Is my landlord trying to make a soup out of me?
December 20, 2009 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Is there a legal maximum hot water temperature for a New York apartment?

My hot water is clocking in at 157 degrees fahrenheit, or hotter than the center of a well done steak (measured with a digital thermometer, documented for posterity with a video).

I've found information on the minimum (appears to be 120 / 110 if there's an anti-scald valve), but not on the maximum. And this ruling appears to say that landlords have a responsibility to maintain a safe temperature, but I can't find any documentation on what that is.

Am i being a baby? Additionally, the temperature fluctuates between 110 and 155 so there's no way to take a shower, knowing which end of the spectrum you're on, without getting burned to bits.

I guess I should be happy I don't have the alternative, a cold shower every day.

I'm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (Kings County), if that helps.

I should mention I asked the super (once in person, once in text so there's a record) if the boiler can be adjusted. She claims it has been, but I am currently ice-ing my back from my attempt to shower this evening.
posted by CharlesV42 to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
Best answer: I would call 311 and ask them how to proceed.
posted by dfriedman at 8:50 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

have you called 311? Call 311. start there. There's also, but I would really start by calling 311. And call during 9-5 in case they need to transfer you to another agency.

Have you talked to your neighbors? Last time we had a water heat problem in the building it started by our neighbors asking us if we'd had problems. She had complained to the landlord who immediately responded by saying "no one else is complaining" - which is of course why we never bothered to say anything. New Yorkers tend to put up with a lot before they raise hell.

I don't know what part of Greenpoint you're in, and don't know if your landlord is absentee or present/around, but you might want to find someone who can translate into Polish if need be. Sometimes that helps convey the true urgency of your situation.

In the meantime try sponge baths. I know it's a PITA but it's better than getting hurt.
posted by micawber at 8:52 PM on December 20, 2009

Are you not able to mix your hot and cold water? I've lived in many places (manhattan, brooklyn and NJ among others) and always had control over both hot and cold water. Seems odd if you'd have to go all or nothing.
posted by blaneyphoto at 9:01 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may also want to test the temperature of the water with, say, a finger rather than jumping in the shower and turning it on with crossed fingers.
posted by axiom at 9:13 PM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've lived in apartments where water temperature fluctuated rapidly, even after doing the hand test. I just want to point that out, because the original poster is probably checking too. (The hot/cold rapid switch happened mid-shower and always freaked me out.)
posted by melodykramer at 9:20 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Before you start working this, I think you might want to think about what your problem really is. Because it doesn't sound like it's really the maximum temperature; it sounds like the problem is the fluctuation.

I'm just imagining what's going to happen: you're going to complain about the temperature, and after a certain amount of foot-dragging, the landlord is going to turn the control on the hot water heater down, so that the max is less than some amount. But now, when you go to shower, instead of going from 155 to 110, it's going to go from 130 to 80, or some other fairly low temperature. And then you're going to have to try and file another complaint, which is going to be a lot more difficult, because whenever the landlord or some inspector goes to verify the problem, they're going to get the 130F temperature. That just strikes me as the sort of thing that could take months or years of tenant/landlord siege warfare to resolve, because there's not really a straightforward solution, and the solutions that might work are all very expensive and involve the building plumbing. (And also, decreasing the temperature at the HW heater may lead to complaints from other tenants who are further from the heater than you are; it may be a no-win situation from the outset.)

Or, alternately, the landlord might "solve" the too-hot water problem by putting on some sort of anti-scald safety device, which would just cut the water off when it gets too hot, but wouldn't make showering that much more convenient. Then you'd be stuck trying to argue whether a shower with an anti-scald met the requirements for "supplying" water when the anti-scald (which you'd just requested to be put on) was in operation.

So rather than go down that path, I'd try to inquire about the fluctuations from the beginning, since that's something that you can at least solve (provided you actually have enough hot water coming in) with a thermostatic shower valve. This is a shower valve that tries to maintain a fixed temperature even when the input pressures and temperatures fluctuate. They cost a bit more than regular pressure valves, but might solve the problem. (You see them sometimes in hotels for this very reason.) There's a cheaper version ("pressure balance") which basically tries to compensate for varying input pressures (which is the more-common problem; someone flushes a toilet and the CW pressure drops) but doesn't compensate for varying input temperatures, so it might not work if that's truly the problem.

