The bio-thermostat override
The weakest part of an automobile, my father used to tell me, was the nut behind the wheel. It thinks it has free will, he might have added, and even if it didn’t have free will, it can certainly make noise, as we discovered a few months back with this ain’t-it-a-scandal mongering by the ever-populist Boston Herald (July 18):
Red-faced city housing bosses have agreed to allow window air conditioning units at the renovated Heritage Apartments in East Boston following a Herald inquiry yesterday into sweltering conditions at the complex that left tenants feeling fed-up and heat sick.
In previous posts, I’ve applauded the New York Daily News for the potency of its investigative journalism; here the Herald shows the other end of that same stick: whipping up a cover-story without bothering to check the context:
The Boston Housing Authority had banned all window air conditioners as part of a $15.7 million renovation project, saying new windows came with warranties that would have been thrown out if tenants used old air conditioners.
Heritage is 301 predominantly elderly apartments, so the renovation is over $50,000 an apartment; and as BHA developments go, it’s a particularly nice one. According to the Boston Globe (Jul 12, 2011) (blue Arial), here’s what has been done:
The improvements, which have already begun [July, 2011 – Ed.], include:
Exterior repairs and insulation
Improvements to common areas
New fire-alarm systems
Low-flow toilets, faucets, and shower heads
New natural gas heating systems with individual thermostats.
The Heritage in East Boston, under renovation last summer
None of this made it into the Herald’s blast, and yet it’s critical information. Much of the renovation has focused on energy conservation and energy efficiency, and for that, management of air flow is essential. Windows, as everyone knows, are usually huge heat sieves, for multiple reasons:
1. The glass itself will have a minuscule R-factor. For that reason thermopane or sandwich-style windows are preferred, but these are expensive, and can easily crack and lose their insulating quality.
2. The window frame can be a massive air leak and source of drafts.
3. The bio-thermostat: people tend to leave windows open when they shouldn’t.
Evidently the new windows are warranted for insulating qualities, and the installation of window air conditioners would certainly mess up the window seals.
Yep, that’s sealed, all right
Now imagine elderly people wrestling a window air conditioner into place, either on their own or with the help of their children, nephews and nieces, or grandchildren.
Thanks for those, Grandpa
So there’s plenty of reason to conclude that, broadly speaking, residents should not be installing individual window air conditioning units. That works fine … until the temperature skyrockets:
The edict hit hard yesterday as the elderly and disabled residents in the 296-unit complex roasted in the nearly 100-degree heat — with only fans and the occasional portable air conditioner to give them any relief.
Forty-plus years ago, I worked for half a year at First National City Bank of New York in their Amsterdam, Netherlands branch. The bank decided to renovate its tony Heerengracht townhouse, so they built for us who worked in that building a temporary facility smack in the canal’s middle. It was engineered as a modern two-storey box, with lovely windows so we had tourist boats puttering by, and it was idyllic, until the dog days of April, when we discovered that all those floor-to-ceiling unopenable windows made us into a hothouse.
About ten times a day, one of these chugged by my window
Fuming tenants said they felt helpless against the oppressive heat.
“I can’t afford to buy a new one,” said Curtis, a retired meat packing worker with severe arthritis, who lives on $858 per month. “I have to pay the rent and I have to buy food. It’s hard to save the way things are today.”
‘I can’t afford to buy (an air conditioner). I have to pay the rent. …’ – Donald Curtis, 87
Now we hear the cry of the fixed-income renter – which is irrelevant to the issue at hand. A complex can reasonably prohibit people from using their own window air conditioners, as a matter of building efficiency and resident safety (those things do fall out of windows).
Yvette Taormino, who runs the complex from an air-conditioned office [Love the gratuitous dig – Ed.] at the Heritage complex, said the new windows didn’t come cheap.
In that case, the property has placed itself on the line to deliver a comfortable living environment. If the fancy new system doesn’t work, then the owners should have a contingency plan in place to do something on scorching hot days.
It’s a contingency plan, but not much of one:
Sign at Heritage Apartments in East Boston on Tuesday.
But tenants said they didn’t care.
“I’m steaming hot, and there’s no help,” said Tammy Tarrant, 46, and a chronic pain sufferer who lives on the fourth floor. “I asked management for an air conditioner, but they turned me down.”
‘I’m steaming hot, and there’s no help.’ – Tammy Tarrant, 46
That raises a further issue: in general, public housing residents do not pay their own utility costs, so the marginal electricity isn’t their expenditure; only the cost of the unit itself.
Paul Murray, 57, said he’s had problems getting help from management, too.
“I can’t afford an air conditioner, and they won’t get me one,” he said. “They help, but not as much as they are supposed to.”
‘I can’t afford an air conditioner, and they won’t get me one. They help, but not as much as they are supposed to.’ – Paul Murray, 57
The system should have been able to handle this. Temperatures above 95 are rare in Boston’s summers, but by no means unheard-of.
Probably the residents would have had to swelter without the Herald’s front page story, which led to immediate public-relations results:
After the Herald interviewed dozens of suffering seniors, the housing authority reversed course and announced tenants could reinstall old units in the new windows.
That’s at best a short-term solution, and one wonders how it will be squared with the window warranties.
“We do not want residents to spend their own money to replace their air conditioners because of the construction,” Boston Housing Authority spokeswoman Lydia Agro told the Herald late yesterday. “We’re going to make adaptations to the windows to ensure residents who had air conditioning in their windows can put them back in.”
That’s probably the right answer, for resident relations; pity it could not have been engineered before the BHA had a public-relations dustup on its hands.
BHA boss Bill McGonigle [Sic: McGonagle – Ed.] changed his stance, Agro added, out of concern over the health of some seniors.
Administrator McGonagle with two BHA residents
Good optics for sure; good property management, maybe not.
“Somebody loves me!” said a beaming Donald Curtis, when he heard he could get a new AC unit for his apartment.
Fellow tenant Anthony Cartolano, who turns 74 today, was delighted he could unpack his old AC: “God, that’s great news.”
The BHA said they will also purchase “some” portable air conditioning units as soon as possible to help combat the blistering temperatures.
Of course, it would have helped had the BHA thought to engineer in feedback loops for their 301 bio-thermostats before doing the $15,000,000 renovation.
Resident in Dallas public housing