SF Apartment : May 2016
Time to Vent
by Eric Gacutan
Dryer vents, trash chutes and HVAC systems are often overlooked, but their regular maintenance is essential for a safe and healthy building.
When it comes to multifamily apartment building maintenance, the areas that get the most attention often include painting, plumbing, landscaping, appliance repairs and upgrades and interior/exterior design. However, there are other crucial areas that tend to get overlooked when we consider building maintenance. These oft-forgotten areas are dryer vents, trash chutes and HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) ducts and registers. If overlooked for too long, these systems can become hazardous, creating a fire danger for your tenants. Proper maintenance of each of these areas ensures that each system is running correctly and efficiently, and more importantly, can prevent an unnecessary disaster from occurring.
A Fluffy Hazard
First, let’s talk about dryer vents. The function of a dryer vent is to ventilate or exhaust the lint and heat from the dryer. Inside the dryer is an exhaust duct that is connected to the fan, and its purpose is to exhaust hot air and any lint that passes through the lint screen. Behind the dryer is either a flexible duct or a rigid duct. This duct connects the exhaust duct from inside the dryer to the dryer vent that is located either on the side of the building or on the rooftop. The vent and/or duct can accumulate lint buildup throughout time if not properly maintained, especially if the dryer is used frequently. This buildup can occur inside the flexible duct that attaches the dryer to the dryer vent, and can also be inside the dryer vent itself. The lint traps inside the dryer only catch a small fraction of the lint from the laundry as it dries. The majority of the lint passes through and builds up inside the duct/vent.
All properties should have their dryer vents professionally cleaned once a year. This is true for properties that have shared onsite laundry facilities as well as for buildings with in-unit washer/dryers. Either way, it’s crucial to make sure this maintenance is done on a regularly scheduled basis. If it’s ignored, tenants can experience issues with inefficiency: the dryer may not heat properly, clothes make take too long to dry or not dry at all. More imperatively, if dryer vents and ducts are not regularly maintained, they will accumulate lint buildup, putting your tenants in danger of a possible fire. Therefore, it’s important to have regularly scheduled maintenance for your dryers, and to make sure they are cleaned correctly.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2010 there were an estimated 16,800 reported clothes dryer and/or washing machine fires in the U.S. These fires resulted in 51 civilian deaths, 380 civilian injuries, and $236 million in direct property damage. The NFPA’s report goes on to say that 92% of those fires were caused by clothes dryers, 4% by washing machines and 4% by combination washer/dryers. While not all of those fires were due to lack of maintenance or cleaning, it was the leading cause at 32%. This translates to roughly 5,000 fires in the U.S. in 2010 that were caused by a lack of maintenance and cleaning of clothes dryer vents. The vast majority of those fires could have been avoided by just taking the time to make sure the dryer vents were cleaned and regularly maintained.
It does not take much time to clean a dryer vent. This small, regularly-scheduled maintenance item can not only ensure equipment efficiency but also save lives. Dryer lint is extremely flammable—in fact, every year when my family and I go camping, we use some of the accumulated lint from our dryer to help start our campfires! We bring a baggie full of lint, and that one small bag will last us the entire four day/three night trip, enabling us to start three fires. It only takes a minimal amount of lint to get the firewood going, so imagine what years of accumulated lint can do inside your dryer and dryer vent!
What’s That Smell?
Most high-rise multifamily buildings in San Francisco have built-in trash chutes. Depending on the size of the building, there can either be one central trash chute, or multiple chutes located in different corners of the building. Each floor of the building will either have a designated room for the trash chute hopper door, or will just have a hopper door. Either way, each area will see a lot of traffic. There are many different types of items thrown down the chute, such as food waste, cardboard, diapers, etc. Over time, an accumulation of waste can stick to the sides of the chute or get stuck inside the chute, and this can cause a very unpleasant odor. Regular maintenance of your building’s trash chutes is obviously necessary!
Compared to dryer vents, trash chutes do not pose a large threat in terms of fire hazard—though it’s still possible for a chute to catch fire. Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 80 fires in the U.S. per year occurred in trash chutes. The opening on trash chutes is a mandatory minimum 24 inches in diameter and can go up from there. The problem with the smaller chutes (i.e. 24-inch diameter) is that trash bags, cardboard and other miscellaneous items can get caught in the chutes. When this occurs, a fire hazard is created.
