2 boilers inspected at Sunrise Court

State inspector: It’s not a major issue

Photo by Jenny Kirk Tenant Austin Payne listens as Peter Omari, attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, goes over papers to sign in preparation of a hearing on Friday, when tenants will ask a judge to demand their new owners, Suite Liv’n, turn on the heat in their apartment complex.

MARSHALL — A state inspector who confirmed that he inspected two out of three boilers at Sunrise Court Apartment Wednesday said he identified five objects that were out of compliance.

Jim Neumann, a state boiler inspector for more than 12 years, told tenants during a conference call Wednesday afternoon that he did indeed inspect the boiling systems at Suite Liv’n. He revealed more details to the Independent during a separate phone call. Along with a leaky safety relief valve, Neumann said he found a line was made out of “incorrect material” that needed to be changed to copper or steel.

“The state requires that all boilers be inspected yearly,” Neumann said. “It showed up on the database that it was overdue. I’d previously inspected them in 2014 and 2015. After that, an insurance company inspector took over. A business has the right to use a qualified inspector, which is employed by an insurance company. But it was past due for inspection, so I’m not sure who dropped the ball.”

With only a week remaining before the deadline to vacate the premises, Sunrise Court tenants say they are ready to take matters to court.

The tenants, who have been under the new ownership of Suite Liv’n for the past three weeks, report being without heat during that time.

Peter Omari, supervising attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, represents the tenants and says Step 1 is to get the heat turned on for the residents.

“On Friday, this is an Emergency Remedy saying we want the heat to be turned on,” Omari said. “If the heat can’t be turned on, the judge will want to know why.”

Controversy surrounding the boiler systems is likely to be a central focus during the 10:30 a.m. Friday hearing at Lyon County Courthouse in Marshall. In a letter dated Sept. 20, Suite Liv’n notified tenants that an inspection of the property “by industry professionals” it was brought to their attention that “the existing heating systems have fails and must be replaced.”

The letter, which was put on apartment doors, continued to state: “This is a huge undertaking and cannot be completed before cold weather comes. Unfortunately, the complex needs to be closed for the winter.”

Omari believes that is unacceptable and is prepared to help his clients — roughly 30 tenants — fight for their rights. He added that a state inspection of the boiling system on Wednesday further backs up that claim.

“I’m advising people to stay,” he said. “Let the judge decide because (the tenants) have the protection of the law, and the law should be applied in this case.”

Neumann said the boilers were not inspected in 2017 and had not yet been inspected this year. He added that a building maintenance representative and Dave Richter from Bullet Proof Mechanical Services were also in attendance while he conducted the inspection.

“My position as an inspector is to make sure the boilers are safe for the public, that they’re safe to operate,” he said.

The inspection also revealed that a downdraft limit switch was disconnected and that flame roll-out switches were also disconnected or missing. Neumann also said that some pressure gauges did not appear to be working.

“It’s not a major issue,” he said. “You’d just have to order parts and put them in. You could find the safety relief valve (replacement) in Marshall. For the flame roll-out, you’d have to go through the manufacturer, but I’m positive that you could get that sent the next day. The switches that are not working just need to be hooked up or installed.”

While Neumann was able to pinpoint issues regarding two of the boilers in the apartment complex, he didn’t have jurisdiction to access the third boiler.

“I gave official notice that the following objects were in violation and must be corrected,” Neumann said. “I could only address two of the three systems because one of them was under 750,000 BTUs (British Therman Units). The other two were more than that so the state has jurisdiction to inspect them.”

In the past few weeks, several tenants have questioned the plausibility of three separate boilers simultaneously becoming inoperable. While the pipes go to the boiler room, Neumann said the three boilers are individuals systems.

“It’s like a car when you’re going 30 miles per hour,” he said. “If you want to go faster, you press harder and give it more gas. If you want to go even faster, then you continue to give it more gas. It’s the exact same thing with the boiler. You might have one giving you 300,000 BTUs of heat when it’s 40 degrees out. When it gets colder, you might need two boilers going. When it’s 10 below, then the third one can give you the extra that you need.”

While he wouldn’t speak to the specific system at Suite Liv’n, Neumann said in general, boilers can be rebuilt and repaired quite extensively, though it’s not necessarily economical to do so.

In a letter dated Sept 24, Suite Liv’n gave “the need to perform repairs on the heating system in the buildings” as the reason for the Oct. 19 deadline to vacate the premises.

“Again, we apologize for any inconvenience, but the system deficiency necessitating the repair is not within our control and must be addressed,” the letter read. “The previous notice and the urgency it contained was intended to give you prompt notice of this development.”

Tenant Whitney Petersen said she thought the new and former owners could have given people a heads-up many months ago.

“Obviously, you don’t just buy a building in a day,” she said. “Why didn’t they tell people three months ago or whenever they started figuring out the deal or whatever? I just moved in back in May and they didn’t say anything.”

Petersen added that heat is supposed to be included and that it’s listed right on the lease.

“Number 9 in the lease says that the heat and water are furnished in and about the building,” Petersen said. “The resident pays for all utilities. I pay electric and Wi-Fi.”

Omari said boilers that need to be brought up to code do not justify eviction of tenants.

“Non-compliance is not a reason to kick people out,” Omari said. “If the new owners want to remodel, they have to go to the city and apply for a permit for what they want to change. The (already-in-place) boilers are grandfathered in. So the heat must be turned on.”

Omari added that leases needed to be honored and that if relocation must occur, it has to be at the expense of the landlord.

“They’re supposed to move you out to another place,” he said. “Or if you go to another place, the court will order them to pay the difference in rent. That’s their job. They have to pay for the inconvenience you’ve gone through. The statute says that it has to be a comparable accommodation as well.”

Omari hopes a large number of tenants are able to attend the hearing on Friday morning so they can keep abreast of the situation. He said he’ll continue advocating on behalf of their rights in the future.

“Step 1 is to get the heat turned on,” Omari said. “Then we begin arguing other things.”