What to do/how best to document HVAC problem
March 3, 2018 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I think the landlord's general negligence toward the HVAC here has possibly led to my having much worse health issues than I would otherwise.

I'll get to the sewer gas incident at the end of the question, so stay tuned!

I'm in a short-term rental - though I did sign a lease - and, while I had a pretty bad upper-respiratory infection/bronchitis when I arrived, I've continued having breathing issues for the past month: weird breathing sounds, urgent care visit, physician's assistant saying "your breathing sounds awful!" and insisting I come back the next day to see the MD, three follow visits when I wasn't getting better, urged to see a pulmonologist, which I just did. My breathing symptoms are almost gone now, though, thanks to steroids/albuterol (the steroids have their own unfortunate side effects), and I think I'm transitioning to constant migraines, possibly due to mold in the HVAC (hard to prove).

I previously found black stuff in the window areas that seemed to be mold -- the landlord said he thought it just looked like dirt - and I just discovered that the HVAC here has essentially no filter in it. There's what looks like an old filter crumpled at the bottom of the slot, and air is just flowing around it and probably in from the dusty/smelly/probably moldy utility closet area (which is also partially open to the outside).

I think my question is: how to proceed?

Also, the landlord, who lives in the building usually, is literally out of town attending to his dying parents (yes, I believe him). If hardball happens, I think I'd prefer it be not now.

I think what I want to do is A) document the physical situation with the HVAC really really well, B) know for sure whether he's violating some kind of regulation, C) know what I should/can ask for from him, and C) finesse the human relations here and not play hardball unless things get crazy. Is this a good overall plan? If so, how to implement?

I think he's well-intentioned. I've met another longer-term tenant of his who basically went on about what a nice guy he is. On the other hand, he's also talked about really wanting the postal service to die as quickly as possible and that he refuses to repair the mailbox out front because the postal service broke it and he doesn't think he should _have_ to fix it. His other business is Microsoft network consulting for small businesses, he dreams of setting up a rooftop party deck, and he's considering re-doing the exact place I'm staying sohis sick elderly relatives can live here (yes, I know they should live mold-free too). He'd love to just be left alone to make cool improvements, and, like most humans, putting in the massive amount of time to maintain what he's already got clearly bums him out.

Also, this is mainly intended as an AirBNB/VRBO-type rental, so, although I signed a "lease", he may not be 100% on top of "you're a landlord" knowledge/legal stuff.

It occurs to me that I might just document whatever's going on here and send it to my health insurance company and let them try to get money from him or whatever. OTOH, money isn't really the ultimate goal; me being healthy is.

My sinuses have been going crazy since I moved here; I'd been assuming it was something to do with the steroids I was on, or the albuterol, or just me. Argh. What do I do?

Obviously I need to go buy an AC filter and install it ASAP, but how do I prove to this guy the magnitude of the problem here? How do I convince him that it's not just bad, but epically bad? Do I?

--- as promised ---

There's a u-bend pipe coming out of the floor of the utility closet - a big closet with louvered doors between it and the rest of the apartment - that, apparently, is supposed to have water in it to keep ...something... from coming into the closet/apartment. I noticed a bad smell in the closet at the beginning of my stay here and mentioned it, that was not addressed seriously, and finally the smell just could not be ignored and was taking over the apartment. I finally figured, surely I'm not the only one who could detect this, surely this would be a problem for normal humans too, and asked the landlord to come "this morning" to assess the smell. He took one look/whiff, said "I know what this is", and fixed it by pouring water in it and stuffing a rag in the top. I spent weeks with this going on. It's better now, though.

Oh, and the dishwasher didn't work for two weeks.
posted by amtho to Grab Bag (10 answers total)
Forget about documenting it and trying to get him to fix it, just move out! It sounds like you've stumbled into a big mess that you should not have to deal with.
posted by mareli at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Your health insurance is probably not going to sue your landlord to recover the expense of some doctor visits. I'd recommend you focus on your stated ultimate goal: being healthy.

Get a mold test (~$50 including the lab fee). Test the stuff that might be mold or dirt. Whether this proves your unit is uninhabitable, or gives you peace of mind, it will be a good investment.

If you have black mold, that seems like an urgent problem to escalate immediately to the landlord.

Check the relative humidity level in your unit over several days. This humidity guide from State Farm says an ideal range is 30-50%, and you can find other advice recommending 40-60%. Get a weather station or some means to measure humidity. Compare your indoor humidity to the outdoors, to help understand whether the air conditioner is potentially driving the humidity far outside a desirable range.

If the humidity level seems fine, perhaps it's just overall bad air quality, and a new filter would help. The quickest way to resolve this and get health might be to buy a replacement yourself (if you can find its model number, you can easily look for filter replacements). The filter will probably cost $50-100.

