Good Questions: What Should I Do About the AC Drip?

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Hello AT,

I have a four-year-old Frigidaire 15,000 BTU window A/C. Shortly after I had it installed (by technicians from my place of purchase on the UWS) in 2002, my neighbor from two floors down saw me on the street and pulled me aside.

"Caren," she said, in sort of a dramatic stage whisper. "There's something wrong with your air conditioner." I looked at her, surprised. "It drips!" she said.

I looked at her to see if she was kidding. She wasn't. "If you look at the bottom of it, there's a hole, and there's water coming out of the hole! It's dripping onto my air conditioner!".... [more below]

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My feeling at that moment was one of pity, not because my neighbor's A/C was being hit with condensate from my unit, but because she genuinely didn't seem to understand that air conditioners rely on processes of compression and condensation in order to work. I explained to her that the hole was there by design, and that (at least to my knowledge) all window A/C units drip. It was as if she simply didn't hear me. To this day, she and her husband maintain that my air conditioner is "broken" and that it is "leaking" onto theirs.

After the initial complaint, I dutifully called the appliance store where I purchased the unit and explained the "problem." They laughed and assured me that, yes, my conditioner was supposed to drip. They added that because it was such a powerful unit, it was apt to drip quite a lot. I repeated my question to those in my circle of friends who were likely to have an informed opinion on the matter: architects, contractors, engineers. They all told me the same thing. "It's normal. Your neighbor needs to get real."

The following year, after another dramatic encounter on the street where my neighbor informed me that my air conditioner was "broken," I went out and purchased a large Rubbermaid® pitched drainboard for her. I took it down to her apartment and told her that I thought I had found the solution. "All you have to do is secure this to your unit, and water from my A/C will be deflected from yours." She thanked me; I really thought that we had reached the end of this particular little drama. And indeed I didn't hear from her from the rest of the summer. The next summer I ran into her on the elevator and asked her how the drainboard was working out. "Oh, it blew off," she said dismissively. I considered buying her a new one and helping her and her husband secure it to their A/C, but then thought better of it. After all, virtually everyone I knew whose air conditioners were hit by condensate from above simply put foam rubber (or even old towels) on the top of their units and called it a day. My neighbors were adults, I thought to myself; they could come up with a solution. I had done my best, and now it was up to them.

This summer, the drama has reached a new level of intensity. One day my neighbor rang my doorbell. "The air conditioner repairmen just left," she said. She informed me that their five-year-old A/C had to be replaced, because the "leakage" from my unit had caused theirs to rust. I'm sincerely sorry that they have to replace their air conditioner, but something about their story just doesn't ring true for me. For one thing, they leave their unit out all year round, where it is exposed to the elements. Furthermore, the rains we've gotten this season put more moisture in and around their A/C than the condensate from mine ever has.

So I did some research, and hit upon what I thought was the perfect solution: the Stop-Drop (http://stop-drop.com/). From the Stop-Drop website:

This patent pending product is comprised of a 24" square piece of 3/4" foam bonded to a 24" square piece of .10 mil magnetic sheeting which adheres to the top of a window mounted air conditioner, or any other metallic surface. no more towels, cardboard or carpet remnants tied around the air conditioner, no more foam siliconed to the top never again to be removed.

Its features include ease of application and removal and safety. "STOP DROP" has an HF-1 rating from underwriters laboratories, which means that it is flame retardant and more importantly, self extinguishing. It exceeds NYC building code requirements. It fits most air conditioners and is cut easily with a scissors. Unlike jerry rigged solutions, "STOP DROP" is not a breeding ground for bacteria and larvae, and it does not flop around in the wind.

"This is it!" I thought, excited. My first impulse was to rush over to Gracious Home and get one for them. But then I thought better of it. "They're adults," I said to myself; "they need to be a little more proactive about this; I'll print out the information for them and they can go out and get a Stop-Drop themselves." So I printed out the info and pinned it up on the lobby bulletin board for everyone to see; I thought that others might find the information useful, too.

A few days after that, my neighbor came up to my apartment with a little section of hose and the number of a local handyman. She suggested that I attach the hose to my A/C to divert the drip. I had already thought about doing something like that, but there are a couple of reasons why I don't like that solution: (1) My unit is securely bolted into the window and attached to a horizontal mounting rail to comply with Local Law 11, and the process of dismounting it and attaching the hose would be rather involved and time-consuming (and I estimate would cost me close to $200 for labor); (2) It strikes me as a clumsy workaround: the water will simply drip somewhere else, and cause problems somewhere else.

So I went over to Gracious Home, purchased a Stop-Drop for my neighbors, and left it outside their door with a note saying that I would be happy to help them install it. In response, I got a surprisingly angry note from them:

YOU WOULD THINK, BY YOUR LETTER, THAT IT WAS OUR A/C LEAKING.

OUR FIVE YEAR OLD AIR CONDITIONER HAS TO BE JUNKED BECAUSE IT IS COMPLETELY RUSTED INSIDE. TWO PROFESSIONAL A/C REPAIRMEN STATED THIS TO US 2 WEEKS AGO.

HOWEVER, WE WILL USE YOUR STOP-DROP PAD AS WE CAN SEE YOU ARE REFUSING TO FIX THE PROBLEM (WE WILL JERRY RIG OUR A/C EVEN THOUGH IT IS YOUR A/C CAUSING THE PROBLEM).

I ASSURE YOU IF IT WAS OUR A/C LEAKING ON OUR NEIGHBORS, WE WOULD GET IT FIXED NOT TRANSFER THE PROBLEM TO OUR NEIGHBOR.

Yes, the note was in all caps. I found it upsetting, because I honestly feel that I have made a good-faith effort to find solutions to this. So I brought it to the attention of the co-op board. Because I myself am on the board, however, the other members felt that it would be a conflict of interest for the board to get involved, and suggested that the matter be forwarded to the management company for mediation. In an email to me, our managing agent said that she thought I should: (A) attach the hose OR get my A/C serviced, and (B) apologize to my neighbors for my unit's "leakage" into theirs.

I feel as though I've landed in the twilight zone. On one side, we have basic laws of physics/thermodynamics, and an air conditioner that is functioning properly. On the other side, we have people people who have not maintained their air conditioner, have taken no measures to protect it from the elements, and who are now furious about things like compression, condensation and gravity.

Any advice? I thought that I would ask you and your readers to weigh in on this, because undoubtedly many New Yorkers have found themselves in similar circumstances, on both sides.

Thanks much,
Caren

Dear Caren,

Thanks for your very thoughtful and well worded question to which we are sure there will be many responses.

In our opinion, it does seem as if you have difficult neighbors, but we can understand their frustration in the shared space outside your windows. We think that diverting the dripping ultimately makes more sense for everyone as it simply gets the water out of the line of the windows. We do understand, however, that this is a bigger job for you. The Stop Drop is also a nice solution and it was great of you to buy one for your neighbor.

It really all comes down to standards of comfort. If you were being dripped on, what would you do and what would you reasonably expect your upstairs neighbor to do?

If it were us and the Stop Drop stopped the noise and didn't allow water to collect, then we'd be happy if our neighbor did that for us. If the Stop Drop allowed water to collect and rust to set in, then we'd be happier if our neighbor diverted their drip entirely. We'd probably work with them to do it however.

There also seems to be a missing policy in your building concerning this. This is really a good role for the building's managment to take over, so that neighbors don't feud and common, shared problems like this get solved in a timely fashion. If your building had a solution and a policy, we would simply do whatever they said and be done with it.

Anyone else??

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.