What to know about upgrading your electrical system when renovating in NYC

How to stay up to code and on budget when upgrading your electrical system during a major renovation.

When undertaking a major renovation, many New York City homeowners might not anticipate the time and expense required to upgrade their apartments’ electrical systems. Especially in older buildings, it’s unlikely that your current set-up is in line with the city’s electrical and energy codes, and you might also need to increase your electrical load to handle new appliances. 

Electrical work can be complex and daunting to the average homeowner, but with the right design-build team, you can rest assured that your project will be delivered with everything in place and up to code. 

“Because no two projects are alike, we always provide homeowners with detailed custom sketches and transparent cost estimates so that they’re clear on exactly what needs to be done to bring their vision to life,” says Fraser Patterson, Founder and CEO of Bolster. “And our team is highly experienced in dealing with the complexities of upgrading electrical systems in New York City apartments.”

Read on to find out what to expect when revamping your home’s electrical system. 


Electrical code changes

The city’s electrical code has been updated several times—most recently in 2011—which means that even homeowners living in relatively new buildings shouldn’t assume that their electrical systems are up to date.

“If they are living in a newer building, most homeowners think it’s modern, the wiring will be up to date, and electrical will be a snap,” says Bolster Architect Agustin Ayuso. “But even in the simplest kitchen renovation, there are often still costs associated with rewiring, even if all looks pristine from the outside.”

Some of the changes made to the electrical code over the past 15 years concern the placement of outlets on kitchen backsplashes, the wiring of circuits, and other nitty-gritty details that will require homeowners to undertake significant updates, especially in their kitchens and rooms where new appliances will be installed.

“This will affect the layout of cabinets and how you shift appliances and counter space around,” Agustin says. “You’ll likely need to add outlets, which means hiring an electrician and getting permits from the Department of Buildings.”


Energy code changes

“Whenever you’re doing a renovation that includes updates to the lighting, the city’s energy code also kicks in,” Agustin says.

The code is designed in part to prevent overuse of electricity; it requires that residences have light switches in every room so that owners and renters have control over their lighting. The code also discourages the installation of inefficient incandescent fixtures and instead encourages LED and compact fluorescent lighting. Appliances, too, are regulated through the EPA’s Energy Star program, which has a list of approved products for homeowners.

Before construction is underway, your architect will help you to choose appliances and products that will be in line with the city’s energy code. Know that it’s unlikely you’ll even encounter appliances that aren’t energy efficient: “You can’t go to the store and buy the kind of refrigerator you would in 1972,” Agustin says. “They just don’t make those anymore.”

Furthermore, the inspection that comes at the end of a renovation will ultimately determine whether everything is up to code.


Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

When your architect submits your renovation plans to the DOB for approval, one of the first elements of your plan they will look for is that your apartment has enough smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and that they are in working order.

City law requires that each unit in a multiple dwelling building have at least one smoke and carbon monoxide detector, and that it be replaced whenever it nears its expiration date.

“The architect has to put on the renovation plans that the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are up to code,” Agustin says. “It’s more than likely they’re not, unless the apartment was built in the last ten years, which means you’ll need to have an electrician install new ones and make sure they are interconnected and hard-wired.”


Electrical load

Another factor of the advanced age of many NYC buildings is that their electrical loads are often too low to handle contemporary appliances, particularly central air conditioning.

Older buildings may have been constructed when electricity usage was much lower than it is today, with only three or four outlets and 40 amps per apartment as the norm.

“Today, with everyone using air conditioning and having dishwashers and different appliances in the kitchen, 40 amps is rock bottom,” Agustin says. “One-bedrooms getting built now will usually have at least 100 to 150 amps to satisfy the code requirements for usage.”

This means that if you’re renovating a pre-war apartment, and you’d like to add appliances like an in-unit washer and dryer or central air, you’ll need to explore whether your building’s electrical load has been upgraded.


System upgrade versus service upgrade

If your building’s electrical load has already been upgraded, it will be easier to increase your apartment’s own capacity.

This kind of system upgrade typically requires replacing old circuits, wiring, and electrical boxes.

 “It’s internal to the apartment, so it’s simpler, but it can be costly,” Agustin says, estimating that an electrical system upgrade can – depending upon your preferences - amount to an investment of tens of thousands of dollars. 

In buildings that never increased their electrical loads, the process of upgrading the service to better serve residents’ needs is more complex. First, you’ll need to get building approval for the overhaul, itself frequently a lengthy and costly process.

“An electrician has to determine that the building has the capacity to supply the new demand for electricity, then upgrade the electrical equipment with a new meter and new breakers. A route has to be made to bring a wire from the electrical source—usually in the basement—to your apartment,” Agustin says. “So if you’re a dozen floors up from the source, or live in a building that never upgraded service to any apartment, it can be difficult.”

Costs for this kind of involved work can vary, he says, but can run up to $25,000—which might encourage some homeowners to hang onto their window unit air conditioners and devote their budget to other aspects of their project.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Fraser. “But an integral part of our job is to help homeowners spend their budget intelligently. If we see an aspect of a project where its pricing will potentially eclipse the homeowner’s budget, we’ll take on the role of advisor. We’ll use our data and technology to work with the homeowner to either re-allocate funds or to find a more cost-effective yet compliant solution, ensuring we hit their target budget.”

About Us

Bolster is a data-driven team of experts on a mission to eliminate risk from major home renovations by being radically transparent across everything we do. We hire the industry’s best talent and use a continual improvement process to financially guarantee that your major home renovation is designed and built beautifully, on-time and on-budget. From the first sketch to the final handshake, our homeowners know the cost of every line item and have full visibility into project milestones.