Breathe Easy: How to Stop Your Neighbour’s Cigarette Smoke From Coming In

stopping second hand smoke from coming into houseFor apartment and condo dwellers, having cigarette smoke drift in from a neighbour’s unit is an all too familiar hazard. For non-smokers, particularly if they are health conscious, a smoke problem can be worse than a noise problem; it can be heartbreaking when you own the space and weren’t thinking about moving. About a year ago, I started noticing that we had a lot of smoke coming in to our home, but it became worse in the past few months. Here’s how we’ve been tackling the problem.

In most jurisdictions, you can’t really solve a second-hand smoke issue by legally stopping your neighbour from smoking in their own home (if they’re smoking in a common area like a garden you may have a case, depending on your local bylaws). Certainly, asking them to not smoke because it is bothering you will probably sound rude even if you are polite when you approach them. Many smokers can be quite defensive these days because of the increasing restrictions on smoking in public places, and because of the way some non-smokers behave. Complaining to them, the landlord or the condo management is unlikely to accomplish anything more than alienating your neighbour. Until laws change, your answer will be found in your tool kit.

Step 1: Figure Out Where the Smoke is Coming From

Smoke can enter from outside in a number of ways:

  • Through an open window or fresh air intake duct, if the neighbour is “smoking responsibly” outside
  • Through openings between units (e.g. for shared plumbing or electrical systems)
  • Through shared HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) between units

If the smoke is coming through shared HVAC, your only option may be a high-powered air filter, or moving. You could also try consulting a professional HVAC company about better filtering of the air before it is recirculated – more enlightened condo boards may consider this if you do the legwork.

If the smoke is coming in through windows or gaps between the units, you have more options.

Step 2: Seal the Gaps

For smaller gaps, like those between pipes and walls, silicone caulk or expanding foam will do a good job, but a couple of applications may be needed for a perfect seal. If the gap is larger, like missing pieces of insulation or drywall, finishing the job the builder should have done may be necessary. Remember that there may be more than one point of entry: in our case blocking off one gap in the basement helped, but also forced the smoke up behind the drywall to the second floor, where it came in from the electrical outlets and the baseboards. Seal all the gaps as you find them; smoke can’t come through drywall or cinderblock itself. If you are on good terms with your neighbours, they may let you check their unit and make the seal on their end.

Keep the receipts from your work – you never know, you may be able to get compensation from your condo management or landlord (notifying them in advance increases the likelihood of this).

Step 3: Change Airflow Pathways

In cases where the smoke is coming in from outside, you can try:

  • Adding a fence or increasing the height of the fence between you and your neighbour to alter the airflow path, and allowing more time for smoke to dissipate
  • Positioning a large fan the blow air out a window that the smoke would otherwise come in
  • Moving fresh-air intake vents
  • Sealing around doors and windows

In one case that I read about, the smoke was entering a home through the bathroom steam vent; in that case the owner simply kept it running so the air was always exiting the room.

Step 4: Filter Your Air

As we had a variety of places the smoke was coming in, we sealed all the gaps we could find, but we also invested in an excellent high-powered air filter. To deal with the odour of cigarette smoke, a filter needs a means to trap VOCs (volatile organic compounds) – most commonly an activated carbon filter – and a HEPA filter to deal with particulate matter. Keep in mind that even the best filter won’t be able to pull air up or downstairs, so you may need one for every floor.

After experiencing the IQ Air filter in action, we decided not to trust our health to cheaper filters that don’t work: the air purifier market is saturated with ineffective crap (in the words of my husband, who did the research).  The IQ Air was expensive but worth it:  the air in our home doesn’t get that stale quality to it anymore, and we have not smelt any smoke for a few weeks (read about my product review policy here).

By Jennifer Priest

  • M. M. Justus

    How do you block the smoke coming through the electrical outlets? I have those gasket thingys, but they don’t do a lot of good. Also, how do you *find* gaps if they’re not obvious?

    • Housecraft

      For electrical outlets, you can try vapour barrier electrical outlets.

      Finding the gaps is really hard, so I sympathize! Basically we ended up just following our noses to where it smells strongest, sealing whatever was in the area, and crossing our fingers. You’ll end up doing this many, many times if your situation is anything like ours.

      Good luck!

      • M. M. Justus

        One place I discovered it was coming through was my *sinks.* I called my plumber, and his only solution was to duct tape the overflow holes and keep the drain stoppers closed unless I was actually running the water. That’s helped some. And I was smelling it coming through my range hood, so I had it replaced with a ductless model (it was old and not working well, and I’d been meaning to replace it for years, anyway). Turns out there was a hole in the drywall the size of my fist behind it. It really makes me wonder what other sorts of holes there are behind my cabinets, baseboards, etc., but I can’t tear them all out to find out.

        • frenchbelle

          I’m dealing with this right now in my NYC high-rise condo and one thing I got were these padded stickers that go behind the faceplates of all of our outlets and switches to seal the cutouts that are cut larger than the actual electric boxes. If you look online under businesses that seal air-leaks in houses for energy efficiency, they sell all kinds of tools that deal with this. We’ve sealed around the door to our HVAC unit and are installing active charcoal filters in the vents. We’ve caulked around the top of the baseboards, but the building did not want to caulk around the bottom where they meet the wood floor. I am going to do that next, or take them off and fill in the cracks or sprinkle active charcoal in the space under the drywall. I’ve not completely figured it out, but little-by-little I’m dealing with it…before we have to take legal measures. We’ve asked the neighbor to open a window, but he basically told us that it wasn’t his problem and we were SOL.

