It’s the time of year where landlords in colder parts of the United States are talking about furnaces.  We’re entering the throws of the cold weather season and what is historically the harshest parts of our winters.  It’s the time of year that we dread a tenant phone call the most. We’re always panicking (unless you have new furnaces) about if they’ve lost heat.  Then what if it’s more than the wall thermostat and we need a part, how much is that going to be? Even worse…what if it’s dead. Given all of this, it’s a good idea to have a discussion about furnace…etiquette.  

What do I mean by furnace etiquette? It’s not just about maintenance and keeping it in running order, it’s all about protocol of heat settings, and the advent of new technology. Not only are furnaces more complicated in themselves, but everything surrounding them is too.

Etiquette Lesson 1: Furnace Check Ups

Furnace check ups are a great way to shore up your defenses before the storm.  Have your trusted HVAC company come out in August/September and give your furnaces a good ole check up.  They’ll check over all your components and make suggestions on possible repairs ahead of the season. Best part is some companies will waive the service charge for the repair because you did a furnace check up. You are required to do whatever work you want within X days of the service check up to get the savings.  (You can’t just wait until January to get the igniter replaced and expect to get the discount when it was mentioned it in August.)

Etiquette Lesson 2: Smart Thermostats Don’t Give You The Right To Police Their Heat Usage

Smart thermostats are arguably one of the best inventions we’ve seen in a long time.  They help us control our heating and cooling costs by being able to adjust the temperature remotely.  Instead of only using programming we can now control our thermostats from our phone. You can adjust the heating and cooling from the restaurant table as your plans change. For our primary residence it’s an amazing piece of technology. Yet for rentals, its fraught with ethical complications. 

There are landlords out there who want to install smart thermostats not to keep an eye on the temperature when a unit is vacant (the legitimate reason in my book), BUT INSTEAD WHEN IT’S OCCUPIED. This is I have a problem with. Regardless of whether you include heat or not in most circumstances what your tenant sets the temperature at is none of your business.  We’ll chat in the following sections about minium and maximum temperatures. 

An argument could certainly be made (and is appropriate) for making sure the tenant keeps the heat to 55 (the accepted practice to prevent pipes bursting).  Yet I would caution to be sure you can retrieve reading reports from the smart thermostats app for documentation as to why you had to manipulate their settings remotely.  (Note: Some smart thermostats allow you to set a minimum temperature that kicks in regardless of the programming. Making sure it doesn’t slip below 55 would be an acceptable use of this.) 

NOTE: Most smart thermostats require a wifi connection to be remotely controlled or monitored.  Some wireless providers are selling smart thermostats that can work on data when wifi isn’t available (i.e. when its vacant).  But you pay big moola to get that.  Plus there is the continual data usage the thermostat uses whenever you want to check the thermostat. 

Etiquette Lesson 3: If The Tenant Pays The Bill You Can’t Tell Them How To Set It

It seems that at some point landlords got confused and began to believe they have an interest in policing the thermostat programming of an occupied unit even when the tenant pays the utilities.   They “justify” their interest by saying that it’s to avoid excessive wear and tear on the unit. Here’s the holes in that justification.

The tenant is still paying the utilities.  99% of judges will say that when the tenant pays the bill you have no right to police the thermostat settings (with the exception of the 55 setting for heat). Since the burden of the utility expense is on the tenant, there is less justification in your mandating temperatures.  

As for the argument about excessive wear and tear…that’s buckus.  To the furnace and a/c there is no difference between 70 and 75. If you are concerned about the wear and tear on your furnace install an energy saving thermostat that only changes temperatures when it varies more than 3 degrees around the target temperature. This will more adequately protect your furnace without upsetting your tenant.   (Most tenants will like this thermostat as well because it will save on their energy bill.)

Etiquette Lesson 4: Even if you pay the bill a judge will only give you so much leeway on mandating unit temperature. 

If you read the above section thinking you were in the clear because you do pay the gas and electric…you are kind of right but also not. You have a little more interest in what they are keeping their apartment at because you are footing the utility bill BUT you have to keep in mind the tenant still has certain rights, including right to enjoyment without excessive interference from you as the property owner. 

As an owner providing the heat you may be able to get away having a clause in the lease that limits the winter temperature to below 70. Anything less and it’s going to look like an infringement. In the same way you are unlikely to get away with having a clause that says the A/C can only be kicked in if the unit temperature rises above 80.  

Etiquette Lesson 5: Cold snaps wreak havoc on your HVAC system. 

Your furnace will thank you for this next piece of advice.  When temperatures get into the single digits ask your tenants to turn down the heat by 5 degrees and wear an extra layer or use blankets.  

When temperatures dip below 10 degrees any HVAC system will have a hard time keeping up.  Pretty much as soon as it stops going it will need to turn on again (or at least in under 3 minutes).  Give your furnace an extra breather by dropping the thermostat about 5 degrees. (Dropping it somewhere between 5 and 7 degrees is optimal.)  Your furnace will appreciate the extra breather time between when it shuts off and starts up again when its limits are being tested by extreme outside temperatures. 

Hopefully this blog has given you a few ideas or new perspectives on furnaces in rentals.  Keep in mind with the new smart thermostats an argument could be made for invasion of privacy. So it’s best to consult with an attorney before you make a wide change to your thermostats.  Smart thermostats aren’t cheap so if you end up having to replace them it’s going to be a pretty penny sent down the toilet.