Where Older Cables Are Abandoned, Fire, Health, Liability Hazards Lurk

Where Older Cables Are Abandoned, Fire, Health, Liability Hazards Lurk

Phone and IT Cables in Office Ventilation Plenums Can Fuel Fires and Create Toxic Smoke

National Electric Code Requirement: Abandoned Cable Must Be Removed

  Abandoned Cable Must Be Removed

Take a flashlight and peek above the drop-ceiling tiles or below the raised-floor tiles in most any office. Often there’s phone and IT cable, a lot of cable: Live mission-critical voice and data arteries coursing alongside abandoned, forgotten cables from several generations of earlier technology systems, previous tenants, or both. The live cables appear indistinguishable from the abandoned ones.

It’s understandable how so much cable accumulates over time, like successive layers of sediment. But significant fire and health risks accumulate as well.

Those safety risks have prompted National Electric Code (NEC) requirements for the removal of abandoned cable. While addressing safety concerns, the NEC requirements establish liability risks as well for building owners and tenants where abandoned cable is concerned.

Updated every three years, the National Electric Code is issued by the National Fire Protection Association and typically adopted and enforced by states and municipalities. The NEC requirement to remove abandoned low-voltage technology cable was first issued in 2002. It has been updated and clarified in subsequent editions of the code.

Cabling as Fuel for Office Fires and Toxic Smoke

The plastic insulation used in cabling can fuel fires and create toxic smoke in the office ventilation plenum spaces above dropped ceilings and beneath raised floors. Even before 2002, the NEC had established strict testing and performance standards for plenum-certified cabling to minimize how readily a cable will catch fire, fuel a spreading flame, and create toxic smoke. Despite the safety benefits of those plenum-certified standards, the sheer volume of cabling in typical office ventilation plenums still poses significant fire-safety risks, prompting the NEC requirement to remove all abandoned cable.

Unlike UL-listed plenum-certified cabling, cheap, uncertified cable that is imported from unidentified sources can be especially hazardous for high flammability and toxic smoke potential.

Safety is further compromised by the presence of lead in cable insulation, both in uncertified cabling and in older versions of plenum-certified cabling, used to make the PVC insulation more pliable and more chemically stable. If the PVC insulation breaks down over time, it can disburse lead dust in ventilation plenums, creating an indoor air quality hazard.

The removal of all abandoned cable, along with the use of lead-free, UL-listed plenum-certified cabling in any subsequent installation, eliminates significant risks and helps ensure compliance with fire safety and other building codes.

How to Create a Cable Fire Hazard: Innocently, Unwittingly

Innocently, Unwittingly

The hazards are common because cable typically was abandoned without a second thought. Technicians snaking cable through ceilings, walls, and floors for a new technology installation typically knew what was needed for the job at hand, but had no practical way of assessing the pre-existing cable at the jobsite, and usually they were never asked to address pre-existing cabling.

The uncertainties and risks of disturbing abandoned cable are several. A cable thought to be abandoned could easily be a misidentified and turn out to be serving a live, working system. In cases where previous cable layers were carefully and professionally designed, installed, and documented, the documentation may be out of sync with subsequent one-off modifications. Or, the crucial documentation could have disappeared entirely with a previous tenant, IT vendor, or staff member.

Where the two ends of a single abandoned cable are positively identified, it’s still risky to pull it from hidden spaces: The abandoned cable could be tangled with live cables that might be damaged in any removal effort.

In so many circumstances where new cable was installed, the easiest and most expedient course was to abandon pre-existing cable in place. This was also the safest way to avoid disturbing existing operating systems — while, unfortunately, compounding risks to the buildings and the people in them.

Now those dangers are codified and must be addressed. Any disconnected low-voltage cables that are not identified for future use must be removed. This NEC requirement applies to voice, data, audio, coaxial, and fiber-optic cabling. Simply tagging all abandoned cables “for future use” won’t cut it as a code-compliance work-around. Any “future use” cables must still conform to current safety codes and certifications, and they must provide performance levels suitable for credible future applications.

Whether owners or tenants, violators may be subject to government sanctions. Additionally, a record of such violations can affect loan covenants, access to insurance, and liabilities to victims in the event of a fire.

Who’s Responsible for Cabling? Building Owners? Tenants?

Although the NEC details what must be done with respect to technology-system cabling, it doesn’t establish who is responsible for addressing these concerns. A general consensus is that, in the absence of any expressed agreements, building owners are primarily responsible. But, through lease agreements, office tenants can be held responsible for the installation and removal of cabling within their spaces.

In the best circumstances (which aren’t necessarily the most common), responsibility for technology cabling, as well as the crucial vertical cable riser shafts, is clearly delineated among the office building’s owner, tenants, and communication service providers. The telephone and IT closets on each building floor typically provide the physical and responsibility demarcation points for all parties.

In the office buildings where technology infrastructure and access are managed by Rockefeller Group Technology Services Inc. (RGTS), such responsibilities for cabling are carefully specified to protect the safety, service access, competitiveness, and best interests of the building and each of its tenants.

The Best Time to Act: During Construction or Renovation

During Construction or Renovation

The best time to address abandoned cabling is during a major office construction or renovation, when obstacles to cable-path access and visibility are minimized. This is also the time when building inspections and code enforcement actions are most likely.

Cable Abatement Service from RGTS

Because many office locations have several generations of cables snaking through floors and ceilings, the task of distinguishing between functioning and abandoned cable can be difficult. But RGTS has the expertise, developed over three decades of experience, to survey a client’s facilities, inventory and document the cables that are in use, and remove abandoned cables with minimal disruption to business operations.

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