Few people would consider wearing a jacket to bed as ideal. Leaving a window open on even the chilliest nights does not sound cozy, either. But apartment dwellers will do unconventional things to create comfortable temperatures for themselves.
Older high-rise buildings are the most likely to have heating or cooling problems because of older systems, but even modern high-rises and garden-style apartments have their temperature discrepancies. In complexes where there are central temperature controls that can be changed only by a landlord, or where individually controlled temperature is uneven through apartments because of structural design, residents often find themselves suffering from a seasonal sweating or shivering disorder.
Yolanda Anderson, who sleeps in a red velour waist-length jacket to keep her body heat from escaping at night, is used to shivering away in the back bedroom of her Landover apartment. A building maintenance worker told her that it takes a while for the heat to circulate to the back bedroom when living room vents are open.
To remedy the situation, Anderson started closing the three living room vents at night, but it has not worked well. "Needless to say, I still sleep in my little velour red jacket and not out of habit," she said. "Normally, I find a comfy spot in the bed that transmits my body heat onto the sheets. This way I'm sure to keep warm until there's a need for a bathroom break."
Sleeping in multiple clothing layers is nothing out of the ordinary for long-time D.C. resident Matthew Tollefsen, who distinctly remembers the cold winter nights in his old Logan Circle apartment. "I got so cold that I had to sleep in all kinds of clothes," he said. "It used to [upset me] because there wasn't anything I could do about it. The landlord was allowed to turn the heat down at night."
Now, though, Tollefsen has the opposite problem, so he leaves his Dupont Circle bedroom window open overnight.
Tenants have little power in the decisions their landlords make about temperature control. Landlords must follow basic minimum standards for heating set by local building codes for habitability. The provisions generally stipulate the temperature at which the landlord must set the thermostat depending on the time of day and outside temperature. Some municipalities set a deadline of mid-October for turning on the heat. Similar rules apply to air conditioning in buildings that have it, and the time for activating the cooling system is generally mid-May.
Certain places, such as Alexandria, specify that by May 15 air conditioning must be provided, said Greg Kendall, a mechanical director for apartment company Archstone-Smith. Other jurisdictions set minimum temperatures for certain times of day. Kendall monitors long-range forecasts in the fall and winter, watching for snow in April or 80 degree days in November, to help management decide when to switch on heat or air conditioning. Because weather often dictates when to use heating and air conditioning, building overseers say they use legal codes mostly as a broad guideline.
"Some building owners or managers are influenced by price of heating fuel, how much money is left in the budget, when the Farmer's Almanac says the first freeze is supposed to be. There's no right or wrong way, but the question of how they determine when they turn on heat or air conditioning is a question a prospective resident needs to ask," said Susan Weston, director of education for the Arlington-based National Apartment Association.
Kendall said he tries to minimize individual residents' problems with temperature while keeping the majority comfortable, which he says can be difficult. "On the same day people tell you they're freezing, you've got people burning up. There's the rub," said Kendall, who aims to keep the temperature between 72 and 76 degrees in the 17 buildings he oversees.
Although it's sometimes impossible to avoid switching from hot to cold air when there are unseasonal temperatures, Kendall said he tries to wait until the last possible time to turn the switch to avoid putting stress on the system. Going immediately from heat to air conditioning could cause long-term damage to a boiler system, a common method of central eating and cooling. The system uses chilled or heated water, which needs time to get back to air temperature before performing the opposite function.
"It's not an easy process," said Steve Halsted, assistant vice president of mechanical engineering for Consolidated Engineering Services, an Arlington firm that provides engineering and operational consulting to apartments. "Once we valve over to air conditioning, we have to decide if it's to the benefit of residents to valve back. Whether you're using natural gas, fuel oil or electricity, you're looking for the five days in the fall and spring that you can get by without providing heat or air conditioning. That saves the systems."
It's usually a major undertaking and expense to revamp heating and cooling systems, especially in older buildings. To update the systems, owners must deal with problems with insulation, asbestos, lead and old windows. Sometimes landlords instead choose to compensate for decrepit systems, poor windows or even deteriorating wall or pipe insulation -- even if on just a few floors of a high-rise or garden apartment -- by pumping large amounts of heated air through the entire building.
"You can add components to heating systems, but they will not materially improve the performance. People usually learn to live with them when they find out how much it will cost to modernize the system," Halsted said.
"In some of these older buildings, expectations for comfort were not as high as they are today," he said. "When the systems were originally put in, the fact that the temperature was 75 degrees plus or minus 10 degrees was okay because people had heat and that was acceptable. Now people want to be comfortable within a degree, but there's not a lot you can do when places built in the '20s and '30s have radiators, which often have steam heat, which has poor control characteristics."
Besides just getting used to the temperature, there are adjustments residents can make so their unit's climate is more agreeable. Closing vents in other rooms to make the air circulate more quickly to a bedroom, or closing radiator valves to help keep out hot steam, are potential solutions. Building engineers can offer other tips based on building structure and heating and cooling systems.
Because windows account for a large percentage of heat loss, especially in older buildings that have single-paned windows, choosing a south-facing apartment would allow the most light and warmth to enter. North-facing windows offer consistent light, but a cold exposure. Tenants can also open and close blinds, shades or curtains to keep excess warmth in or out.
Unless sleeping with a window open in 30-degree weather or repeatedly wearing long underwear, multiple sweaters, wool socks or even a velour jacket to bed sounds appealing, it pays to know when management typically turns the heating and cooling on before you move in. Prospective tenants should also understand what the heating systems can and can't do and the control residents have over them.
"People who are experienced high-rise livers know what to look for," Weston said. "They take a little control to make sharing living in a communal environment a little more comfortable."
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.