Your Place: Smelling smoke from rowhouse next door

Posted: August 17, 2013

Question: We live in a circa-1890 rowhouse and have a good relationship with the family next door.

We were very happy for them when they had central air-conditioning installed three summers ago.

The problem: The bedroom where we keep our clothes is next to their bedroom of a heavy smoker. Our wall is brick and plaster and beadboard; their wall is exposed brick.

As soon as hot weather arrives and they use their AC, a strong smell of smoke enters our room. Our efforts to deal with this include using a filtered air purifier, closing the bedroom door to keep the smell from spreading throughout the house, employing an air freshener, and taping over an electrical socket.

To a lesser degree, we also smell smoke in a few other areas of the house when their AC is in use. Shortly after their AC was installed, we asked if they would have the installer take another look. He did and said the old brick walls are the problem.

Coming home at the end of the day and walking into a room and clothes closets smelling of smoke makes us incredibly angry.

A: The installer has the right idea, but isn't expressing it very well.

It probably has something to do with the placement of the return vents and the thinness of rowhouse party walls, made thinner by your neighbors' decision to expose the brick.

I had such an exposed wall in my dining room of my first house. My neighbor was nailing a picture on the other side while we were eating one time and I was struck in the back of the head with a bit of mortar.

In the early days of central heating, when people had coal furnaces, warm air would rise to the upper floors in the openings in the walls. Sometimes metal chases were run through the walls to carry the heat to registers in all the rooms.

If the house hasn't been air-sealed, cold and warm air rushes up and down the cavities like a runaway train.

Perhaps the smoke is finding its way through these openings, and nothing that you have done so far will mitigate the odor.

I recommend getting a heating and ventilation expert, who won't blame bricks, to find how the smell of smoke is coming through the walls, and save money on Band-Aid fixes that don't do anything.

By the way, even if the neighbor stopped smoking tomorrow, the odor is embedded in the walls and paint and it will take a herculean effort to remove it.

Q: How can I permanently repair a crack in drywall?

The crack is in a wall in a living room that has a vaulted ceiling. I have taped and filled this spot about three or four times, but the crack reappears. I suspect it's the settling or shifting of the framing.

A: Looking at the photo you sent, I'd say they used green wood in the framing, and it never gets a chance to dry out completely because of poor ventilation behind the walls.

I don't think the drywall job looks all that professional either. You'll need to remove the drywall and check the framing, and then have the drywalling redone professionally.

Sometimes I hit the nail on the head:

"I thought you would like to know that our errant contractor redeemed himself by pulling up the tiles from our basement floor and hiring expert tile installers to redo the floor in the manner you advised (April 26).

"The concrete base made all the difference; the tiles lie flat against the floor and each other.

"The contractor bore all costs for the replacement tiles and labor.

"We paid for the concrete - which seemed fair to us, because we would have paid for it if it had been done first time around."

I think paying for the concrete since you would have done it anyway was correct.

I also think that you should remember that it is your money, and you should get what you pay for.


Questions? E-mail Alan J. Heavens at aheavens@phillynews.com or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101. Volume prohibits individual replies.

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