Is my building going to kill me?
November 5, 2006 8:02 PM   Subscribe

My landlords turned on the heat in my building, and now my room smells funny. They say that it's nothing, but I'm kinda worried.

Ever since they turned on the heat, there's this weird smell in my room. It smells kinda like burnt plastic, but a little different. I complained to the landlord's office, and the person who I spoke to said that others have reported the same smell. I was told that it's just "old water in the radiators," but that sounds kinda suspicious to me. I've never heard of old water in the radiators making a place smell funny.

(They also said that they put in a new boiler recently, although I don't know if that has anything to do with it.)

Is this something I should be worried about? If so, what should I do about it? The maintenance guy barely speaks english, and isn't much help at all. I wouldn't be surprised if the landlord just tried to brush me off again. Should I call the city or something?
posted by Afroblanco to Grab Bag (19 answers total)
The filter might need replacing.

But then, the heat in my house always smells funny.
posted by niles at 8:05 PM on November 5, 2006

I put off turning my heater on every year until everyone in the house is blue, shivering, and hollering at me to do it for precisely the same reason: it smells funny at first. I imagine the new boiler would impart a plastic aroma, too.
posted by Addlepated at 8:06 PM on November 5, 2006

Just to clarify the issue: Is the smell by itelf be a complaint-worthy problem (e.g. even if you were certain that the heat will be working safely and effectively)?
posted by winston at 8:08 PM on November 5, 2006

It doesn't smell like anything - but if there is smoke there may be fire - so it may be worth picking yourself up a cheap Carbon Monoxide detector just to make sure the boiler isn't kicking its fumes directly into your apartment.
posted by heh3d at 8:11 PM on November 5, 2006

It always smells funny the first time you turn on the heat. It's dust in the ducts/on the radiator/etc. singeing. Usually doesn't last beyond the first dayish (or even a few hours).
posted by katieinshoes at 8:15 PM on November 5, 2006

Ditto Katie and Addle, they always smell funny the first day or two. Crack a window until the collected dust sizzles off, then bask in the warm goodness.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:21 PM on November 5, 2006

It's been like this for at least a week.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:24 PM on November 5, 2006

I wonder if by "old water," they mean some kind of mineral deposits in the water — old water being, in this case, stagnant water. If it's burning off some sort of calcium deposit (or other kind), perhaps that's what's making your heat smell funky.
posted by WCityMike at 8:29 PM on November 5, 2006

I don't buy the old water thing. It still smells if you flush your system. They always stink though, sort of a melted crayon smell, but its normal and it does pass with time.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:38 PM on November 5, 2006

I should also mention is that my roommate's room doesn't smell, even though it is adjacent to mine and also has a radiator.

We're on the sixth floor, which is the top floor, although I don't know if that matters.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:14 PM on November 5, 2006

I've noticed this with both gas and electric heat (I've never had a radiator), so I don't think it has anything to do with old water.
posted by hutta at 9:26 PM on November 5, 2006

I don't know much about radiators, but have you checked well around yours? Did you live in the same place last year, and if so, does it smell different now?

I remember reading a short story (Stephen King?) about someone who discarded a rag underneath a radiator and it took on a life of its own and started killing people. While that's probably not the case in your situation, I imagine it would be pretty easy to lose something underneath or behind the radiator and have it scorch when the heat comes on.

Also, are you positive your roommate's room doesn't smell funny? Could it be that your nose is accustomed to the smell in your room when you check his? What happens if you leave the place for 15 minutes or so, then come directly into his room?
posted by Addlepated at 9:39 PM on November 5, 2006

Are they required to certify the safety of the heating by regular inspection? I'm in the UK I'm afraid and not familiar with the law where you are, but perhaps you could check into this and ask the landlord to show you the relevant documents if it applies.

Carbon monoxide - the main cause of boiler-related fatalities - is, by the way, odourless.
posted by bifter at 5:09 AM on November 6, 2006

If your radiator is dusty, you might want to vacuum as well as you can behind/under it and wipe the whole thing down. Heated dust smells nasty.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:19 AM on November 6, 2006

Radiator systems often do have conditioning additives, some of which do have a perceptible smell, and there have been reports of sensitivities to those additives (reports in the sense of someone saying 'hey, I think this stuff is giving me a headache!').

I tried to find more specific information for you, but I couldn't cut my way through the automobile related junk. Take a look at this site; it does mention ethylene glycol and propylene glycol for hot water systems, and unspecified additives for steam systems.
posted by jamjam at 1:34 PM on November 6, 2006

anecdotal experience: every radiator I've had has smelled -- usually a little waxy. This is with both gas and boilers, and in .. 4 to 5 different locations.

The only times I've noticed a lack of odor is with central heating.
posted by fishfucker at 3:55 PM on November 6, 2006

Perhaps this? If they painted your radiator, or some substance was dropped on your radiator, it will heat and your radiator will smell. In Chicago, this is an extremely common occurance in the fall when the radiators in rentals are turned on for the first time.

Is it a hot water radiator (closed system)? Or a steam radiator (open system)? This might also help to narrow down the problem.
posted by jeanmari at 8:03 PM on November 6, 2006

Since your roomate has a radiator too, try turning yours off completely and see if that makes it smell in his room. If it does, it probably is an additive in the system.
posted by jamjam at 2:01 PM on November 7, 2006

Thanks all for your answers, and sorry that it took me so long to follow up.

As it turns out, my roommate does get the smell a little bit, although not as strongly as in my room.

I believe that the radiator is a steam radiator, because every once in a while I hear the "psst pssst pssst" of air escaping.

The smell seems to have worn off, but that's hard to say since the heat hasn't been on the last few days as it's been unseasonably warm in NYC.

Either way, based on the responses in this thread (and the fact that I haven't yet shuffled of this mortal coil), I no longer think that my building will kill me. Thanks all.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:03 PM on November 12, 2006

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