Please help me be the window & door police
February 11, 2016 3:25 PM   Subscribe

A window or door left open in my apartment building during sub zero temperatures will cause a flood. Massive water damage to multiple floors and major inconvenience. We have sub-zero temps for almost half the year so the floods keep happening. What sneaky, possibly subversive, tactics could I use to make sure residents close their effing doors during winter?

Property management sends out a polite notice to remind everyone to close windows and doors when it's cold, but floods are on the increase so it's fair to say the current strategy isn't effective.

My guess is that apathy is the main obstacle here: likely a lot of renters are oblivious students.

Looking for creative ideas on how to motivate everyone to pay attention to this problem. If you've had a similar problem in your shared housing space, I'd be interested in hearing that too.

Super huge thanks for any/all suggestions!

Note: this is a large 20+ story condo building in downtown Toronto
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you explain more about why specifically this is happening? Open windows don't in and of themselves cause floods, so there is some additional mechanism at work. Are pipes freezing? Are people not heating their apartments? Are there common areas that are somehow more vulnerable? Why do you think people are leaving windows and doors open? Obviously a flood is an inconvenience to them as well? Do they pay for their own heat?

I mean if they are tenants, is it possible to make this an explicit part of the lease? Or have a penalty for any window or door found open (and get strict about it for a week or two).

I mean I live somewhere roughly equally cold but

- an open door or window just jacks my heat bill, doesn't cause a flood, and
- an open door or window makes me COLD so I'd never do it

What part of the "people don't usually leave doors/windows open during the winter because of their own self-interest" is not functioning the same way in your apartment building?
posted by jessamyn at 3:33 PM on February 11, 2016 [27 favorites]

If it's that important, you need something like a temperature sensor that will sound an alarm if the temperature drops below a safe threshold that indicates that something outside of normal fluctuations is amiss. If the residents are oblivious enough to not notice that they opened a window in literally freezing weather in a building with a history of bursting pipes or whatever, I don't think anything easy will cause them to take notice.

You also really need something active that monitors the sensors and makes sure that they're still online, as in my experience, students will do things like take batteries out of obnoxious noise making sensors.
posted by Candleman at 3:35 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

extending jessamyn's idea that this should work with normal economics, if this is a communal area then you could maybe record what happens and charge the person who leaves the door open the cleanup fee.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:48 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wait, I'm confused.

Are they leaving windows and doors open in their individual apartments, or are these windows and doors in common areas?

I'm baffled at the idea that people would sit in the cold in their own apartments, because it's fucking cold up here and even with heat on at full blast, that would be uncomfortable.

So I'm guessing this is a problem in common areas. If that's the case, do you not have doors that automatically close if someone isn't holding them open? I've never been in an apartment building without this kind of door. It's a security issue as well as a weatherproofing one.

I imagine charging a fee would be difficult if you couldn't tell who's leaving the doors open (and as a tenant I would be pissed and fight any communally applied fine).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:50 PM on February 11, 2016

Response by poster: thanks all ...!
I suspect people may be opening them to "let in a little air" say after dinner or something then forgetting. I don't really know why this is happening.

The specific mechanism is that we have a unique fan coil which I don't know enough about to talk intelligently except for that if the fan is off and/or the doors and windows are open during anything below zero, a flood results. There are probably more precise parameters (longer than 20 minutes) or something, but this is all I know.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 3:54 PM on February 11, 2016

Response by poster: Sorry, last one..
It's in individual units, not common areas. I'm baffled too!
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 3:55 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fastest Man on Earth.

I'll let you read the (very interesting) article at your leisure, but the point is that if taking Action X leads to disaster, you're not going to avert disaster by training, talking to people, posting notes with many exclamation points, reminders, etc etc etc, to people not to take Action X.

You somehow have to change the system so that Action X becomes impossible, the effects are ameliorated before disaster happens, or something of that sort.

That leads to solutions like self-closing windows and doors, alarms that sound when doors/windows left open, regular patrolling for open windows & doors, video monitoring of doors/windows potentially left open, making the windows/doors non-openable (probably not possible due to fire code etc but now you can see why people like this type of solution), thermostatic heat control when temperature drops (assuming frozen pipes is the problem), heat tape on potentially frozen pipes (again assuming that is the problem), and other solutions of that sort.

