No fire here, but I'd love to stop the smoke
October 10, 2017 7:32 AM   Subscribe

My wife, 3 month-old baby and I live on the third floor of a small co-op in Manhattan - an old converted brownstone. The coop rules clearly prohibit smoking inside of the building, though it's possible not everyone is aware of that rule. For the past couple months, we have begun intermittently (couple times a week) smelling stale cigarette or pipe smoke in our living room primarily in one corner - usually lasts for about 15 minutes then disappears. We'd like to get it to stop, but without alienating anyone in our small building. Request for suggestions and details below.

We believe the likely source of the smoke is our neighbor downstairs. She only occupies the front half of that floor, and there is a vent in the corner where we are smelling smoke. Under her on the first floor is a couple and kids that I am 99.9% sure don't smoke - I know them much better. The two people above us could smoke I suppose, but it seems unlikely that the smoke would travel downward. It's also possible that it's someone in the building next to us - we share a wall - but again I'd be surprised if smoke could go through two brick walls. Finally, it could be coming from the street, but it doesn't come through an open window on the other side of the living room and when I smell smoke I never see someone on the street smoking. All that to say, while I have suspicions, I don't know it's the downstairs neighbor and would really only put my level of certainty at slightly above 50%.

I've considered knocking on the woman's door at a reasonable hour and just flagging that I smell smoke, does she smell it? Kind of like a public interest check. But I worry she'll see through my brilliant (not) ruse and be offended. I've also considered just knocking and asking if she smokes, and if she does noting that it's against the rules, that we can smell it, and we'd appreciate it if she smoked outside instead. I've also considered sending an all building email (not uncommon in our building) noting that we've smelled smoke intermittently in our front room, does anyone else smell it, and reminding folks of the building rules re smoking. But I worry everyone will come to the conclusion it's the woman on the second floor and that may cause issues too. My wife is on the board of the building (1/2 the building is - it's small). I also see the woman below us in the halls maybe once every couple weeks and I could note it in passing, though she's not the type to pause for a conversation (nor am I) and we normally just exchange quick hellos.

So there you go - I can't wait to hear how I'm overthinking this, but am interested in the group's thoughts as to the most low key way to try to resolve this issue.
posted by slide to Human Relations (11 answers total)
Oh geez you are overthinking this. Send the email first, it's a totally ok thing to do. See if it stops. If it doesn't you can go to door knocking next time you smell it. Neither of those things is rude and if people take offense then, well, it's not your job to manage people's emotions and if there's weird fallout people will not blame you for it.
posted by brainmouse at 7:56 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]

When I had an issue with someone smoking in stairwell of my building (I didn't know who it was) I wrote a letter to the landlord. He, in turn, sent a sternly-worded letter to every apartment in the building reminding them that there is no smoking allowed in the public spaces. Needless to say, you are in a different situation because you live in a co-op. In that case, you could bring it up to the board that you can sometimes smell what appears to be cigarette or pipe smoke in the building. This would allow the board to send a general note out to the other residents explaining that some residents have brought it to the board's attention that they can sometimes smell tobacco smoke, reiterating the building's policy and reminding them that even smoking behind their closed doors or out an open window* can transmit smoke smells to other apartments and areas of the building.

* A friend who once had an issue with cigarette smoke coming into his apartment noticed that the person living below him would lean out of an open window to smoke. This person probably thought she was being considerate by "not smoking in the building," but the smoke simply traveled up and went into my friend's windows.
posted by slkinsey at 8:04 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Is there any (any!) chance this is the result of someone smoking on the sidewalk/stoop in front of your building?
posted by bilabial at 8:17 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]

Put a small hepa filter in that corner and move on with your life. At the level you are experiencing this, there is far far worse in your local air and the structure of the building. Buying and maintaining a small air purifier for that corner is the best failsafe solution featuring the least amount of drama.

I empathize, I offer this advice as someone with a young child, but also as someone who lived and worked in Manhattan for many years. I'm in LA now, and just the other day I was reminiscing about how awful the air quality was in Manhattan, the bizarre amounts of soot that would migrate around my apartment.

