Solving Odour Transfer Problems in Apartments

May 7th 2018
Solving Odour Transfer Problems in Apartments

Odours in your home can be one of the most unwelcoming, hard to deal with issues that you face. They can be hidden, hard to solve and can even transfer through from others' properties! This can be especially hard to deal with in apartments. Let Shell Busey's Home Improvements and Renovations help clean up the smell in your home!

One of the most common problems experienced by the occupants of apartment buildings is the transfer of objectionable odours from one suite to another. Tobacco smoke and cooking odours top the list of complaints. The smell of car exhaust from underground parking garages can also be problematic.

Regardless of whether an apartment is rented or owned, there are steps you can take to solve, or at least improve, odour conditions in your apartment. However, before you take any actions that might affect your unit or other areas of the building, you should consult with the building's management and obtain their approval.

Understanding Air Movement in Your Building:

For odours to transfer between apartments, two conditions must exist. First, there must be a hole, or pathway, for the air to move through and, second, there must be a driving force to push the air through the hole. The following sections will help you to better understand where the holes are and what forces act on your building. This, in turn, will enable you to determine the source of the odour problem in your apartment and what you might do about it.

The "Pathways"

Despite appearances, apartment buildings can have relatively leaky interior ceiling, floor and wall partitions that allow air to move through the building. Odour transfer between apartments would not otherwise be possible. There may be leakage pathways through the walls and floors separating you from your neighbours beside, above and below your apartment at the following locations:
- Under the entry door from the corridor
- Electrical outlets and switches
- Wiring penetrations
- Plumbing penetrations
- Ducts
- Joints between the walls and floors that define your apartment's boundaries
- Dropped ceilings

In the common areas of the building, stairwells, elevator shafts and garbage chutes serve as passageways for air movement throughout the building.

Odour Transfer: What to Do About It

Consider that many of these steps have a trial and error element to them - and are identified as such. The causes of odour transfer to your apartment, and the solutions, will be dependent on factors such as where your apartment is located in the building, the building's construction type, how the building is operated and maintained and other such factors. These cannot cover all the different scenarios so you will need to try certain measures to see if they improve the situation. Fortunately, the trial and error measures are easily reversible and will cause no long-term problems.

Within Your Unit:

  • -  Ensure the Odour Source is Not in Your Apartment.

  • -  If the odour is coming from your apartment, it is something that you can deal with.
  • -  Seal Potential Leakage Pathways Between Your Unit and Other Areas as Follows:  Seal the gap around the corridor door to your apartment with weather stripping. Note: This is a trial and error measure. In most buildings, corridor air systems force air from the corridor into your apartment. This can cause odour transfer problems. Install the weather stripping and wait to see if this reduces odour transfer. After sealing the corridor door, watch to see if your apartment becomes stuffy or if odours and humidity linger in bathrooms or kitchen areas. Also watch for the appearance of condensation on your windows. Should any one, or all, of these problems occur after you have sealed your door, you may have to operate your exhaust fans more frequently. If this does not help, you may have to remove the weather stripping to improve ventilation.

    1. -  Seal plumbing penetrations in the walls and floors under sinks in kitchen and bathrooms, and behind toilet fixtures. Check in closets and utility closets for other pipe, duct and wiring penetrations and seal around these as well. Use low odour, water-based caulking or spray-in foam to seal penetrations.
    2. -  Install air-sealing gaskets behind the cover plates of light switches and electrical receptacles. Air-sealing gaskets can be found at most hardware stores.
    3. -  For in-suite bathroom exhaust fans, remove the grille and caulk or seal with foil duct tape the gap between bathroom fans and the surrounding ceiling or wall areas. The sealed joint will be hidden when you replace the grille. If you only have an exhaust grille in your bathroom that is connected to a central exhaust system, sometimes the grille can be removed and the exhaust duct can be sealed to the surrounding ceiling or wall. Otherwise, gaps around the grille can be sealed with paintable caulking.
    4. -  Caulk the bathtub and its surrounding enclosure to adjacent wall and ceiling areas with silicone caulking.
    5. -  Remove baseboards and caulk the floor-wall joint around the perimeter of your apartment on both inside and outside walls. Note that this measure is a last resort that is difficult to do, is highly disruptive, and may, or may not, make a difference. The measure is recommended if renovations are planned in the apartment as it can be easily done when other work is underway or when flooring is being replaced.

  • Seal Indoor-Outdoor Air Leakage Paths in Your Apartment:

