HVAC is an acronym to which landlords need to pay particular attention. It refers to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—systems which have to be in good working order.
Keeping a rental unit warm in winter and cool in summer obviously benefits your tenants, but it also benefits the HVAC unit itself, which can suffer damage from extremely high or low temperatures as well as from moisture buildup caused by a lack of ventilation.
1. “H” is for “Heat”
The implied warrant of habitability requires landlords to supply some method of heat, and some communities get pretty specific about heating requirements. For example, New York City requires heating units to maintain a minimum temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit from October 31 to May 31, and San Francisco requires a minimum temperature of 68 degrees between the hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. all year.
Don’t give your tenants the cold shoulder! State laws define what temperature your rentals need to conform to.
Most states set heating requirements. Maine, for example, requires a minimum indoor temperature of 68 degrees when the outside temperature falls below 20 degrees. It’s important to be familiar with requirements established by your state as well as your community.
2. “V” is for Ventilation
The “V” in HVAC” doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Central heating and cooling systems provide automatic air circulation, but rentals that rely on room heaters and lack air circulation systems may suffer the effects the stale air. These include paint deterioration, wood rot, pest infestations, and mold.
Ceiling fans and room fans can provide the circulation needed to control moisture and keep tenants comfortable. You also need to maintain them unless otherwise specified in the lease agreement.
3. “AC” is for Air Conditioning
Landlords generally don’t have the same responsibility to provide air conditioning. If you rent a unit with air conditioning, though, there’s a contractual responsibility for you to maintain it. If you don’t, your tenant may be entitled to a rent reduction or some other consideration.
Common HVAC Maintenance Issues
Whether the heat in a rental unit comes from a forced air furnace, a heat pump, or a radiant heat system, there are usually two main maintenance concerns. One is the heating unit itself—which includes the heat source and the blowers—and the other is the control network. An air conditioning system, which is essentially a refrigeration system, also has a control network, and it’s often the same one that controls the heating system.
Blowers, burners, heating elements, and refrigeration coils can all malfunction, and when they do, the landlord has to repair or replace them. Many HVAC problems, however, result from the thermostat, which can easily be maintained by tenants.
Failure to program the thermostat properly is such a common occurrence that many appliance repair specialists address it first. Is the thermostat switch properly selected for heating or cooling? Is the target temperature properly selected? Is the unit even on? Tenants should have a copy of the manual so they can check the settings themselves before calling for help.
If the batteries in the thermostat are weak, the heating/cooling system won’t get the message to turn on. Batteries are easy to replace, and the tenants can do that themselves, especially if they have the manual.
Thermostat leads can get dusty, and all it takes is a blast of compressed air to clean them. Accessing the leads means removing the cover, which tenants can do if they have the manual to guide them.
Persistent failure of the central air system to maintain the target temperature could be caused by a poor thermostat location. It may be in the sun, behind a bookshelf, or in the path of a draft. Moving the thermostat, as well as replacing worn wires, is usually a major job.
The heating and cooling system connects to the living space via a network of metal ducts, and if you’ve ever looked inside one of these ducts, you’ll appreciate the need for filters. When dust enters the ducts and gets drawn into the central system, it can block gas orifices, hinder fan rotation, reduce heating and cooling efficiency, and even potentially create a fire hazard.
Many HVAC pros offer duct cleaning services, but you generally need these only if you’re renovating; if animals, mold, or contaminants got sucked into the ducts; or if someone in the house has become ill. In most cases, however, you just need to service the filters.
The MERV Rating
Changing the filters at least once a year, which is the best way to maintain system efficiency, is another job that tenants can do, especially if you supply the filters. Filters are classified according to their MERV rating, which is an acronym that means Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value. The higher the MERV rating, the more efficient the filter.
Filters with high MERV ratings can filter out contaminants as small as bacteria, but they also restrict air flow, so it’s best to stick with a filter with a rating in the range of 5 to 8. Ratings go as high as 16, so this is on the low side of average.
Two Ways to Approach Maintenance
The HVAC system, like the rental unit itself, belongs to the landlord who has a vested interest in maintaining it in good condition. As the beneficiary of clean, conditioned air from a properly functioning system, however, the tenant also has an interest in keeping things in working order. You can retain full responsibility for maintaining the system or can share that responsibility with your tenant.
- Landlord Controlled and Maintained
The landlord assumes full responsibility for maintenance. The lease usually specifies standard hours for maintenance, such as from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. If maintenance is required at other times, there is usually an extra charge. This arrangement is typical in multi-unit dwellings.
- Landlord Controlled/Tenant Maintained
The tenant pays for filters and minor service calls, such as cleaning and minor malfunctions, while you pay for major service. The tenant also typically pays the utility bills. This can be a good arrangement for sensitive tenants who require enhanced air filtration or who require temperatures outside normal ranges.
Hang Onto Repair Records
Minor HVAC maintenance responsibilities are seldom overwhelming, so it’s usually in your best interest to maintain your property’s HVAC system. That way, you ensure that proper repairs are made and that all servicing conforms to acceptable standards.
Whether you opt to share the maintenance responsibilities with your tenants or not, keep all the maintenance records in a safe place to ensure faster resolution to problems when they do arise.
Credit to Chris Deziel
Chris has owned and managed 4 rental properties in Santa Cruz, CA, and Salida, CO. He is a DIY handyman expert for popular sites like Pro Referral.