The Condo Curse

Every now and then, co-inspector Rick and I get hired to check out a condo. Most of the condos we see were built in the 70s and 80s. When we inspect one of these 70s-80s condos, we head straight for the little room that holds the gas-fired furnace and water heater. In that room, we'll find a cornucopia of defects and hazards so grossly wicked and reprehensible that just looking at them could strike a man blind.

For example, let's start at the return air duct. The inlet-the hole where air is sucked into the furnace-is supposed to be at least 10 feet away from the furnace. Two reasons: (1) You don't want air rushing into the inlet disturbing the gas flame, and creating a "dirty burn." A dirty burn can generate carbon monoxide, which can kill you. (2) If you get a dirty burn, and carbon monoxide spills out of the furnace, you don't want that carbon monoxide to get sucked into the return inlet. If carbon monoxide gets in the return duct, it'll be distributed though the whole condo.

Often as not, we find the return air inlet just outside the door to the evil little furnace/water heater room, about 2-3 feet away from the furnace. That's downright dangerous.

Inside the evil little room, space is tight. That gives installers fits when it's time to run the vent pipes (think exhaust pipes) out of the condo building. Usually, they run the water heater vent to the furnace vent, then run the furnace vent up through the ceiling. In a multi-story condo, the vents are usually stacked vertically; that is, the vent from the bottom floor becomes the vent for the second floor, and so on. To do the job right, the installers would have to get all this pipe lined up perfectly, with no leaks, and keep it at least an inch away from anything that will burn.

That never happens. Inevitably, the pipe joints get misaligned, and the vents end up touching paper-faced walls, ceilings, and insulation. The result is leaky vents that spew carbon monoxide, and might catch something on fire besides.

Often, the vent pipes aren't sloped properly. That slows down the gases in the vents, and increases the chance of carbon monoxide spilling out into the condo, getting sucked into the return air inlet, and killing you.

Now, as if the fire and asphyxiation threats aren't enough, there's the mold threat. If you don't already know-and I hope you don't-some people have had water leaks turn their houses into giant mold farms. If you get enough mold in your house, it might just make you sick-so sick that a judge or jury might just award you tens of millions of dollars for your trouble. Within the last year or two, trial lawyers specializing in mold cases, and bootleg mold-testing companies have sprung up and grown like Georgia kudzu.

What's that got to do with the evil little room in the condo? Well, most of the time, installers don't put any catch pans or drains under condo furnaces or water heaters. I know, I know-a regular old gas furnace doesn't leak water. But in the summer, water drips off the air conditioner's coil, which is usually located on top of the furnace. And, as everybody knows, water heater tanks blow out when you're out of town for a long weekend.

In most condos we see, condensate leaks and water heater leaks just spill out onto the floor, and into the condo(s) below. Big leaks can cause ceilings to collapse, ruin carpets and furniture, and even grow a whopping-big crop of toxic mold. In the worst of the evil little rooms, especially those in 1970s condos, we'll find an obsolete, dangerous electrical panel, such as the infamous Federal Pacific Electric "Stab-Lok" panel. Some of these boogers are even wired with skinny aluminum cable, which is a known fire hazard. It's a double whammy, all in one box.

I know, some of you are thinking, Omigosh! I live in a condo. I've got all these problems. I'd better fix them! Well, here's the problem: You probably can't fix them without tearing up somebody else's condo. If you're in a multi-story unit, your ceiling is somebody else's floor, or your floor is somebody else's ceiling, or both.

Even if you could fix just your condo, you've probably only reduced your asphyxiation risk. As long as somebody in a condo near you has fire hazards, you've got fire hazards. If somebody else gets a leak and grows big mold, you might just end up breathing it.

That's why I call this collection of messes the Condo Curse. Unless you get the whole condo complex fixed, all you can do is load up your personal condo with smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, be on the lookout for leaks and mold, and hope for the best.

Here's the closest thing I have to good news: The Condo Curse is pretty much limited to condos 20 years old or older. Some of the newer ones don't have all these problems. Some of the brand new ones don't have any of these problems.