QI am renting an apartment where I pay for electricity. I own an air conditioner. During the summer, the management company charges an additional $50 per month for each room where an air conditioner is used. It seems as if I am paying double for electricity. Is this some kind of violation? -- Washington
Assuming your apartment is individually metered and you are billed directly by the electric power company, your management company is indeed charging you for no reason. Because you already pay for the energy you use, you are essentially being billed twice. (However, if that $50 charge is written into your lease, you may be stuck with it.)
Now, if your apartment management actually bills you itself for a portion of the building's total energy use -- meaning your unit is not metered and the company determines your monthly cost by dividing the building's total, master-metered bill by the overall number of units -- then it may not be a blatant infringement. But even without sub-meters to tell you just how much energy you are using, $50 for each room that uses a window unit seems steep for an apartment.
Robert Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, said that if the management company is charging a flat rate for energy use, there is "no way to figure how or whether [$50 per room] is justifiable or not."
He said, "It's based on a lot of different variables: how big the room is, how cool the person has it set, how the apartment is insulated. It's difficult to say because you can use a lot of juice by making it as cold as possible."
Dobkin said that if a tenant is paying the power company for electricity, the "apartment building is making money. Iit's like they're leasing you an air conditioner."
And, while we're on the hot topic of air conditioning, I asked Dobkin to give some tips for keeping your electric bill down during the hot and humid summer.
Dobkin, who said air conditioning units are the biggest energy user among major appliances, gave this advice:
* For every degree that you raise the thermostat, you can cut your energy consumption by 3 percent to 5 percent, which in turn helps you reduce your electric bill.
* Clean or replace your air conditioning filters every three to five weeks.
* Don't set the thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on the air conditioning. It won't cool faster, but it will cool to a lower temperature than you need and thus use more energy.
* Keep your shades and drapes drawn to retain the cool air and keep the sun out.
* Keep lights low or off when you don't need them.
* Don't place lamps or television sets near the thermostat because the thermostat senses heat from appliances and could cause the air conditioner to work harder.
* Use fans to help air circulate. Fans stir the air and make it feel cooler so that you can more comfortably push up your thermostat.
* Cook or use appliances in the early morning and late evening whenever possible.
I live in a basement apartment; the rest of the house is occupied by the owners. We have a generally good relationship, but I've been frustrated that my requests to deal with a problem have not been taken seriously. There are bars on some of our windows, which of course were put there to keep out burglars. But they would also prevent us from escaping in the event of a fire. The one window that does not have bars is painted shut, and there is a metal piece attached to the frame on the outside that would prevent the window from opening enough for anyone to crawl out.
I understand the need for security -- I definitely don't want people breaking in -- but I also don't want to be trapped in a burning building. Any ideas or advice? -- Washington
As fires often damage multi-family buildings, all apartment residents should know and practice their emergency exit strategies. Fire safety is important for everybody; no matter where you live, you should pay enough attention so that you are sure your getaway plan is feasible.
If you are not convinced that you will be safe in case of a fire, you should call your local housing office and ask for an inspector to come out and check if your building meets fire safety requirements. Even if there is frequent crime near an apartment building that warrants putting bars on windows and doors, apartment owners in the District and states throughout the country must follow the International Fire Code and any other provisions mandated by local jurisdictions.
"There are specific requirements in the building codes concerning bars," said Ron Nickson, vice president of building codes for the District-based National Multi Housing Council.
Nickson cites the 2003 International Fire Code, which states that emergency escape and rescue openings shall be operable from the inside of the room without the use of keys or tools. Bars, grills, grates or similar devices are permitted to be placed over emergency escape and rescue openings, provided that the minimum net clear opening size is 5.7 square feet.
Furthermore, the code says that devices such as bars over windows shall be releasable or removable from the inside without the use of a key, tool or force greater than that which is required for normal operation of the escape and rescue opening. Smoke alarms should be installed where such bars, grills, grates or similar devices exist.
Nickson said that in the District, if a unit has a sprinkler system, then only one escape exit is required. Where there are bars on windows without an escape latch, the door is considered the primary escape exit.
However, if there is no sprinkler system, then a second escape exit is necessary. A secondary exit may be another door or a window. If it's a window, it must follow the rules for being an escape exit, meaning that it has 5.7 square feet of open area and is not blocked by any device unless it can be removed from the inside without the use of a key or a tool.
Whether your exits are doors or windows, check to make sure they have some kind of operable quick-release, such as a latch, chain or lever on the inside, so that you will not be trapped. (The door is not supposed to have a deadbolt or any other security mechanism that requires the use of a tool or a key.)
If all the exits require keys to get out, you should ask management to add a quick-release system. And if management repeatedly ignores your requests, call a housing inspector to check your unit's compliance with local fire codes. An inspector's visit may bring a response from your landlord.
Also, you may want to think about finding another place to live in the meantime. The possibility of fire is a serious problem, and chances are if your landlord is willing to risk your safety in this case, he or she might fall short in other areas when it comes to your safety.
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.