Ask an Expert

Boiled alive!

By Margeurite Weisman  | January 20, 2010 - 10:42AM
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Q. My co-op apartment has TOO MUCH heat during the winter months.  It’s like a steam bath and, as a result, I keep all of my windows open -- and it’s still too hot (once, I measured 100 degrees with a thermometer). 

Plus, it’s a waste of energy.  The apartment is steam-heated and I turned off the heat in my bedroom.  Still a furnace.  Any suggestions?

A.  According to our BrinkTank experts, the tropical climate of some apartments is often the result of mechanical shortcomings.

Radiators in slightly older buildings work in absolutes.  There is an on setting and an off setting and nothing in between.  Philip J. Kraus at Fred Smith Plumbing & Heating Co. suggests small improvements to better suit your heating needs.  A temperature sensitive radiator valve will automatically shut off at the desired room temperature.

“[Another] solution might be to install new heating controls which can modulate the steam pressure, and adjust the length of the heat cycle to different areas of the building,” says Kraus.  “Or the vacuum pumps may need to be repaired or replaced.  To correctly diagnose your building’s steam heating problem, a systemic view must be taken by a steam heating specialist.”

Most cast iron radiators have a steam trap located underneath the operating knob.  A faulty steam trap may seize up in the open or closed positions, regardless of any amount of knob turning.

“Superintendents and handy persons should be able to diagnose and replace defective traps fairly easily,” says Thomas Usztoke, a managing director at Douglas Elliman Property Management.  These devices usually only last about six years but are readily available at most hardware stores.  Note that they are “steam trap type-specific; not interchangeable.”

Usztoke concedes that the issue may also be democratic.

“When it comes to all things mechanical,” he says, “for many apartment dwellers, the building superintendent is the proverbial person behind the green curtain in the land of Oz---in effect, the wizard.”

In other words, it’s possible your super may be over-riding all forms of system control to address resident comments and complaints, typically responding to those that are too cold.  In this case, the squeakiest wheel gets its heat turned up.

“Reporting the situation to your managing agent and/or co-op board is always a good idea, as they may be able to adjust the heat timer or thermostat on the boiler,” observes Roberta Axelrod, who sits on 10 New York City-area co-op and condo boards in her role as a sponsor’s representative for Time Equities.

Legally speaking, you might have a breach of warranty of habitability claim against your co-op for being poached in your apartment, says real estate attorney Steven Sladkus.  (In a condo, one could sue the condominium for breach of the bylaws and possibly breach of fiduciary duty by the board, says Sladkus.)

If all else fails, Clare Donohue, a kitchen & bath designer at One to One Studio, offers her personal coping strategies.

“I have the same problem, and have all but one radiator turned off at my place,” she says.  “This is the only way to keep it reasonably comfortable most of the winter.”  Donohue uses a space heater and sleeps with an electric mattress pad on those really cold nights.

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