Arizona State University is asking for more time to upgrade 18 of its oldest elevators that state safety officials say have critical — and potentially lifethreatening — defects.
The Tempe main campus eventually will have to comply with statewide elevator standards, at the average cost of $200,000 each.
But ASU officials want to avoid a state mandate to complete the improvements within the next five months, which would force the university to delay other repair projects worth $3 million.
"We inspect our elevators every year and we’ve not had any problems with our elevators," said Scott Cole, ASU deputy executive vice president for business and finance. "We would rather spend that money elsewhere."
ASU’s oldest hydraulic elevators have become a sticking point because of a safety code adopted in 2004 by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The intent is to rectify flaws first identified more than 35 years ago, said agency director Darin Perkins.
These elevators rely on fluid pressure in a single hydraulic cylinder to raise and lower the cars. The most serious concern is if that cylinder fails, all of the fluid could be released at once, causing the elevator car to crash, Perkins said.
In 1971, national safety standards began requiring such elevators to include a steel bulkhead, with a tiny hole around the cylinder. If the cylinder fails, the safety plate ensures the fluid leaks slowly, Perkins said.
But the 1971 standards only applied to new hydraulic elevators, not existing ones, because the chances of failure were rare and retrofits were expensive, even then.
Since 2000, national standards have shifted to require older elevators to be upgraded because the number of accidents across the country had increased over time, safety officials said.
ASU is trying to reduce $100 million in building maintenance that has accumulated over the past decade because of a lack of funding. Earlier this month, ASU sought permission from a committee of state lawmakers to issue $56 million in bonds this fall, on top of $10 million approved last year.
Elevators in 16 campus buildings have been added to the list only because of the 2004 state mandate, Cole said. The occupational safety office originally wanted the elevators repaired by early 2005, but then the agency gave ASU until December.
But Cole said the university needs five years to avoid postponing other critical projects.
Sharing ASU’s skepticism, on July 21 state lawmakers refused to approve adding the elevator project to the campus maintenance plan. Several lawmakers asked why ASU seems to be the only public agency facing such an expensive upgrade, if the new safety standards apply statewide.
But the burden seems to fall more on ASU because the university installed a large number of hydraulic elevators before 1971. Northern Arizona University identified eight elevators affected by the new standards, and has nearly finished upgrading them at a cost of $300,000, said Rick Bowen, NAU vice president of administration and finance.
Phoenix, which supervises elevator standards within its city limits, has about 500 public and private elevators installed before 1970 that need to be brought in compliance with similar safety codes adopted July 1 of this year. Phoenix is giving building owners three years to upgrade, said Larry Litchfield, assistant director of development services.
Under pressure from ASU and state lawmakers, Perkins said last week his agency will offer the university more time as well.