If it does seem the AC is causing humidity problems, you could check to see whether the AC unit is appropriately sized. ACs with more cooling power than required can cause humidity problems. Assuming it serves just your unit, look at its labels to see its output level (measured in BTUs). Find a central AC size calculation guide online and see if, for example, your AC has 3x the recommended BTU rating.

Can you avoid using the AC? Either tough it out with fans and open windows, or get one or more window units to use instead?

There's a lot of stuff that might technically be the landlord's responsibility to deal with, but if you can afford to take care of it yourself, you could potentially restore your health much more quickly, and avoid more medical expenses down the line. Of course it's also possible that the health issues are unrelated, and all this expense would not improve your respiratory health. At the very least, it could improve your peace of mind.
posted by reeddavid at 2:42 PM on March 3, 2018

If you have access to the filter slot, can you just put in a new filter? They are not that expensive. The old filter may be labeled, or you can measure it.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:35 PM on March 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's winter in Chicago, so there's actually heat running. I've been running a humidifier that monitors and displays the ambient humidity; the readings I've been getting are 25-ish percent when I'm not doing my utmost to humidify the place. The couple of times I've checked, the humidity is lower than what wunderground.com reports for the outdoor humidity (I asked, and he's not running a dehumidifier).

I have been avoiding running the heat ever since I realized that, when it turned on, my sinuses reacted. I've already brought in a space heater, a humidifier, and two air purifiers. Also, I replaced and washed extensively the sheets, towels, comforter, and mattress cover. I have taken the couch slipcover to the dry cleaner. I have wiped the black dust off the windowsill. I'm all about the DIY.

I'm just returned from acquiring a new filter, but the old one is a crumpled mess in there and it remains to be seen whether I can extract it.
posted by amtho at 4:09 PM on March 3, 2018

Response by poster: I left off something key: I've prepaid for the next month, it was quite expensive, and I'm possibly looking for leverage to ask for a refund -- if that's reasonable. Maybe it's not? Maybe having HVAC filters in place isn't that big a deal for most people?
posted by amtho at 4:10 PM on March 3, 2018

I don't think this sounds like a situation where you're going to get any satisfaction. Your complaints are not evidence based; they are primarily experiential, and that pretty much goes nowhere.

Americans often have a poor understanding of mold and mildew. Mold is fine and easily treated. Black mold is fine and easily treated. Stachybotrys chartarum black mold is not fine and may or may not be easily treated. You can determine what type of mold you have, if any, with a simple and inexpensive lab test kit.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:17 PM on March 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The non - experiential parts are what I'm asking about: no HVAC filter, sewer pipe in the living space, non - working dishwasher, etc. I'm admitting that I don't know how serious these are. Thanks for the info so far.
posted by amtho at 5:56 PM on March 3, 2018

Your HVAC unit should also be providing ventilation (fresh air) when it runs, which would tend to improve the air quality in your space... especially with a filter in place! My goal would be to get that unit cleaned up and running. If that’s impossible, then I would keep a window cracked open and plan to move out pretty soon.

Would your landlord reimburse you for a service call from a HVAC technician? They could remove the old filter and give the unit a tune-up. Ask them to try to seal up any cracks in the unit or ducts that would be drawing air from the utility closet. I would try to get someone out there to do duct cleaning too - you’ve done so much already to reduce dust in your space but if there’s a ton of it in the ducts then it’s going to be a losing battle.
posted by beandip at 8:26 PM on March 3, 2018

Call the gas company and have them inspect your heating unit. Tell them you might smell gas.

It sounds like YEARS of dust in an unserviced HVAC is fucking up your sinuses. Plus the sewer gas.

Geezus christmas. Stop cleaning and improving this temporary rental. Tell him the dirty HVAC system + sewer gas are making you sick and negotiate leaving.

Ask the gas company tech lots of questions and take pics. Make sure the heating system vents properly and won't kill you with gas or carbon monoxide.

Just get out of this any way you can. I don't think you will get your money back. Make sure the air is safe enough then move out when your prepaid rent runs out. Flee. Run.
posted by jbenben at 8:51 PM on March 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: .... and now the bedroom, bathroom, and hallway lights and the Internet are out. I tried to flip the circuit breakers, and now the heat is out too. No worries, the space heater I bought is on the living room circuit and still works. Fortunately, no commitments tomorrow, so this is still hilarious.

jbenben, if I go somewhere else without putting in the time to vet it properly, I worry I could wind up in a worse situation. This is supposed to be a calm oasis to let me do a relaxed search. Ugh. Of course I'm looking :)
posted by amtho at 11:21 PM on March 3, 2018

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