For 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
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