Duluth elevators, escalators require safety upgrades

If you use the downtown skywalk system, you've probably detoured around escalator work. And if you were at the Depot during the past couple of months, you probably had to take the stairs because the elevator was being repaired.

If you use the downtown skywalk system, you've probably detoured around escalator work. And if you were at the Depot during the past couple of months, you probably had to take the stairs because the elevator was being repaired.

Get used to it. You'll be seeing more work in the next few years as building owners upgrade their equipment to comply with new state rules.

It's an expensive proposition for building owners. Escalator work can cost $100,000 or more, while an elevator upgrade can be $200,000 -- and a bank of elevators with associated work on the building can run $1 million or more, building owners say.

The work is happening because a year ago Minnesota adopted the most recent national building code, which has new safety requirements for elevators and escalators. No particular incidents prompted the change, but Minnesota did have accidents involving six people whose feet were trapped in escalators last year, said James Honerman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which has jurisdiction over elevator and escalator inspectors.

In general, elevators have four more years to come into compliance; escalators have two years.


Some of the requirements include replacement of single bottom hydraulic cylinders in elevators, restriction of elevator car door openings so they can't open between floors and programming cars to go to the main level when fire alarms go off.

Also, elevators must be handicapped accessible.

Escalators and moving walkways must have a brush-like skirt along the sides so shoes aren't sucked into the side of the escalator.

The state will inspect escalators annually and elevator maintenance companies' inspection records also will be reviewed each year, Honerman said.

At the Holiday Center, heavy maintenance, including replacing steps and the chain that pulls the step up and down, was combined with code work, putting the escalator out of commission for 12 weeks, said Lisa Augustine, general manager of the Holiday Inn.

"I know it's been an inconvenience for some of the folks who work downtown ... but we think it's time well spent," she said.

More recently, workers have been replacing an oil pump as part of the regular maintenance contract, she said.

At Wells Fargo Bank, workers are doing deferred maintenance and updating the 39-year-old escalator to the state code. Although the escalator was shut down because of construction during the winter, work began on the current project about the beginning of April and is expected to be completed in late April or early May.


The building's new owner, Inreit Investment Group of Minot, N.D., will invest about $100,000 in the escalator work. There are similar issues with the elevators, said Sandy Hoff of F.I. Salter, the company that manages the building, "and that's extremely expensive." It will cost $300,000 to $500,000 to upgrade the building's bank of elevators as well as an elevator to the parking ramp and a service elevator.

Owners must figure it into their budgets over the years, Hoff said. "We can't go to the tenants to say, 'We need $500,000 for the elevators,' " he said.

The Depot recently finished "a major, major repair" on its elevator, said Ken Buehler, executive director. The intention was to make it handicapped accessible, but it also required upgrades to electronics, pumps, the shaft and housing, doors and fire alarm system. The cost came to $200,000, Buehler said. However the cost was largely borne by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Large building owners and property managers such as Oneida Realty, which owns or manages 34 buildings that are mostly in downtown Duluth, can work on the upgrades proactively and have large service contracts with elevator companies. Still, the work can easily hit the $1 million mark in some buildings, said Steve LaFlamme, Oneida's president.

Four elevator maintenance companies in Duluth declined comment for this article.

The government doesn't help private building owners pay for the code work, Honerman said, which is why it isn't required to be finished immediately. Industry representatives and the Department of Labor and Industry worked together to come up with the timeline, he said.

So as time goes on, there will be work on almost every existing elevator or escalator in Duluth, even those in schools and churches.

"In the long run," LaFlamme said, "it's going to be safer."

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