  • Bolliver Bucklenutz

    Our neighbors smoke in their back yard and when our A/C unit kicks on our house becomes inidated with second hand smoke. I need to figeure out a way to put a filter over our A/C unit. I have been in the back yard and had to go in the house when they start smoking because their 2nd hand rolls over the fence into our patio in some cases but we have watched it literaly travel past the A/C unit, I would love to figure out how to add a filter to it to at least help

    • Ferg Ryan

      Same problem here, except we don’t even turn on the A/C and the smoke is still getting in. Neighbors smoke around the clock 24/7 in their backyard and our home seems to constantly suck the outside air in. I don’t even know where to begin since our A/C isn’t running and we have dual pane windows. Any help would be appreciated! I hate that my babies are breathing in second hand smoke all the time :(

      • Housecraft

        approved

      • jt

        Have you figured out a way to control this? I rent the 2nd floor of a 2 family house and i will now need to remove the A/C and keep my windows shut. The owner recommended getting an exhaust fan to fit the window but that means we will need to keep it running and still never get any fresh air into the house!

  • Michael Gerbec

    I live in the upper apartment of a two family house. The lower party smokes in the basement and the 2nd hand smokes stinks up may apartment through the furnace. How can I filter or stop the contaminated air?

    • Housecraft

      Once the smoke is in the ductwork, it’s everywhere, and there is no way to block it off without cutting off your heat as well.

      To be honest, I would recommend moving if you’re renting an apartment. Good quality air filters are expensive (almost $1,000 for ones that actually work) so you might as well spend your money on a more healthful space.

      In our situation, we got lucky, and were able to pretty much block off the sources of smoke. But as you can see from some of the other comments here, often you end up playing whack-a-mole with smoke sources.

      • Anne

        Again, that is a breach of warranty. The landlord has to provide you with a habitable apartment, that is what you pay for. Write them letter, keeping copies for yourself of course, and then hire a lawyer. I have this problem, have asthma and have slept in my car. Trust me, as soon as you say breach of warranty they will either fix it, or if they don’t, they will have to pay for your move, back rent, etc. LANDLORDS SUCK.

    • Austin Candace

      But the law is on your side, in smaller dwellings you can stop a tenant from smoking.

      • Bob McDuff

        No. We live in a smoke-free townhouse, and everyone smokes! No one cares!

        • Brown Trout

          File charges in court and also pursue it with Home Owners Association if you have one. PEOPLE HAVE RIGHTS
          …..even us NON SMOKERS!!!

          • Anne

            You have a right to a habitable dwelling. That is what you pay for. Write a couple letters, then file a breach of warranty cause of action. Trust me.

        • Cynthia Hill

          Exactly my situation, Bob. When I complained to the landlady, she slapped me with a termination threat, “for my health.” Horrible.

  • Rob Lavery

    I have wood floors in an pre-war apartment where smoke is getting in sometimes pretty heavy. What kind of covering (rubber/plastic?) can I cover the floors with to seal them? I have filled the gaps between floors & walls with non-shrinking silicone but it’s still coming through the gaps in the floor boards. will carpet with floor coving underneath stop these fumes?

    • Housecraft

      Approved

    • Housecraft

      Carpet won’t prevent the smell coming through, but I doubt floors are the problem. Under the floorboards is a subfloor, which is usually effectively airtight.

      But I could be wrong. If you “sniff around” and become very sure that the floors are somehow the problem you’re probably still out of luck, unfortunately. If the smoke is coming through all the individual floor boards, there’s no way to fill them all except rebuilding the floor. It’s probably not something you want to spend money on if you are renting.

      I hate to say it, but you may want to consider moving, and tell the landlord why. Here in Ottawa (where I am) smoking has been banned in public spaces, and there’s talk of banning it in multi-unit residential buildings too. Hopefully this idea takes off.

      Good luck – I wish I had more help to offer you.

      • Anne

        No, not out of luck. Pull up the floor, have the subfloor redone. Put some noise absorbing material in there too while you’re at it. If you rent, sue the landlord for breach of warranty. An apartment full of smoke is uninhabitable and you are not getting what you are paying for. Write two letters asking them to remedy the problem immediately, they won’t because they don’t want to pay for it, then sue them. Trust me. $$$ You will have to move, but they will pay for it and you can hopefully find a smoke free building to live in. What kind of losers smoke anyway in 2017. Ridiculous lowlife scumbags, that’s who.

    • Getta Petta

      I even chased the stench to the crevice in the door frame to the bathroom. I guess we share air through the metal indoor frames in the bathrooms. I can already hear the toilets flushing where walls connect. There is more privacy in public restroom. Oh well. People suck. This place could have been insulated better.

  • Procax

    Read carefully. She is recommending a two step filter system; HEPA is just one of the filters.

    • Bob McDuff

      Still not recommending anything for cigarette smoke. Still bad advice. YOU need to read carefully.

Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Priest. I write my own stuff, so you should too!