord

A first question would be why the world needs this. The answer is fuel load. According to one source, every 1,000 feet of datacomm cable represents more than 10 pounds of fuel for a fire.

Further, there are toxicity issues with the cable. Many electrical and fire professionals remember the MGM Grand fire of 1980. Some of the dead were found on that building’s upper floors, where absolutely no fire damage occurred.

If toxic chemicals reduce a person’s ability to react to danger—or kill us—it follows that the source should be removed from a building.

Real estate people don’t disagree, but some are aflame about this requirement. Complaints most commonly relate to the lack of notification. Of course, the NEC is revised on a three-year cycle; that news apparently hasn’t reached certain quarters.

Here’s the nightmare scenario:

A tenant plans to move onto a building’s Floor 3.

The tenant wants Category 6 cable; Category 5 is in place.

The contractor, estimating the datacomm job, notifies tenant and landlord that the Category 5 cable must be removed.

Who pays?

One answer is the previous Floor 3 tenant. It is possible, however, that the lease does not make the departing tenant responsible for cable removal. It is also possible the cable was not installed by that tenant; some of it might even have been put into place without the landlord’s say-so.

Another answer is the incoming tenant. If you are thinking that is unrealistic, you’re correct; removal of existing cable has been a major sticking point in at least one significant lease negotiation.

Obviously, the landlord is most likely to pay. One result: The Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA) held a two-hour audio seminar on this subject in December 2003. The listening audience was estimated at 750 to 1,000 people.

Health and safety issues

One issue that hasn’t yet emerged is electrical worker safety. But Frank Bisbee—one of two BOMA audio seminar instructors—thinks it will.

“Older cable has problems,” said Bisbee, of Communication Planning Corp. (and “The PVC jackets degrade and you have this kind of ‘chalky’ surface. That surface usually contains high levels of lead. If the electricians are removing it, the contractor should exercise proper precautions—in accordance with OSHA and EPA guidelines in handling and properly disposing waste materials containing lead.”

Lead accumulates in the human body and never leaves. It is toxic. It is a bad thing to have in your lungs, even in small concentrations. It is not water-soluble. Bisbee offers a subsidiary horror story: If lead gets on an electrician’s clothes, it “won’t come out in the wash.” In the family laundry, that lead might end up on everyone’s clothes.

Contractor Don Thomas of Cinco Electric, Glen Burnie, Md., a member of NECA’s national VDV Task Force, notes that inspectors in the Baltimore/Washington area generally were “pretty adamant” on this subject.

“In some of the old buildings here, the cable we’re pulling out isn’t even plenum-rated,” he said. “Baltimore is an old city. There are still houses here with knob-and-tube.”

 Removal Difficulties

Informed about the possibility of a lead problem, Thomas said his company had worked in lead environments before. “We’ve done work in lead recycling facilities,” he said. “Our electricians were in paper suits, gloves, and a mask. We did blood tests on the workers to make sure they were OK, before we started work there—and during.”

Lead isn’t the only problem. Which cables should be removed? What happens if, in the process of removing the abandoned cables, an electrician, apprentice or other worker employed to do this yanks out a wire or cable that should not have been pulled?

Another problem: In older buildings, some abandoned cable may be located in places where it cannot be removed without disturbing “stable” asbestos.

Can electrical inspectors be relied upon as a guide? NECA’s Germershausen said the electrical inspectors she has talked with “want—and need—to know how they are going to inspect these jobs.”

She also noted another problem: “The electrical inspection budgets of a lot of municipalities have been going down over the years. A lot of the inspectors are part-timers who work just three days a week. For them, this is an enormous can of worms.”

‘An impossible situation’

Worse, sometimes the question of who pays for removal has no Earthly answer. Internet Service Providers, Independent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) and Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs) installed cable in many high-rise buildings. Many of these companies went bust, are in the bankruptcy process, or are financially weak.

Under the law, these companies had the right to access these buildings (to offer tenants datacomm and telecomm options). In many cases, owners were not paid for the access.

The entity that put the cable in is gone. The landlord may not have been paid a cent for allowing access to the building; it seems unfair to make the building owner pay in such a situation. The outgoing tenant isn’t responsible; the incoming tenant won’t be burdened. In these cases, there really appears to be no answer.

Randy Thompson of Cushman & Wakefield of Texas told the Dallas Business Journal: “Some of these companies [the ISPs] are in bankruptcy. So the fire marshal says it has to go, the tenant looks to the landlord to get rid of it, and the landlord says, ‘We can’t touch it, because we don’t own it.’ When you start peeling the onion back, you can find an impossible situation.”

Obviously, if no one will pay for the removal, it is unlikely that the cable will be removed. Does that mean that potential cable upgrade jobs will be canceled by building owners and/or tenants? Thompson has been quoted to the effect that, in one particular situation, the cost of abandoned cable removal (in this case 50 percent of the cost of a network cabling installation) caused a prospective tenant to walk away from a lease.

It would appear that Thompson is only half-right. The abandoned cable removal onion not only has many hidden layers, but, like a vegetable from another dimension, some of the layers may well materialize over time.

For example, lead is a controversial metal. Lawsuits over lead exposure could be troublesome to those employing cable removers. Note that an investigation of a major electrical contractor in the line construction was recently initiated over the 35 deaths it has had in its work force in 30-plus years. Is the company doing enough on safety? If such questions can be asked about line work, it won’t take much in the lead arena.

Is there possible “lead” liability for datacomm cable manufacturers and distributors as well, or are they off the hook because the cable was neither designed nor distributed with removal in mind?

If a contractor finds abandoned cable during an estimate, reports it to the owner, and the owner doesn’t want to pay to do anything about it, what happens next? Should the contractor—ethically—walk away?

At a BICSI conference several years ago, a government affairs meeting included the bizarre recommendation that contractors simply “tag” the abandoned cable for future use, thereby getting around the removal requirement. Is this somewhat unethical practice being followed by “door slammer” contractors, giving them an additional cost advantage?

In places where no permits are needed to do voice/data/video work, what are the chances that an electrical inspector will even know about a given datacomm installation, upgrade, or MACs job? In such places, couldn’t datacomm contractors safely ignore the 2002 NEC requirements?

Know-how matters in cable removal; an unskilled worker might well pull the wrong cables (resulting in still-higher costs). But with the industry fast approaching a skilled electrician shortage, is removing cable any way to use skilled labor?

Another issue: Disposal of the cable. Bisbee claims there is a slow movement (following the removal requirement around North America) by owners of municipal solid waste to reject loads of abandoned cable because of that lead content. Will this have to be treated (and disposal paid for) as hazardous waste?

Finally, many of the costs provided thus far (see “Fact Sheet” sidebar) are for cable removal without special equipment. The equipment that Cinco’s Thomas suggests comes with a cost, of course. But by adding removal to a datacomm installation, we have already added more time to get the work done. Doesn’t the workers’ wearing of this equipment (especially gloves and mask) also slow down the job?

Additional questions will occur. If cable now installed in plenums is losing microscopic pieces of lead, aren’t people working in the building inhaling tiny pieces of lead every day? That particular question might interest battalions of lawyers.

Another question is: If the cables we’ve used have these problems, which cables should we use? That’s the subject of another story. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at


About the Author

Joe Salimando

Freelance Writer
Joe Salimando is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at .

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