  • -  Air leaking through outside walls can cause air from neighbouring apartments and the common corridor to be drawn into your unit. Limiting air movement through exterior walls will not only prevent this from happening but will also reduce drafts, reduce heating costs and limit the amount of outdoor noise entering your apartment.
  • -  Ensure window and door gaskets are intact or in good condition - otherwise replace them. This is usually the building owner's or condominium's responsibility. Worn or flattened gaskets, windows that rattle in the wind, the presence of drafts or the movement of drapes and blinds are signs that your windows are leaky.
  • -  Caulk the wall-floor joint behind baseboards (similar to step 2 f. above) - this can be difficult to do but may be worthwhile if renovations are being considered.
  • -  Seal joints around through-wall or window-mount air conditioning units with caulking or spray-in foam. Be careful not to block any pipes that drain condensation from the unit to outdoors.
  • -  Seal wiring penetrations behind electric baseboard heaters. This will require the services of a contractor to disconnect the power and remove baseboard units.
  • -  Install air-sealing gaskets behind the cover plates for electrical outlets and switches.
  • -  Ventilate Your Unit with Existing Fans:  Use the bathroom fan and kitchen fan to ventilate your unit. Operating your exhaust fans can help dilute odours that enter your apartment. Ensure the fans are working - they should be able to hold a piece of tissue paper to their grilles when operating. If they are unable to do this, or little airflow is detectable, the exhaust fan, duct system or outside hood may require cleaning. Sometimes the age, condition or quality of the fan will require that it be replaced.

  • -  Be aware that operation of exhaust fans in your unit may draw more air from neighbouring apartments or the common corridor into your unit, making the problem worse, not better. Sealing between your unit and other areas of the building, as previously recommended, should help prevent this from happening. However, if exhaust fan operation does not improve conditions in your apartment, or seems to make matters worse, discontinue their use except as normally required.

Note: If your apartment has combustion appliances such as wood-burning fireplaces or natural gas fireplaces, hot water heaters and furnaces, it is recommended that you consult with a qualified wood burning or natural gas appliance installer prior to taking any actions to reduce odour transfer since these suggestions can adversely affect the operation of combustion appliances and air quality.

Building Pressurization System:

Make sure the maintenance and servicing of your pressurization system is an annual budget item so your strata can meet their obligations. And owners must ensure their door sweeps are not completely blocked to allow the pressurized air to circulate. Both the strata corporation and owners have a responsibility to ensure the system operates. The strata council must maintain and repair the system, including changing of filters and maintenance of the heating and cooling units.

These systems are generally designed to operate 24 hours a day and the strata will gain little benefit if they only operate in peak hours of demand.

Understanding how and why air transfer occurs will help you resolve odour problems in your unit. Sometimes, working with the building management and the other occupants in the building will help resolve the problem with little cost or effort. Other times, measures, such as those suggested in this guide, may be necessary. The highly varied nature of apartment buildings means that a trial and error approach must be taken so that, ultimately, the problem is resolved.

For problems where it may be appropriate to have an indoor air quality expert visit contact Shell Busey's Home Service Referral Network for an Air Quality Inspector at 604-542-2236.

Strata Corporations and Smoking Bylaws

Condominium Homeowners Association in BC; We are often asked if a Strata Corporation or an individual owner can stop another owner from smoking in his or her strata lot, the common property or on a balcony or patio. Inevitably those who ask the question are caught in the classic struggle between the opposing legal rights of two or more residents. The answer to the question is that, given the right fact pattern, a Judge has and will order an owner to stop smoking in his or her strata lot.

In deciding a specific case, a Judge may consider the specific facts involved, the common law of nuisance, the Strata Corporation's general bylaws regarding nuisance and any specific bylaws regarding smoking in force for the Strata Corporation. It is also possible that cases regarding smoking in a strata complex may also be heard by the Human Rights Tribunal or an Arbitrator appointed pursuant to the provisions of the Strata Property Act.

A. The Common Law of Nuisance

The word "nuisance" has a legal meaning. It is a civil legal cause of action that deals with interference with the enjoyment of land. Some potential interferences are smell, noise and vibration. It can result from intentional acts undertaken for lawful purposes and it does not necessarily involve negligence. There are many things a person may not do in his house or castle -- one of these things now is that he may not allow there to be emitted or discharged a noxious substance, cigar smoke and odour.

B. The General Bylaws and Strata Corporation Involvement

Nuisance cases involving the residents of two strata lots may also involve the strata corporation. For instance, the resident being affected by the nuisance could take the position that the council should have dealt with the nuisance by enforcing the strata corporation's bylaws. Certainly the Schedule of Standard Bylaws lends itself to this argument.

Bylaws from the Strata Property Act provides as follows:

Use of property:  An owner, tenant, occupant or visitor must not use a strata lot, the common property or common assets in a way that
(a) causes a nuisance or hazard to another person,
(b) causes unreasonable noise,
(c) unreasonably interferes with the rights of other persons to use and enjoy the common property, common assets or another strata lot,
(d) is illegal, or
(e) is contrary to a purpose for which the strata lot or common property is intended as shown expressly or by necessary implication on or by the strata plan.

Many strata corporations are considering the issue of smoking in the condominium complex: should there be a non-smoking bylaw and, if so, whether there should be a complete ban on smoking not only on common property, but also in individual strata lots. And while an outright ban on smoking, including in individual strata lots, may not be necessary, or, for that matter, easy to pass, the law of nuisance provides protection for owners from second-hand smoke in specific instances where they can demonstrate they are personally being negatively impacted by someone else smoking.

What we do know is that the Court will not shy away from making tough decisions about balancing the rights of different individuals who live in the same strata complex. Given the many different directions these cases may take, if you are involved in a matter involving a potential nuisance, such as noise, smoke or vibration being caused by a neighbour, we recommend that you seek legal advice.