The Power Politics of Heating and Cooling in New York City

Fact 1: Many New York City buildings’ heat and air conditioning run off the same system.

In the summer, cool water goes through some pipes and compressors to facilitate air conditioning. Then, in the winter, hot water goes through the same pipes (not compressors) to facilitate heat.

Fact 2: My building has such a system.

Fact 3: At this time of year, sly maneuverings occur between different building factions (I call them the Cool Party and the Old Lady Party) to influence when the a/c gets turned off and the heat gets turned on. The intrigue is worthy of the Tudors.

September 21, Board Meeting

Bert, the managing agent for the building, introduces the question of when to turn off the  a/c. Everyone tenses. Bert reminds us that the first week of October is customary. But this year has been quite warm and the board has two new Cool Party members, myself and Nelly.

Loyal to our constituents, we suggest waiting to see what the weather does. This is a startling proposal to the other Old Lady Party members. Who, with one exception, are men. The men, however, have wives and traditionally caucus with residents who sport turtlenecks in the summer.

Nelly and I observe that residents may turn the air conditioner to OFF if they are cold. The temps have been in the 70s. The other board members are skeptical. There is a tentative agreement to watch and wait.

Managing Agent Bert says he is neutral. It is simply his responsibility to inform us of the city law regarding heat.  Which is that the building may be fined if heat is not provided when the temperature drops below 50 degrees.

Everyone looks serious.

October 1st

It is hot in the building. I confer with Nelly. She thinks it’s hot too. Other Cool Party residents email us.

Nelly approaches our super Ivan, who, in another life, was a Soviet KGB agent. He stonily declares we are imagining things. And anyway, “It’s cool enough.”

Suspicious now about the “cool enough” comment, we investigate further. We learn that the Old Lady Party has been privately lobbying Ivan asking, “When are we going to have heat?” Better organized and wilier than the newer Cool Party, the Old Ladies tend to, shall we say, “unofficially compensate” Ivan for various favors ranging from saving car spots, to acting as a rental agent for their apartments when they are away, to climate control.

Nelly and I smell a rat. But we can’t prove anything. Ivan protects the boiler room as if it were a storage site for WMDs.

October 2nd

Still hot. Sunny and 78 outside. Further emails between me and Nelly. We apply to the Doorman. Distracted by another resident’s dry cleaning, he comments, “I’ll tell Ivan to turn the air conditioning back on.”

Turn the air conditioning back on?

It’s just the slip we need!

October 3rd

Nelly and I contact Raymond, the board president, and Bert, to report we have it on good authority that the air conditioning has been OFF when it was supposed to be ON. Ivan has clearly been unilaterally fiddling with the system in the most heinous and unauthorized fashion.

Raymond reacts with the appropriate level of outrage at Ivan.

Bert, seemingly the victim of non-sequitor disease, emphasizes again that the building could be fined if the temperature drops below fifty degrees and we don’t provide heat.

Secretly, I know the thermometer for the two previous mornings read 49. I decide not to mention this. And anyway, it could be an instrumentation error.

October 4th

Raymond calls Ivan to the carpet.

Ivan, evidently wounded to the quick that his motives might be mistrusted, admits to Raymond that yes, the air conditioning was off. But he jabs back by saying, to avoid equipment damage, he must turn the compressors off when the temperature falls below 50 degrees.

And it was 49 degrees the past two mornings.

October 5th

Bert sends an all-caps email to the board:


October 6th

Daytime highs continue in the 70s. But nighttime lows flirt below 50. The situation looks hopeless for the Cool Party. But I decide to do some research. I learn the following:

  1. Compressors work perfectly fine in temperatures below fifty.
  2. The New York City housing code requires nighttime heat only when the temperature outside drops below 40 and the indoor temperature can be proven to be below 55 degrees. (For the daytime, the numbers are 55 outdoors and 68 indoors.)

Despite his protested neutrality, Bert is a secret Old Lady Party sympathizer!

October 7th

I send an Email of Enlightenment regarding the city housing code.

October 8th-13th

All is peaceful and cool in the building. Thank goodness, too, because it is warm and sticky outside.

October 14th

An email arrives from Bert:

“Since we’ve all agreed to turn the air conditioning off on October 15th…”

I start to feel new sympathy for our much-maligned congressional representatives.

Question: So, what’s it like in your building, or home, negotiating the thermostat?


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