What’s that smell: Assessing and dealing with odour transfer between condominium units

Malodorous maelstroms can be some of the more troublesome issues property managers never imagined they would have to stickhandle. They’re right up there with dog poop squabbles, Airbnb arguments and reserve contribution controversies.

One of the complexities in dealing with odour transfer between condominium units (setting aside issues surrounding commercial kitchens or poorly placed exhausts) is that there are very few building standards, laws or legal precedents that specifically deal with odour. The OBC, NBC and OFC (Ontario & National Building Codes and Ontario Fire Code) contain no specific sections that address odour transfer. There are, however, enforceable standards for smoke seals and fire stops which we utilize to help deal with odour transfer issues between condominium units.

Determining the path

Tobacco, marijuana and, cooking odours are the typical complaints that are voiced. However, any unwanted odour can be considered a nuisance. Odours are almost always carried to the impacted suite by air currents. Therefore, a path must exist for the transfer – a path that the smoke seals and fire stops are intended to prevent. Electrical and plumbing penetrations are the primary culprits, with just as many of the offending units being above or below the impacted unit as adjacent.

In order for a problem to arise, in addition to the existence of an air pathway, the impacted suite will be at a lower pressure and there must have insufficient air exchange to dilute the odour. While air pressure and air exchanges are important considerations, relying on air pressure and dilution is not a reliable approach. Opening a window in either suite, for instance, will unpredictably change the relative pressure between suites. However, it is not reasonable to restrict unit owners from operating their windows as a solution. We will consequently focus on finding the pathway and leave improperly balanced or poorly ventilated buildings for another day.

Sourcing the stench

Sourcing the path of the stench can sometimes be easy, requiring only a visual inspection, or can found with a simple smoke pencil test. For more troublesome/persistent issues, a preferred method consists of pressurizing the offending unit and release a vapour/fog within the offending unit. In some instances, the air transfer is significant enough that visible vapour quickly appears in the impacted unit.

More typically, the vapour/fog has been diluted to the point of being invisible by the time it reaches the impacted unit. In these circumstances, we use an ultrafine particulate meter to detect any changes in the concentration of air particulate. The particulate readings increase, often by orders of magnitude, as the meter gets closer to the air path carrying the smoke/fog. The ability to see visible smoke or massive changes in particulate concentration is very helpful in gaining buy-in from all stakeholders and eliminating their doubt of the existence of an air leakage path.

Determining responsibility for odour transfer

Once we have found the funk, the unit owners and condominium boards are left trying to agree on who is responsible to pay for the corrective measures and what is reasonable. The corrective measures can be expensive and intrusive, requiring demolition and replacement of interior finishes in order to access poorly sealed walls or floors.

Responsibility varies depending on the source location (common element or unit owner responsibility) and the corrective action required, and of course this varies from condo to condo. While it may be clear cut as to where the problem exists, issues of responsibility can still be debated. For example, an issue may exist with a unit’s fire stops or smoke seals and be deemed part of the common element (condominium responsibility). This however does not always mean it is the condominium’s responsibility. The code does not require a unit to be 100 per cent air tight, so it is entirely feasible that odour transfer exists and all enforceable codes are met.

When these issues go to court, the overriding sentiment is “what is reasonable”, has the condominium responded promptly and taken steps to correct the issues.

We will leave the lawyers to answer the question of whether the offending owner’s right to the “enjoyment of their home” entitles them to chain smoke, treat their glaucoma or microwave fish as they wish, trumps that of the impacted owner’s right to foul free air.

Check out our following post, which provides a list of steps a condo manger or unit owner can do before hiring a professional to identify and correct the issue.

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