Is my furnace killing me?
December 22, 2008 7:46 PM   Subscribe

[Asking for a friend:] What can I do about the stinky, wasteful oil furnace in my apartment? I'm worried about my health, and I'm not sure that the landlord cares.

I think that it's a forced hot air heating system in an old building, built around 1920 or 1930. When the heat initially comes on, there's a very strong smell of burning oil. This happens often, a few times per hour, and the whole apartment smells like burning oil. The upstairs neighbors have lived here for a few years, and they said that they were worried about it at first, but they just got used to it. I mentioned it to the landlord, and he assured me that there was no problem and that it was just an old furnace. There's a carbon monoxide detector here, so I'm not so worried about immediate death, but it doesn't seem like this is the healthiest air in the world either. How concerned should I be? The landlord seems to have a pretty laid-back attitude about maintenance and general upkeep so I'm not sure what I can say, more than I already have, to motivate him to do anything about it. If I should be concerned about this, what actions can I take to get him to address the issue more seriously?

Furthermore, health issues aside, it's impossible to regulate the temperature in here. It's just always on full blast. So even when it's 10 degrees outside, I have windows open in order to maintain a normal temperature in here. That's working ok, but the environmentalist inside of me is cringing.
posted by TurkishGolds to Home & Garden (4 answers total)
It looks like you can call the Board of Health and they will come inspect...

Per the MA Tenant Landlord Rights publication, landlords must:
"...provide habitable apartments and common areas
for the entire tenancy in accordance with the minimum
standards of the State Sanitary Code which seeks to protect
the health, safety, and well-being of your tenants and the
general public. (source [PDF])"
The State Sanitary Code is summarized here, and under "Enforcement Procedures" states that:
Upon receipt of an oral, written or telephone request, the board of health is required to inspect a dwelling, dwelling unit or rooming unit for possible violations of Chapter II. All interior inspections shall be done in the company of the occupant or the occupant’s representative. [410.820]

The board of health must conduct a complete inspection if requested to do so. [410.822(B)]

The board of health shall attempt to initiate and complete an investigation at a time mutually satisfactory to both the local board of health and the occupant within a time frame dependent upon the nature of the violation but not exceeding five days. [410.820(A)]
(disclaimer: I have no specific knowledge of MA tenant laws - I just googled a few things. Also, this is assuming you are in MA per your profile)
posted by misterbrandt at 8:46 PM on December 22, 2008

Something is wrong.

"As long as your heating system is working properly, you should not smell oil in your home. If you do, it means something is WRONG! An oil smell could come from a leak, combustion or burner troubles, heat exchanger failure or exhaust system problems." -- furnace guy

I think this is potentially a big problem, even without a carbon monoxide concern. The furnace is malfunctioning. The landlord doesn't want to investigate because he's afraid he'll need a new furnace.

Tell him it's high time he replaced it anyway, with a new high-efficiency gas furnace. It probably isn't the original furnace unless it's had parts replaced up the wazoo already. But your landlord will easily see a payback in lower energy costs. (Remind him that he can take depreciation on a capital improvement like this.) Especially if he does something about the wasted energy you're sending out the windows. The furnace installer could held him rejigger the ducts so that you're not so overheated.
posted by dhartung at 9:11 PM on December 22, 2008

misterbrandt is correct, the best place to start would be the Board of Health. I'm sure they've gotten many calls like this and will know how to direct your friend - they also have lots of experience with landlord/tenant issues and should be able to give some direction in that respect.

Not sure it's CO that would be the problem here, as you have the detector... more like the particulate matter from the burning oil that could cause health problems.

It's probably a good idea for your friend to document the request to the landlord in writing. Depending on local laws (the Board of Health should be able to clarify this), he cannot raise your rent or evict you within the next 6 months without it being considered retaliatory action for making a report to the Board of Health.

If the landlord feels that he can't afford the replacement, he may be eligible for assistance - I know that the EPA sometimes gives incentives to people to replace old wood-burning stoves with high-efficiency ones.
posted by pants at 4:35 AM on December 23, 2008

PS: This brochure on "Getting Repairs Made" for Massachusetts tenants should be helpful as well. Good luck!
posted by pants at 4:37 AM on December 23, 2008

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