Basically, instead of depending on human nature to miraculously change to solve the problem, you engineer a solution that is as human-proof as possible.
posted by flug at 3:57 PM on February 11, 2016 [24 favorites]

My apartment building has these inexpensive door closers on every resident's front door. Shouldn't be too onerous for the condo board to require every tenant to install one. Doesn't solve the window problem, but should help.
posted by ejs at 4:03 PM on February 11, 2016

This is never going to work; you need an HVAC professional to fix your fan coil. At least, if you want to prevent the flooding.
posted by SMPA at 4:03 PM on February 11, 2016 [28 favorites]

Reading your update, the solution is either fixing/replacing your fan/coil situation so that it doesn't blow up when a door is cracked, and/or putting something like an alarm that goes off after say 10 minutes of Situation X happening (assuming it takes 20 minutes of Situation X before disaster strikes). Ideally this would alert both the immediate door-opening folks but also others in the area or in the building office to check out & fix the situation before the 20 minutes is up.

You might somewhat reduce the the incidence of Situation X by reminders etc but this is really an engineering problem that requires an engineering solution.
posted by flug at 4:05 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just wondering: is the building heat turned up WAY TOO FREAKIN' HIGH? I have occasionally stayed in centrally-heated buildings (especially radiator-heated) where for some bizarre reason, the heat has been set up above 85F/30C in the dead of winter. In those situations, I have absolutely opened windows to bring it down to a more manageable temp. Maybe if that's a root cause, addressing it first would help?

If not, you might look into door prop alarms (they use these in dorms to prevent oblivious students from propping doors open). Open window alarms also exist, but I have no idea how you'd actually implement them -- they don't seem particularly practical.
posted by ourobouros at 4:07 PM on February 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

If someone leaving a door open for 20 minutes or even close to that is causing fan coils to produce enough water to damage multiple floors, your problem is not that people are leaving the door open - your problem is that something is very wrong with your heating system or it is just a very poor design. This is not normal. Where is that amount of water even coming from?

Leaving the door or window open for a while in the winter may not be energy efficient, but it is pretty common behaviour, especially in apartments where ventilation may be poor. You are going to have a very hard time training this out of people, let alone their houseguests, cleaners, etc. who you have no direct contact with.

But really, get your heating system fixed. That's going to be cheaper in the long run than dealing with constant water damage.
posted by ssg at 4:09 PM on February 11, 2016 [16 favorites]

Making the offenders pay for the damage will make at least some of them stop causing the damage. Maybe it is different in Canada, but in the US, in a condo, the owner of the unit would be held liable for the cost of the repairs to their unit and to any units the flood also damaged.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 4:11 PM on February 11, 2016

It's in individual units, not common areas.

You cannot tell people that they can't leave doors or windows open in their own apartments. That is not a thing that can be enforced, or even legitimately asked.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:12 PM on February 11, 2016 [19 favorites]

As somebody else mentioned for doors you can get these spring things that force them to close. My landlord just put them on all the doors in my building. They said it was a new fire regulation.
posted by interplanetjanet at 4:17 PM on February 11, 2016

From your question it sounds like you are another tenant and do not have any special status as building manager or super. Is that correct? Because if that is the case, nothing you say to other tenants is going to have any pull. Your best bet is to summarize for the building owners the amount of money that this has cost them over X period of time (e.g., $1000 per incident for 3 incidents over the last 6 months) and let them decide if it is cost effective for them to put in alarms or to fix the coil. If the owners are your typical slumlord who owns a run-down building mostly populated by students, they are probably not going to do anything unless it is costing them literally millions of dollars. It is highly unlikely that it would be feasible for them to charge tenants for leaving windows open in their own apartment - they would probably get their asses sued by the tenants' union. I appreciate that you are trying to problem-solve but I think the reality check is saying your best bet if you don't want to keep getting your apartment flooded due to other people's negligence is to move to a different building.
posted by matildaben at 4:23 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is this, in fact, somehow your responsibility? Because you don't say specifically. If not, you may want to ponder your role as a neighbor.
posted by humboldt32 at 5:02 PM on February 11, 2016

Yeah, if you're just another tenant you have no standing here. What you do have is a solid case to insist that your landlord fix this, since it could be argued that the building is uninhabitable (a system where people can never open their windows is unreasonable).
posted by Itaxpica at 5:14 PM on February 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

I just wanted to voice a counter-opinion to the idea some have alluded to that it's not the OP's role to do anything about this. We see questions asked here all the time about dealing with neighbors' noise, which seems analogous here. Often the advice is to first ask the responsible individuals nicely to quiet down, and then escalate to an authority figure (landlord/super or police) if unsuccessful. Sure, the OP as a mere tenant may not have any legal standing, but there's also nothing barring them from trying.

