Understanding Your Condo’s Heating System

Being an Alberta condo owner is by and large a pretty sweet deal. Sure, there’s the odd experience, bylaw, or noisy neighbour that might make your temperature rise just a wee bit (looking at you and your yippy little dog, Pam in 2B 👀), but on the whole, there really isn’t a whole lot we go through as condominium owners to make your blood boil – least of all, your condo’s heating system, provided it’s being looked after and properly maintained by all those involved.

“Wait a minute!” we can hear all our readers who picked up on that somewhat heavy-handed segue objecting. “We’re right in the middle of a scorching hot summer – what the heck are you guys doing talking about heating systems?”

To which we’d respond: you’re absolutely right. No one’s using their heating system in the middle of summer – which is precisely why we’ve chosen this opportunity to write this blog article, as there’s no better time of the year to bring your condo heating system up to snuff than now when it’s sitting basically idle. To that end, we’ve brought in Dustin Gutsche – Catalyst’s resident heating and mechanical expert – to tell us everything condominium owners should know about their heating systems. Let’s dig in.

Five Pointers to Help Understand Your Condo’s Heating System

1. First Thing’s First: What Type of Heating System Are We Looking At?

According to Dustin Gutsche, Catalyst Condo Management Ltd’s heating specialist, there are essentially two types of heating systems that you’re likely to find in just about any condo unit that’s been built in the last half-century or so – hydronic heating and fan-coil heating.

Hydronic heating is the term used to encapsulate most types of waterpipe-based heating and is typically broken down into two types of heat-delivery methods within the scope of condominium heating. The first is through baseboard heating, which essentially pipes hot water through baseboard-level radiators that run the length of outside walls.

The other hydronic heat delivery method you might encounter is in-floor heating. This type of heating is popular with builds featuring concrete or tile flooring, as it does a good job of making these otherwise chilly floors feel warm and inviting.

Finally, there’s the lesser-utilized fan-coil heating. This type of unit features a blower unit that pushes air across a coiled copper pipe with hot water running through it, heating the air as it passes over the pipe. These units are typically a bit more complicated and a tad more expensive and often aren’t seen outside upscale high-rise buildings.

2. Stopped Cold: Condo Heating System Failures to Look Out For

When all’s said and done, there are really just two failure states you need to look out for as a condo owner – “Heat that won’t turn off,” Dustin explained, “and heat that won’t turn on.”

Of the two, Dustin told us, heat that won’t turn off might sound scarier, but it’s actually the less concerning the fail state to worry about. Your condo’s heater isn’t a high-powered oven, after all – it’s not going to go on runaway and cook you alive! Worst-case scenario: your condo unit gets a little sweaty over the next few days until plans can be made to have a repair person stop by and check things out.

Far and away, the most troubling scenario to encounter is heat that won’t turn on – especially in the dead of winter. The biggest concern here is a pipe that might freeze and burst as a result, causing costly damage not just to your unit, but potentially to surrounding units as well. The damage you’d be on the hook to cover, one way or the other.

3. Keeping Ahead of Issues with Regular Condo Maintenance

The prospect of having to cover damages spanning multiple units is a bit of a scary one – but there are some pretty simple steps you can take as a condo owner to help ensure things the up-and-up.

“Duty to maintain is definitely a condo corporation responsibility,” Dustin made clear. “There’s very little an owner can do to maintain their unit’s heating system.” However, he elaborated, you can (and definitely should!) be testing your heating system annually each fall in order to identify any potential issues ahead of prime pipe-freezing weather. This is done by exercising your heating system’s zone valve. That sounds a lot more technical than it is – in reality, it simply involves turning your thermostat up about ten degrees and seeing if the heating system kicks in, and then turning it down ten degrees cooler and seeing if it shuts off. By doing this, you’re ensuring your zone valve is able to operate freely and isn’t susceptible to being stuck open or seized closed, causing your heating system to be unable to turn off or on, respectively.

4. That’s Great – But What’s My Condo Corporation Doing to Help?

When it comes to heating systems, your condo corporation works to perform two very crucial tasks.

The first is all the big-picture heating system work, including quarterly boiler maintenance, an annual boiler teardown-and-inspection, and regular treatment of the boiler media (i.e.: the water mixture your boiler heats up) – and for those units with fan-coil heating systems, regular fan filter changes as well.

Second, your condo corporation will help you tackle any issues you identify within your own unit as well. This is where that zone valve exercising technique comes into play – it’ll keep you informed of the health and status of your specific unit’s heating components, and should allow you to address any concerns before they become a potential emergency.

5. …But What If It’s Already an Emergency Situation?

“In townhome-style condominiums, heating is an owner’s responsibility – they find their own vendors and they do their own work,” Dustin explained. “When it comes to apartment-style condos, though, it’s quite the mishmash – and it all comes down to bylaws. Some say the condo corporation will replace the zone valves – and others say the owner is responsible for those things.”

This is an important detail to note, and one we’ll close out on, because it shines a light on just why it’s so important for owners to take the time to zone valve exercise tests. As of January 1, 2020, the Alberta Condominium Property Act was amended to state that if a building is damaged as the result of something like, say, a seized zone valve, it will fall to that unit’s owner to cover the charges. There’s some additional nuance there, but the main thrust is that it’s important to take this specific bit of condo maintenance seriously. That’s why here at Catalyst, we treat every failure of a heating system to engage as an emergency – because if it’s not already, it could become one at a moment’s notice. For us to respond to it, though, you’ve got to tell us about it – so put a note on your calendar today to exercise those zone valves each and every fall, and enjoy the peace of mind that comes along with knowing that when it comes to condo heat systems, you’re on fire. 🔥

Do you live at a Catalyst Condo Management Ltd property? Do you own a unit and have questions about your heating system? Be in the know regarding your heating system and what upkeep might be required – contact us directly at Catalyst Condo Management Ltd today.