HVAC switch over snared by hot spell

Late September heat wave raises questions about Toronto bylaw
Thursday, September 28, 2017
By Michelle Ervin

Tensions boiled over last week at Toronto apartment buildings without air conditioning as temperatures soared into heat wave territory in late September.

Tenants aired their frustrations in the media and city councillors implored landlords to turn the AC back on, assuring them that they would not face enforcement from the city. Toronto bylaw requires landlords of both condo suites and rental buildings to provide for temperatures of at least 21 degrees Celsius from Sept. 15 through June 1.

Coun. Josh Matlow made efforts last week to clarify that if the conditions outside make it possible to meet this threshold, landlords need not turn off the AC and turn on the heat.

“When Mother Nature doesn’t follow the calendar strictly with respect to weather, then tenants can be really adversely affected,” Matlow said. “Many landlords have turned the air conditioning off already and some have even turned their heat on because it was cooler earlier in the month.”

When the warm weather returned, this left vulnerable populations such as seniors and young kids in what the city councillor characterized as “really unhealthy, deplorable conditions.”

The late September hot spell has brought renewed attention to the difficult-to-time seasonal HVAC switch over in multi-residential buildings, which happens twice a year in fall and spring. Changes to the heating bylaw could be coming down the pipeline as early as next spring with Mayor John Tory backing calls for reform.

Matlow has been calling for reform for the last five years and wants to ensure landlords are able to schedule the seasonal HVAC switchover based on the actual weather rather than predetermined dates.

“If you don’t believe there’s enough flexibility to adjust the temperature in your buildings to protect the health and well-being of your tenants, then we need to work together to reform that bylaw,” said Matlow.

“Meanwhile, let’s let common sense prevail, and when it’s 30 degrees in Toronto, it’s time to get the central air on if you have it.”

In at least one case, a landlord appears to have heeded the city councillor’s message, turning the AC back on before Toronto’s medical officer of health issued a heat warning last Saturday.

The ability to quickly switch from heating back to cooling in a multi-residential building in the fall hinges on the cooling tower remaining filled, said Grant Markewitz, senior director of commissioning, WSP.

“It’s not just a matter of going over and flicking the thermostat from heating to cooling on the wall,” said Markewitz. “It’s much more complicated than that.”

The cooling tower is drained ahead of winter to prevent it, and the lines leading up to it, from freezing, which can cause costly damage.

“You’re really relying on the judgment of the building operator or the mechanical contractor when to do that, because it’s totally dependent on the weather and no one has a crystal ball to determine when you’re going to have a cold snap,” said Markewitz.

It’s possible to winterize cooling towers to run in below-freezing temperatures, which would give condo boards and landlords more leeway to switch between heating and cooling in the fall and spring, or what Markewitz called the “shoulder seasons.” However, he added that it’s rare to see multi-residential building owners invest the tens of thousands of dollars this can cost.

Another possible hitch in making a quick switch from heating back to cooling is a shortage of labour if a lot of landlords are trying to do this at the same time.

Reversing and redoing the seasonal HVAC switch over, which is usually accounted for in maintenance contracts, come with their own costs as they are considered service calls.

Matlow said he was disappointed to hear some of the landlords he spoke with complain about the expense of switching back and forth between heating and cooling. However, he said more landlords were worried about facing enforcement for violating the city’s heating bylaw.

Contravening Toronto’s heating bylaw carries a potential fine of up to $5,000 upon conviction, but Matlow said landlords who do their best to provide safe and comfortable conditions for their tenants and follow the forecast should not fear repercussions.

In any event, city statistics for the last three years suggest that most violations are informally resolved before they reach that stage. In 2017 to date, the city has received 20 complaints about excessive heat and 609 complaints about inadequate heat, which have resulted in 22 notices of violation, one order to comply and the laying of three charges (all three at the same address). The city laid no charges in 2016 and one charge in 2015.

Mark Sraga, director of investigations in the city’s municipal licensing and standards division, said via email that enforcement of this bylaw is complaint-based as opposed to proactive.

“When a contravention of the bylaw is found, then a notice of violation is issued and the landlord is provided an opportunity to rectify the problem within a certain amount of time (no heat must be rectified immediately),” said Sraga. “If the landlord does not fix the issue, then a charge is laid.”

Laura McKeen, partner at Cohen Highly LLP, observed that most landlords are likely to quickly resolve bylaw violations when prompted.

“The purpose of the bylaw is to ensure that tenants are provided with a reasonable amount of heat during the colder months of the year,” she said.

The recent heat wave doesn’t fit this description, and the condo and municipal law expert suggested it would be best practice to factor changes in climate trends and weather patterns into the type of planning that goes into the seasonal HVAC switch over.

Markewitz echoed McKeen, citing a City of Toronto report predicting a rise in the number of hot days and heat waves per year in the next few decades. He said this will make it all the more important for building owners to ensure the heating and cooling components of their HVAC systems undergo regular maintenance during their off-seasons, as repairs and replacements have long lead times.

“When a chiller fails, it’s going to be in the middle of August,” said Markewitz.

Toronto’s officer of medical health yesterday terminated the extended heat warning that had been in effect since last weekend.

The late September hot spell may be over, but questions remain about the role the municipal heating bylaw may have played in air conditioning getting switched off in multi-residential buildings ahead of more than 30-degree temperatures. Not only has the issue caught the attention of Mayor Tory, but Toronto’s ombudsman, Susan Opler, announced last week that she would be conducting an enquiry into the matter after hearing from concerned tenants.

“I am encouraging both tenants and landlords to contact Ombudsman Toronto to describe the challenges they have experienced over the past week relating to this issue,” she said.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.

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