Installing a thermostatic valve is a fairly cheap repair as plumbing jobs go (particularly if there's a building handyman or if the landlord does it themselves), and probably less than their "point of pain" — what they're going to lose in rent if they drive you out and have to search for a tenant while the unit stands empty for several months — which is sort of the key metric. Maybe if you prod/threaten judiciously, you could get one put on.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Call 311.

I'm pretty sure my water is hotter than that

You are, huh? 157 degF is scalding hot. Actually, 135 degF is scalding; 157 is unsafe.

Call 311.
posted by intermod at 10:11 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's no real reason for your water temp to be above about 140. 160 is crazy hot. Whether it is legal or not, I have no idea.
posted by Justinian at 10:15 PM on December 20, 2009

Oh, there is another possibility. If your apartment uses a combo furnace/tankless water heater then there is no separate "water temperature" setting and the water temp will be the same as the furnace temp. Which will likely be between 150 and 160.

So, upon further reflection, I'm not sure there's anything untoward going on and I'd be very surprised if a water temperature of 157 is illegal. But if the water temperature is fluctuating unpredictably up to 157 that's another matter entirely. You could cause serious burns in only a very few seconds.
posted by Justinian at 10:23 PM on December 20, 2009

Best answer: A bit of googling turned up a ten-year-old response in a New York Times Q&A
Cassandra Vernon, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said that while the housing maintenance code requires residential hot water to be kept at a minimum of 120 degrees, the code does not establish a maximum allowable temperature. Accordingly, Ms. Vernon said, the department would not be able to compel the landlord to lower the temperature.
I find this unfathomable and can't believe that you can just set your boiler to blow live steam and the city just shrugs, but there it is.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:03 PM on December 20, 2009

I'm also in NYC, and earlier this year the water coming out of the taps in my apartment was at just under 200°F! I e-mailed that picture to the manager and the boiler got a new regulator the next day.
posted by nicwolff at 11:27 PM on December 20, 2009

Best answer: If the shower is fluctuating like that it's more likely that you're temporarily experiencing a loss of cold water, rather than an influx of hot water. In the house I grew up in you couldn't run a cold water tap or flush a toilet when anyone was in the upstairs shower or you'd boil them. If you know your neighbors try running the shower while they run the cold water and see if that replicates the problem. If it does then it's likely a problem with the cold water pressure not being up to the demand or, possibly, a weird mixing valve issue. At least you have something concrete to discuss with your super.

If that's not the problem and you have a scald-free faucet you can take the handle part off and adjust the ring that controls the max temperature. I don't know if that will help with the fluctuation but it should keep it from getting so hot.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 AM on December 21, 2009

Best answer: I have no direct experience with these, but it sounds like a job for a pressure-balancing or thermostatic shower valve. These things control temperature fluctuations by maintaining the ratio of hot and cold water that gets mixed and sent to the shower head. That way, when someone elsewhere in the building flushes a toilet or starts a washing machine, the pressure & volume of the flow might drop but the temperature should remain consistent.

I'm suggesting this because I agree with fshgrl that the basic problem is probably triggered by a drop in cold water pressure when someone else in the building flushes, turns on a washing machine, etc. This problem is typically caused by undersized supply pipes, and is very difficult / expensive to fix systemically. A local fix at the faucet is more expedient.
posted by jon1270 at 3:55 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback. I do regulate the temperature with the cold, and don't just jump in willy-nilly, but yes, the root problem may be the fluctuation. I don't know when I get in if I've adjusted to cold + 160 or cold + 110, so I usually end up getting burnt.

The super texted me back and let me know she adjusted the boiler yesterday afternoon. I'll give it a day or two to adjust and then go the 311 / deal with water fluctuation route.
posted by CharlesV42 at 6:31 AM on December 21, 2009

Part of the problem might be your distance from the boiler/hot water heater. If you're the first stop on the run, they might turn the temperature way up so that the last apartment on the run gets tolerably warm water.
posted by electroboy at 6:45 AM on December 21, 2009

I've also lived in an apartment with fluctuating hot/cold water in the shower. One night I just completely lost my temper and screamed at it, which made my neighbors call the police (they apparently tried knocking on my door but I didn't hear it). I then had to sheepishly explain to the officer that I was fine, I was just yelling at my shower.
posted by Lucinda at 9:25 AM on December 21, 2009

If the boiler serves the building, it has to be pretty hot to provide hot morning showers for N people at 7 a.m. As well as the issues listed above. Talk to the landlord, perhaps a timer could set back the boiler during non-peak hot water hours, saving the landlord money. Alternatively, look into a regulator at the faucet.
posted by theora55 at 10:09 AM on December 21, 2009

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