As far as actual solutions go, if this is a widespread problem in the building I feel like an engineering solution is the way to go. You could convince every single person who currently lives in the building, but if it's a lot of students then that means a lot of turnover, which means more people who need to be convinced every year. Talk to your super.

But it couldn't hurt to post some humorous signs in hallways, etc. that may be more effective than a generic note from management. "Sneaky and/or subversive" may be pushing the bounds of etiquette/legality, though, unless I'm misinterpreting.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:13 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

My idea would be to complain to property management about the fact that your condo building floods with normal condo use. No one should be required to never open (or leave open) a door or window in any temperature, sub-zero or not. I've been known to open windows in my freezing basement apartment in the middle of winter to "blow the stink out" after I've finished cooking something smelly (cabbage) or cleaning (chemicals). To be informed that this was unacceptable due to management's unwillingness to fix the heating system would probably result in me finding a way to complain to people with authority above and beyond management.

And I disagree with all the posters who say that it's not the tenant's responsibility. It is if your stuff is in danger of getting damaged due to apathy on the part of the property management, forget the tenants. I dunno about Canadian rental insurance, but my rental insurance only covers flooding in certain very specific circumstances, and the insurance company will pretty much always find some fine print to make them not responsible.
posted by xyzzy at 7:42 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree that this problem needs to be fixed at the root . No heating system should be so delicate, esp. in Canada (!!), that it depends on hundreds (thousands?) of tenants being perfect at all times and in perpetuity. To expect otherwise is insanity.

You need a robust and dependable heating system, because that is the actual problem.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 8:30 PM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I remember open windows in the winter being "a thing" in buildings where residents had limited control over temps in their unit. Radiators where the only two settings are 100 degrees or completely off were a common cause, but in another building, temps were set and measured in a single place, so some floors were boiling while others were barely meeting minimum temps.

If that might be the case, maybe the landlord could educate residents on how to control temperature without opening a window. Or, you know, fix the HVAC.
posted by Gable Oak at 7:29 AM on February 12, 2016

Other than major boiler/radiator leaks, there is no HVAC system that can cause "flooding" no matter how extreme the conditions.

Please explain in more detail what you are calling "flooding."

"Flooding" is for things like a river rising high enough to infiltrate living spaces, or water mains breaking, or the like. "Flooding" does not include A/C condenser dripping, or a downpour of rain through an open window.

If you're complaining to property management using hyperbolic language, they aren't going to take you seriously.
posted by yesster at 8:53 AM on February 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

we have a unique fan coil which I don't know enough about to talk intelligently except for that if the fan is off and/or the doors and windows are open during anything below zero, a flood results

It's totally unclear how a fan is causing a flood. Generally fans don't have any water hooked up.

You are probably having poor results from trying to discuss this issue because you are not able to talk intelligently about it.

You should have someone who knows more about these devices and can explain it in a way that makes sense to other people deal with talking to the management or tenants or whoever you need to discuss this with.
posted by yohko at 2:12 PM on February 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

I want to expand on my earlier "this won't work" answer, because I'm not sure the human side has been adequately explained yet:

I believe that any notes you put up will pretty much guarantee flooding (if, as you say, you only need one open door or window to cause flooding.) Your group is much too large and disparate - signs and slogans probably wouldn't even work perfectly in an Army unit or championship football team locker, but at least there you'd have all the necessary social ingredients to theoretically avoid the "screw you I'm going to open my window just because you said not to" reflex.

I mean, I doubt you'd get 100% cooperation from a group like this if you had a massive structural fire and just wanted them to get out so they wouldn't burn to death. The "screw you" reflex occasionally results in human barbecues - spite is an infinitely renewable resource.

Anyway, thanks to several years in HR I've had the chance to see the "screw you" reflex in action. It never makes sense (they act against their own best interest, in both the short and long term,) and no variation in messaging resulted in even 95% compliance. We tried cute, we tried inspirational, we tried threatening - at one point we tried having an intimidating and armed police officer standing out in the open staring at them. And still we had irrational, intentional noncompliance.

This BTW is distinct from plain old mistakes of the "we forgot to turn back on the water and now our nuclear reactor is melting down" variety. Notes won't guarantee that mistakes are eliminated; you still need an engineering solution.

But the "screw you" thing means that notes will actually result in the exact thing you are trying to avoid. There's an entire website devoted to collecting earnest and frustrated notes from around the world, made up almost entirely of submissions from readers (coworkers, residents, customers, etc.) who responded with "screw you."
posted by SMPA at 7:04 AM on February 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

« Older Internet detectives ASSEMBLE: Identify my mystery...   |   You speak like a green girl / unsifted in such... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.