However, the bigger issues with trash chutes are odor and appearance. Between last night’s leftovers, dirty diapers and old moldy food from multiple refrigerators, a hodgepodge of smells can accumulate inside a trash chute. Some of the newer trash chutes have a built-in sprinkler system that is mainly used to prevent/extinguish potential fires. However, some maintenance supervisors and/or property managers have used this sprinkler system as a cleaning mechanism. You can actually pour a solution such as Simple Green, which is a nontoxic biodegradable industrial cleaner and degreaser, inside the allotted area at the top of the chute and run your sprinklers; the mixture can aid in cleaning and deodorizing.
Unfortunately, most if not all of the old trash chutes do not have this sprinkler capability, and years of accumulation of trash and waste can create an odor that would offend the likes of Oscar the Grouch. True story: We were called out to a property to perform a thorough cleaning of the trash chutes. This particular property had seven trash chutes located throughout the building. It was an older building, built in 1971, and to the knowledge of the property manager, the chutes had not been cleaned since her company’s acquisition of the building the year prior—nor was she aware of any cleanings prior to their acquisition. To say the stench coming from these chutes was unbearable was an understatement! Inside one of the chutes we found a dirty diaper that was stuck to the side of the chute—and who knows how long it had been there. By the time we were finished cleaning the chutes, all odor and debris issues were rectified, and once again it was bearable to be in the vicinity of the trash chute rooms where the hopper doors were located.
For both large buildings with multiple trash chutes and smaller buildings with only one, it is important to make sure that you have your chutes inspected and cleaned regularly.
Running Hot and Cold
Finally, let’s discuss HVAC ducts/registers. Almost every multifamily apartment building will have an HVAC system. Attached to the system are the ducts that lead to the registers where the hot or cold air comes out. If the ducts and/or registers are clogged, it will limit the airflow from the register, and this can cause heating and/or cooling problems. Most of the time when a tenant complains about a lack of airflow or pressure, the problem can be alleviated by proper cleaning of the ducts and registers. It’s also important to have the furnace and HVAC units inspected, repaired and cleaned. This can be done on a yearly basis or during the turnover of a unit or building. Either way, it is important to have these systems serviced properly.
Similar to trash chutes, there are not many fires caused inside HVAC ducts. In fact, most of the fires that are caused by HVAC systems are due to either a faulty unit and/or a unit that is not operating properly. During a cleaning of the system, the units should be fully inspected and repaired if necessary.
Another issue with HVAC ducts and registers is that if they are not cleaned regularly, debris such as lint, dirt and allergens can come out of the registers. If you have a tenant who has bad allergies or they are complaining of a cough, itchy eyes etc., it is important to have the HVAC ducts inspected. Most of the time the problem can be rectified by a thorough cleaning of the system, ducts and registers.
Here’s a not-so-funny true story: A property manager was getting complaints from a tenant who was always getting sick and having allergies, and they couldn’t figure out the problem. Even after the unit was completely professionally cleaned, the tenant’s health still wasn’t improving. Finally, they thought to have the HVAC system inspected. Once we were able to do the inspection, we found mold inside the ductwork. Somehow moisture was getting inside the duct, creating the mold. We were able to do a full cleaning of the ductwork and the HVAC unit and that corrected the problem. This story definitely goes to show that if you neglect your HVAC system and ductwork, problems could be hiding or looming that cannot be seen without proper maintenance and inspection.
In closing, it’s very important to include vents and chutes and ducts in your regular maintenance program. Tenant safety is and always will be a priority for property managers, and some of the not-so-common items on a maintenance checklist can create the most hazardous conditions. If you aren’t already including these areas in your maintenance planning, it is crucial to start doing so. If you don’t have a maintenance staff that can handle the cleaning and upkeep of these areas, make sure to reach out to a professional that can assist you with your maintenance. If you’re reading this article and realizing that your vents and chutes and ducts have been neglected, now is the time to take corrective action.
Eric Gacutan has been in the restoration industry for five years. He has been an operations manager and lead supervisor, and is now the business development manager at Water Damage Recovery. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 510-520-1744.