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Turn up the heat and open the window

A radiator.

KAI RYSSDAL: It's 90 degrees today in Los Angeles. Nice and all, but to be honest we'd all settle for something a bit more temperate.Not too chilly, though, as it's been in much of the country this winter.

You might think people back East would be thankful for their central heating systems. Not necessarily. And especially not apartment dwellers. In New York City you can walk past a building on a cold day and hear the whir of an air conditioner. Ashley Milne-Tyte explains what gives.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: When Jessica Manke moved from Carmel, California to Manhattan 18 months ago, she steeled herself for the chill of an East Coast winter.

When we spoke at her apartment this week it was snowing; the outside temperature was a frigid 16 degrees. As for the inside temperature . . .

JESSICA MANKE: 82.

Manke says she spends most of her time at home in shorts. To stay comfortable during the night, she cranks her bedroom window up and down and uses the fan on her air conditioner.

MANKE: I bought all this bedding thinking I was gonna freeze the whole time. And I still have it in the original packaging, I don't even use it.

Manke can't adjust the heat. In her apartment building, as in many others, the heat — in this case steam heat — is centrally controlled. And the old pipes bang all night while she tosses and turns.

Roberta Bernstein runs Small Property Owners of New York. She owns four buildings, and says over the years, some tenants have complained about balmy conditions.

ROBERTA BERNSTEIN: But I think that most of your owners err on the side of caution. They'd rather overheat and have the tenant open the window than be all that they're cold and make a complaint.

A complaint to the city, that is, which could result in a violation notice for the landlord. But does it have to be so hot?

Mechanical system designer Henry Gifford says steam heat is a big reason many fry throughout the colder months.

HENRY GIFFORD: Steam is like controlling the speed of your car by putting your foot all the way on the gas pedal and turning the key on and off.

Steam, he says, comes on ultra-hot. There are no grades in temperature as there are with hot-water heat. So steam heats up a room in no time.

But even with a different heating system, residents can suffer. When old pipes corrode and air valves stop working properly, heat is distributed less efficiently. Some people get too much, others too little.

And, Gifford says, most buildings, old or new, are just poorly designed and constructed. They're full of gaps, he says — badly insulated, badly ventilated and people who live in them have little hope of relief.

GIFFORD: Once a building's built with one of those terrible ventilation systems that connects all the apartments to each other and up through the roof, that system is staying there until the next time the building gets renovated.

Gifford works with architect Chris Benedict at her firm, Architecture and Energy Limited. They design, build and renovate buildings to be energy-efficient.

CHRIS BENEDICT: We bring in buildings that are using 15 percent of the energy of a typical building in New York City. And we do it with a lot of number-crunching as well as a lot of art.

Benedict says in their buildings, it costs an average of $600 a year to provide heat and hot water to an apartment — compared with a few thousand dollars for a regular apartment.

Speaking from the boiler room of one of her properties, landlord Roberta Bernstein says her heating bills aren't as high as that. But she'd love to save energy, she says — only it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to overhaul her current heating systems. Still, she has tried an experiment.

BERNSTEIN: I put thermostats in each of the four corners of the building.

They were set to tell the boiler downstairs to shut off when each of the apartments on the top floor hit 70 degrees, but . . .

BERNSTEIN: Tenants are used to having it warmer, and they complained that they weren't getting enough heat so I disconnected them.

The thermostats, that is, not the tenants. Some people, she says, just like it tropical when it's cold outside.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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