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Our 47-year old Mid-Manhattan hi-rise building is generally well maintained but whenever we complain to the super that we don't get enough heat, he sends a handyman with a "mercury" thermometer to measure the air immediately on top of the radiator vent on only one side (where the switch is located) to prove that we are getting enough heat by the rules. Unfortunately, that little spot along the radiator is not the average temp we get out of that radiator to heat the entire room.

FYI: Our heating system is also a central air conditioning system in the summer, but we have to blow out either heat or cold by a ventilator (hi, mid, low).

Is this the correct way? I saw some reference on the web a while ago that one should measure three feet from the wall and five ft. from the floor.

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The first step would be to measure the room temperature yourself with a quality thermometer to be certain that the landlord is in violation. In daytime hours, the temperature is required to be at least 68, overnight (between 10pm - 6am), the temperature is allowed to drop to 55 degrees. But the rules don't kick in until the outside temperature drops below 55 and are only in force from Oct 1st - May 31st. The city provides a chart to summarize the rules:

NYC Heating Requirements

Neither the City Housing Maintenance Code nor the Heat/Hot Water FAQ are specific on the mechanics of the measurement:

§ 27-2029 Minimum temperature to be maintained. a. During the period from October first through May thirty-first, centrally-supplied heat, in any dwelling in which such heat is required to be provided, shall be furnished so as to maintain, in every portion of such dwelling used or occupied for living purposes:

(1) between the hours of six a. m. and ten p. m., a temperature of at least sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit whenever the outside temperature falls below fifty-five degrees; and

(2) between the hours of ten p. m. and six a. m., a temperature of at least fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit whenever the outside temperature falls below forty degrees.

However, since the code does state that every portion of such dwelling has to meet the minimum temperature, then I don't think that measuring temperature above a radiator would demonstrate compliance, as that only demonstrates that some heat is being delivered to the apartment, not that sufficient heat is delivered.

Plug-in heating devices are not included in their measurements - they do not measure the heat in a room warmed by such a device:

Since the use of an auxiliary heating device, e.g., space heater, will not provide an accurate room temperature for the purpose of issuing a violation, housing inspectors will not measure the room temperature in a room that is receiving heat from an auxiliary heating device.

So don't feel that if you can use a plug-in heater to keep a room warm that you can't file a complaint if the central heat can't warm all rooms to the legally required minimums.

According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, if the Landlord does not fix the problem, the next step would be to file a complaint with the City:

Tenants who are cold in their apartments should first attempt to notify the building owner, managing agent or superintendent. If heat is not restored, the tenant should call the City's Customer Service Center at 311 (311 can be accessed outside of New York City by dialing (212) NEW YORK). For the hearing impaired, the TTY number is (212) 504-4115. The Center is open 24-hours a day, seven-days a week. (You may also file a complaint at 311ONLINE for heat and hot water conditions.)

The city will then contact your landlord and/or you to verify that the problem as not been resolved and to schedule an inspection to verify non-compliance and issue a violation if appropriate.

For cases of continued non-compliance, the city may even hire a vendor to resolve the problem, and bill the landlord for the repairs.

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From experience, it's also easy to call 311 and ask about how the temperature should be measured based on how a city inspector would measure it. –  longneck Dec 10 '13 at 21:23
    
+1. In my opinion any renter owes it to himself/herself to read and understand relevant landlord/tenant laws. It is so much easier to tell the landlord they are not complying with a legal requirement than to bicker about what's "fair" or "good enough". –  Henry Jackson Jan 24 at 22:27
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The average temperature that you feel on your skin is wherever you sit and pretty much anywhere else in the room. NYC code may spec out some other method of measurement, but that's not necessarily what you would feel (or be comfortable with), as you have just experienced.

What you really want to do is use a calibrated thermometer (one whose accuracy is known), and sample the air temperatures at several spots around the room, along with surface temperatures (sofas, couches, walls, counters, that sort of thing). That would give you an indication of source temperature vs. how it is distributed around.

I realize this isn't necessarily what you asked for, but still: All of this won't help you get more heat out of the system, if your building superintendent doesn't bump up heat output. My suggestion would be to get an electric heater and use it when required.

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Digital thermometers are not necessarily any better than mercury thermometers (or alcohol thermometers for that matter). If you want a number you can trust, use a calibrated thermometer. Analog or digital doesn't matter. –  mac Dec 10 '13 at 17:26
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Humidity also has a large impact on perceived temperature. –  auujay Dec 10 '13 at 20:18
    
@mac, you're right. i've corrected my answer. –  alt Dec 10 '13 at 20:37
    
@auujay, yep, you're right. but if the place requires manually-controlled venting, adding humidity may cause harm, while adding heat generally wouldn't. –  alt Dec 10 '13 at 20:40
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You might be getting lots of heat from the radiator, but you could be losing lots of heat through the windows, cracks, roof etc. So the house could feel cold because of such losses.

You can't just look at the radiator and its output and call it good.

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