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Too Hot or Too Cold: How to Survive Winter in Your Apartment

By Amy Zimmer | November 13, 2013 7:44am
 New York City's old buildings are usually too hot or too cold inside during the winter.
Hot or cold in New York City apartments
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MANHATTAN — With the frigid weather come the complaints from New York City apartment dwellers — it's too cold or too hot. For millions of residents, the temperature is rarely just right.

That’s because many buildings, especially pre-war structures, use boilers with steam-heated radiators that have one thermostat for the whole building and your radiator is either on or off, with no way to control temperatures in individual apartments.

Some fixes might be simple, such as making sure landlords are maintaining boilers or sealing windows against drafts.

Some may be more complicated, which is why several local nonprofits, such as the Community Environmental Center, run a free or reduced-cost energy audit program based on income requirements.

If your apartment is either too hot, or too cold, DNAinfo New York has some expert tips on what you can do:

1. Know your rights.

During "heat season" — Oct. 1 through May 31 — landlords are required to make sure apartments are at least 68 degrees between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. if it's below 55 degrees outside. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the temperature must be at least 55 degrees inside if it's below 40 degrees outside. 

2. Call your landlord — and keep a paper trail.

"Let the super know. Check with the neighbors to see if it’s specific to one or two or more apartments,” advised Wasim Lone, of the advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side. "It's so important because instead of getting one complaint from a tenant, they’re getting a lot."

He also advised tenants to write certified letters to landlords, cc'ing their community board, City Council member and tenant groups.

"Usually landlords try to get away with it, trying to save money or harass tenants," he said. "This tells them they can’t go under the radar."

3. If your landlord doesn't fix the heat, call 311

A landlord who does not provide the proper temperatures can be fined $200 to $500 for initial violations and $500-$1,000 per day for each subsequent violation at the same building, according to the city's Department of Housing and Preservation.

There have been 24,674 heat-related complaints since Oct. 1, compared to 2012's 32,526 for the same period, according to HPD. The agency filed 2,844 heat cases in court last heat season, and collected $2.4 million in fines.

4. Check your windows.

Caulking windows could prevent heat from leaking out or adding heavy curtains or plastic shrink-wrap could add another layer of insulation, experts suggested.

"If you have a double-paned window and see condensation it's a sign that warm air from your apartment is traveling through the building and the window is not working," said Ante Vulin, of YR&G, a sustainability consulting firm. "You may need to reseal the window or replace it."

5. Are electric space heaters OK?

"They are energy inefficient and expensive to run but sometimes you do what you've got to do," said Katherine Gloede, of the Community Environmental Center.

These heaters can cost as much to run as an air conditioner. For 100 hours, it could cost roughly $25, said Vulin, who cautioned against using space heaters when not awake or in the room.

HPD advises residents only use UL-approved products and follow manufacturers' guidelines by keeping heaters a safe distance from other objects.

6. Never use an oven to heat your space.

Using oven to heat an apartment is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal, HPD officials said, noting that ovens can be a fire and carbon monoxide hazard.

7. Check your radiator.

"Either keep your radiator fully open or fully closed," Gloede advised. "If it's half open and makes a noise"­ — like a hammer  — "the steam might not be circulating efficiently."

Make sure your radiator is tilted slightly back toward the pipe it's connected to, so water doesn't build up, said Vulin, who advised using a piece of cardboard to pitch a radiator correctly.

A "hiss" might indicate that you have a broken or incorrectly installed air vent, which is a common cause of over-heating and wastes money, fuel and overtaxes the boiler, he said.

8. "Last resort" actions

"If communication goes on and people are suffering, you can sue a landlord in housing court," said Lone, explaining there is fast-track legal action designed for tenants to sue without an attorney and be in court within three or five days.

Tenants can also file a rent-reduction request with the state's Department of Housing and Community Renewal for decreased services. A rent strike could be entertained for severe cases where a landlord is neglecting delivery of heat and hot water, he added.