Property Management Q & A - Winter 2017

Question:

a space heater / furnace

I just assumed management of an older building in unincorporated King County and we recently noted that several of the residents have blocked or even “taped off” the baseboard heaters because “they don’t use them.” These tenants have chosen to use portable space heaters instead. My concern, obviously, is that there is still electricity to the units and that this could be a fire hazard. Can we have our maintenance folks disconnect the baseboard heaters for safety? Do we need to have the tenants sign off on something like this? The living spaces are small so it makes sense as it gives more use of the room.

Answer:

There are several sections of the state Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA) apply here. RCW 59.18.060(8) requires the landlord to “Maintain all electrical, plumbing, heating, and other facilities and appliances supplied by him or her in reasonably good working order.” RCW 59.18.060(11) requires the landlord to “provide facilities adequate to supply heat and water and hot water as reasonably required by the tenant.” In my opinion, this means that the landlord has to be providing a heat source of some kind.

Additionally, RCW 59.18.060(1) requires the landlord to “maintain the premises to substantially comply with any applicable code, statute, ordinance, or regulation governing their maintenance or operation, which the legislative body enacting the applicable code, statute, ordinance or regulation could enforce as to the premises rented if such condition endangers or impairs the health or safety of the tenant.” This means that you also have to consider any local codes and ordinances that may be more specifically on point.

For example, in the city of Seattle, you have to comply with the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO). RRIO requires that “every bathroom and habitable room must have a functioning, properly ventilated, and permanently-installed heat source.” The key phrase here is a “permanently-installed. More specific requirements are set forth in Seattle’s Housing and Building Maintenance Code (HBMC).

Many jurisdictions other than Seattle have similar inspection programs and/or building codes. However, to my knowledge, there are no similar requirements for unincorporated King County, so you would rely on the more general state standards in the RLTA.

Most landlords have policies that require tenants to keep furniture and other combustibles a safe distance away from electric baseboard heaters. Similarly, many landlords prohibit or regulate the use of portable space heaters. What you are proposing is doing the opposite — disconnecting the heat sources so tenants don’t need to maintain those safe distances, and leaving space heaters as the only option.

I discourage you from doing anything that interferes with the functionality of the permanently installed heat source. If you permit tenants to use portable heaters, you will want to make certain that the units have safety controls to automatically prevent overheating and which shuts them off if they tip over. You will want your rules to require compliance with all manufacturer’s instructions.

I don’t see any harm with permitting tenants to shut off the breaker to the electric baseboard heaters, but again, I discourage doing this yourself or implying that the tenants shouldn’t have access to the permanent heat sources in the apartments.

Lastly, since you indicate that the apartments are small and that the tenants choose to use portable units to free up wall space, you may wish to consider upgrading the apartments and installing more modern wall heaters.

About the Author:

Christopher T. Benis is an attorney with Harrison-Benis, LLP with offices in Seattle. The information contained herein is not legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your attorney before relying on anything contained herein.

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