What you describe is relatively minor in NYC terms. I know it's grating and worrying, I advise you to mitigate the issue on your end. If it escalates, then feel free to escalate and bring it to the building's attention. I hope it doesn't come to that.
posted by jbenben at 8:50 AM on October 10 [10 favorites]

My wife and I had a periodic odor in an old apartment we could never track down, until a problem with the water heater alerted us to a much more serious problem with the electrical distribution panel. The smell was caused by components in the panel slowly melting and/or burning whenever the water heater cycled on. We were lucky there wasn't a fire.

I'd say send the all-building email, but don't remind people of the no-smoking rule. "We periodically smell this in one location in our apartment, and we are unable to figure out where it's coming from. It happens even when the windows are closed and we've never seen anybody smoking on the street at the same time we've smelled it. Has anyone else noticed this?" Done. A periodic smell of smoke may not be from tobacco (or pot) smoke, and you have (enough) legitimate reason for concern to mask what might otherwise seem like a busybody neighbor sort of question. I mean, it could very well be a neighbor smoking, but you're also providing enough cover for them to stop without a direct confrontation.
posted by fedward at 9:39 AM on October 10 [11 favorites]

You can create positive pressure in your apartment by putting a fan in a window to draw outside air into the apartment. Essentially you want to "overstuff" air flowing IN to your apartment, which means that same air will, in turn, be constantly flowing OUT of any small cracks in your floors or vents or whatever... so smells from the apartment below won't be sucked in as much. Obviously where you place the fan matters- get the freshest air you can, as close as possible to the room in question.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:08 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Coop, not rental: you need to be dealing with the managing agent.

Even if it's a smoking building, you can make the argument that it's a "nuisance" and have the managing agent deal with it.

You said it's not a smoking building... therefore the managing agent should get involved. There are a couple helpful suggestions in the attached PDF.

NYC Fact sheet on Second Hand Smoke

Anecdotally, I live in a coop that is not smoke free (other than the common areas) and we had a chain smoking resident that was affecting an entire floor. Without changing the building into a smoke free building, the resident had the other tenant stop by threatening legal action.
posted by teabag at 1:08 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Seconding positive air pressure, which I've mentioned previously in various Googleable posts here. Your problem could be as simple, for example, as this: when you turn a bathroom or kitchen exhaust fan on, air has to be pulled into your unit via cracks and crevices. If the path of least resistance is to pull that smoky air in to make up for what you're exhausting with the fan, then that's what happens. But if you open one of your window a crack when the fan is on, you'll get fresh (or as fresh as it may be) outside air. If you think about this the other way around, and figure out a way to pull air INTO your unit from outside, without any of the windows open, it means that air has to push OUT through the cracks and crevices which will push your air into the smoker's unit instead of vice versa.
posted by beagle at 4:06 PM on October 10

If you're wife's on the board, and the suspected smoker isn't, she should just bring it up at the next board meeting, before it's brought to order. Is the suspect a shareholder or sublessor?
posted by nicwolff at 5:02 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

Appeal to empathy. I would post a note to the main entrance/common area or send a group email: "Hi, we've noticed smoke entering our apartment at [such and such time]. I have severe allergies to smoke [white lies are okay!] and a three month old vulnerable baby. We'd sure appreciate it if smokers could do their thing outside and at least 25 ft. from all air vents, doors, and windows. Thanks, -Your neighbor in Apt. 27." This is the sort of message that would have gotten a positive response from me. Note the absence of any mention of rules or laws.
posted by shalom at 6:26 PM on October 10

Thanks for the advice all. To answer some questions, this co-op has 8 units, everyone owns no renters, and we self-manage (a delight let me tell you).

Honestly my current takeaway is that there are a lot of fine options and I should just rely on my gut and send the building-wide email - they're pretty normal and - if phrased politely along the lines of what shalom and fedward suggest - I don't think it will create any more drama in our small building.

Thanks again!
posted by slide at 6:47 PM on October 10

« Older Songs with the "drip" sound?   |   How do I deal with a family gathering when I'm... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments