Don't Gamble with Abandoned Cable

There’s a problem that is either right in front of us or lurking around the corner.

The problem involves data communications cabling above drop ceilings in commercial buildings—some of that old cable has been accumulating in ceiling spaces for years and years. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is doing something about it—it’s a possible life/safety hazard to people inside those buildings if that space is used as a plenum (part of the air distribution system). Read on to see what you can do as a contractor to help your customer and yourself at the same time.

Included in the recent changes to the National Electrical Code is a new requirement to remove abandoned cable that was accepted into the sections on fiber cabling and communications cabling. Here is the NEC’s definition of abandoned cable, followed by two revised sections of the 2002 NEC where the new wording appears (shown in italics):

Definition of Abandoned Cable

Article 800.2 Definitions

Installed communications cable that is not terminated at both ends at a connector or other equipment and not identified for future use with a tag.

Article 770 Optical Fiber Cables and Raceways

770.3 Locations and Other Articles

(A) Spread of Fire or Products of Combustion ... The accessible portion of abandoned optical fiber cables shall not be permitted to remain.

Article 800 Communications Circuits

800.52 Installation of Communications Wires, Cables, and Equipment

(B) Spread of Fire or Products of Combustion ...The accessible portion of abandoned communications cables shall not be permitted to remain.

Since the NFPA produces the National Electrical Code, Panels of the NFPA meet twice every three years to propose changes for the next NEC to come out. Right now, panel members are compiling comments for the 2005 NEC. That “Report on Comments” is planned for mailing by April 2, 2004 and will also be available on their Web site.

As for any new changes to the abandoned cabling issue, from what I have seen so far, most involve being sure this requirement is included in appropriate sections, and that removal is required as long as the cable is “accessible” (versus cables run through raceways). Essentially, this requirement appears to remain—i.e., abandoned cables need to be removed if accessible and not terminated, tagged or labeled.

How would this be enforceable?

• The applicable part of the NEC has to be adopted by the city/municipality involved.

• The municipality may choose or not choose to enforce that section of the NEC.

Verify this in your area. If it is enforced, and a contractor goes up into that qualifying ceiling space and finds abandoned cable and chooses to ignore its existence and continue with an installation, it could be a serious problem.

• In many cases, the removal of the “abandoned cable” could be a consideration for the permit being granted by the municipality.

Why is the abandoned cable there?

From a tenant or building owner’s point of view, removing abandoned cable has been seen in the past as more of a job than it was worth. There could have been so much cable lying on the drop ceilings that they didn’t want to delve into it and risk injury or disconnecting a critical network’s operation. As long as there was room in the space above the drop ceiling to run new cable, services could be added without taking out the old.

One problem that could result is the hiring of substandard contractors or untrained corporate staff to remove or cut the “abandoned” cable. Such people might remove the wrong cables and put the corporate business in jeopardy (disconnecting the main PBX cable could disable the entire phone system), resulting in:

• Loss of revenue from sales calls not being made/received or the possibility of shutting down corporate communications.

• Loss of security from a company’s security system being disconnected.

• Loss of market value due to shut down in analyst communications.

In addition, the added fuel load was not a big concern years ago. As we look back today, some of those accumulated cables could have had jackets of a composition that added to the fuel load making combustion more probable—a definite safety hazard.

So why remove it now?

Just think of how much cable has been accumulating in ceiling spaces in buildings across this country—millions of feet?—billions of feet? Some of that cable may have been mounting up for more than 30 years. The liabilities identified above have been with us for some time—the new NEC has served to make them apparent.

You can’t afford to debate removing abandoned cable. If the municipality in which you are working is enforcing that part of the Code, you had better find out if the cable has to be removed.

Who is capable of removing any of this qualifying “abandoned cable?” An experienced contractor can handle this work. It is not an easy task and will probably take time to ensure the right cables are removed. Describe what you saw in the ceiling and your removal procedure so the customer will know you know what you are doing.

Some of the types of cable that can be in the ceiling are:

• Electrical cable (including the PBX power cable)

• LAN (data) cable

• Phone cable

• Security cable

• Fire alarm cable

• Video cable

Let the customer know you have a way to estimate the cost of removal. Figure out what you can base it on—whatever seems most legitimate to you.

The building lease probably accounts for this by its duration and terms—that is between the building owner and the tenant. What the contractor can do is be very cost specific to the removal (separate it from any other install/retrofit work) because the level of uncertainty for removal is probably much greater than installing new cable.

Ways to look at an estimate

1. Make the point clear that if that Code is enforced in their area, they must remove it.

2. Look at how many users there are now and maybe in the past. Another way would be to look at the different categories of LAN cable up in the ceiling. The object is to come up with a reasonable total for the average number of terminations you will probably be removing.

3. Base your estimate on that number and come up with your labor (including profit) cost.

4. Find out if there are removal compliance and/or other costs that apply in your area. Then confirm that your customer wants you to remove and dispose of the old cable.

5. Be sure to include any other ancillary costs such as equipment rental, number of people to do the job in the time allotted, etc.

6. Get your price estimate accepted, remove the cable, and hopefully your final bill will come in under your estimate, making everyone happy.

As a contractor, your primary goal should be to educate your customers and employees as to their responsibilities.

• Have a company philosophy regarding this issue.

• Make your customers aware of

1. Present and future NEC requirements

2. The 2002 NEC and if it is being enforced in their area, the abandoned cable has to be removed

3. Complexities and costs of removal

4. Cable disposal issues

5. How the working cable must be labeled to remain in the ceiling space

• Always present this as a solution to a real problem ... if it is not in the Code today, it probably will be tomorrow, and it may be cost effective to act now.

• Stand by your work.

• Discuss with Cities and/or Inspectors what is in the 2002 NEC.

The solution

Removal is a much-needed solution to an often unsafe situation. It is easy to describe this, yet much harder to get people to act on it. It all comes down to if/how this is enforced and the cost. Alert your customer so they can decide what to do and whether or not it is required now or will be in the near future.

In the end, you will be saving the customer time and aggravation. They risk:

• Non-compliance with a safety code, if it is adopted in their jurisdiction.

• Possible injury to people or firefighters in the event of a fire or from toxic materials associated with the abandoned cable.

• Injury to people below the ceiling that could collapse due to accumulated cable weight.

The potential problems are serious; the solution is possible. Remove the abandoned cable. EC

MICHELSON, president of Jackson, Calif.-based Business Communication Services and publisher of the BCS Reports, is an expert in TIA/EIA performance standards. Contact her at or


About the Author

Marilyn Michelson

Freelance Writer
Marilyn Michelson, president of Jackson, Calif.-based Business Communication Services and publisher of the BCS Reports, is an expert in TIA/EIA performance standards.

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