As a non-smoker living in an apartment, you may find yourself wondering “if no one in my home smokes, why can I smell smoke inside my unit?” The best way to avoid inhaling secondhand smoke in your home is to keep it smoke-free, but what if your neighbor is a chain smoker? Secondhand smoke exposure is a common problem in multi-unit dwellings that can pose a variety of issues for you and your family, so should you be worried about it traveling through apartments?
Can cigarette smoke travel through apartments? Smoke can easily drift from one apartment to another. The most common pathways through which smoke travels are wall openings such as light switches and electrical outlets. Other common entry points include gaps in insulation, air vents, ceiling fixtures, pipes, floors, doors, and windows. The building pressure can also contribute to secondhand smoke. Factors such as stack effect affect pressurization – if your downstairs neighbor smokes, for example, the smoke will usually move up into your apartment easier than it could move into a downstairs unit. To stop smoke from traveling through apartments, the identified pathways need to be sealed. If there is a no-smoking policy in the building, a non-smoking tenant can also take action by having the landlord enforce the policy.
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How does smoke travel through apartments?
The most common pathways that smoke travels through are wall openings along a shared wall. This includes light switches, electrical outlets, plumbing openings for laundry hook-ups or under sinks, or any other openings or cracks in the wall.
Another common issue may come from having shared exhaust ductwork. Ideally, there should be a damper that closes when the exhaust is not being used to prevent any air infiltrating from the connected spaces, but this doesn’t always happen.
In some cases, you may even find cracks and gaps in the flooring of an apartment which allow for air (and subsequently smoke) to move from one unit to another.
Secondhand smoke can find its way into your unit due to pressurization in a building. Pressurization is a major contributing factor to how air moves from one unit to another in buildings. Simply put, air tends to move from an area of high pressure into an area of low pressure. Some appliances such as bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans, a furnace, and a clothes dryer can create negative pressure. Some building dynamics such as stack effect (which involves movement of air from lower levels to higher levels) will impact pressurization. Therefore, if the person living in the unit below you is a smoker, the secondhand smoke will usually move up and find its way into your unit more easily than it could move down into a lower unit.
How can you stop smoke from reaching your unit?
To stop smoke from reaching your unit, you’ll need to seal your unit. There are several ways you can do this, including:
1. Applying caulk to cracks and gaps in the wall
You may have cracks around vents, cable cords, lighting fixtures, electric sockets, and windows. If your landlord allows it, consider applying caulk to completely seal any visible cracks and gaps so smoke can’t find its way into your unit from your neighbor’s apartment. To enhance precision during its application, you’ll want to hold the nozzle of the caulk gun flush with the gap or crack, and then squirt a thin layer of caulk into it. If using caulk is not an option for you, consider using painter’s tape to seal the gaps.
2. Use a door sweep or draft guard to seal the gaps beneath your door
Smoke can easily travel through apartments under exterior doors. You may be able to prevent this by installing a rubber door sweep between your door and the floor so that there’s no gap for smoke to drift through. If this is not an option, consider laying a draft guard or rolling up a thick towel across the threshold to seal off the gap under your door. Make sure you ask your landlord before you install a door sweep. You can find draft guards and door sweep at your local home improvement store or online. You can also choose to make your own draft guard by simply rolling up an old towel.
3. Apply weather stripping to your windows
Smoke may travel from one unit to another through windows, especially if your neighbor likes to smoke on their balcony or patio. In such cases, consider installing weather stripping to block the smoke from coming into your unit. Make sure you go for weather stripping that allows for easy sliding of panes. In addition, it should also seal properly when the window is closed but still allow it to open freely.
4. Use insulation padding to seal large gaps
Smoke can also travel through apartments via vents or gaps that may be present around your heating or air conditioner. You may be able to block the smoke from coming into your unit by covering the gaps with insulation padding or painter’s tape. To get the most out of this sealing technique, consider tucking the insulation padding into the gaps, and then using painter’s tape to secure the padding.
5. Use plugs or outlet seal to cover electrical sockets
Smoke can also move from one apartment to another through electrical sockets. To limit this, you can use outlet seals or plugs to cover the sockets.
What action can you take?
Non-smokers bothered by their neighbors’ smoking may take the following steps of action:
1. Enforce a no-smoking lease
If the secondhand smoke comes from someone who rents, it might be worth finding out if your rental agreement contains a no-smoking clause. If it has one, then it means that the smoking tenant is violating the lease and you may be able to get your landlord to enforce the clause (that is, tell the smoker to stop smoking on the property or move out). If the smoker is not willing to honor the clause, then it’s up to the landlord to decide whether or not to evict the smoker. When a lot of neighbors raise concerns about the smoking, the landlord may be more motivated to take action.
Even if your lease does not include a no-smoking clause, the landlord may still have grounds to evict the smoking resident if the cigarette disturbs you and interferes with your ability to enjoy living in your unit. As you might know, all tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment”. This legal principle gives you the right to occupy your unit in peace and also imposes upon you the responsibility of not disturbing your neighbors. Most leases and rental agreements will typically include a clause that spells out the quiet enjoyment principle, but it applies to everyone even if it’s not included in the rental documents.
It’s entirely up to the property owner or manager to enforce both sides of this bargain. If your neighbor’s smoking makes your own unit smell of cigarettes to the point that it seriously affects your day-to-day life, the smoking tenant is probably interfering with your right to quiet enjoyment.
2. Go over your state’s laws
More and more states in the U.S are warming up to the idea of including tobacco smoke in its statute defining a private nuisance. In Utah, second-hand smoke is considered to be a nuisance if it drifts into any residential unit from a home or business more than once a week for a minimum of two consecutive weeks, and if it interferes with other residents’ “comfortable enjoyment of life or the property.”
That said, this statute doesn’t apply if the resident signed a lease, purchase agreement, or restrictive covenant waiving his/her right to sue a neighbor if they cause a disturbance by smoking. Under the rules and regulations in Utah, an annoyed neighbor may sue the smoker directly and may even have grounds to sue the landlord in some cases if the smoking resident is a renter.
In California, second-hand smoke is considered to be a toxic contaminant by the state’s Air Resources Board. This means that you may be able to present a case against a smoking neighbor on the grounds that they’re endangering health.
3. Suing your neighbor may be an option
Even if you live in an apartment building that doesn’t have a no-smoking restriction, you may find a court willing to sympathize with your plight if you sue the smoker for creating a private nuisance by interfering with your ability to use and enjoy your unit.
Exposure to secondhand smoke poses a health risk as well as a significant nuisance. If you have neighbors that smoke, it is very likely that smoke will make its way into your unit, which can be very exasperating and can result in a reduced quality of life. Secondhand smoke can drift into your unit from many places, including cracks and vents in walls or floors. Sealing these entry points can stop secondhand smoke from seeping into your living space, but for a more permanent solution, consider reaching out to your landlord to handle the situation.