Cold comfort: Tenants fume over doused pilot

"I am writing to complain about Wade Apartments," Cedar Riener's email began. "I wish it was a single incident that could be resolved quickly, but it seems to be a pattern (or policy) of neglect, incompetence, and unresponsiveness."

Riener, who lives on Valley Road, had a number of complaints, which covered a wide range. Since only one struck me as potentially serious, however, I'll concentrate on that.

Beginning last October, the pilot light of the furnace in their apartment began going out. Riener relit it the first time. "But the next time it seemed suspicious," he says, "so we called Wade Apartments and (after a day or two) they sent someone over" who relit the pilot light. After a few days, however, it had once again gone out.

"The directions on the heater said to call a technician if the pilot light would not stay on, so we were reluctant to keep lighting it ourselves. A Wade Apartments maintenance person would come over and relight it." With every service call, Riener and his housemate-fiancé (now wife), Rachel Levy, got more exasperated.

"After several months, more than a few cold nights, and tons of frustration," Wade finally sent someone who diagnosed the problem and fixed it.

I spoke with Jim Palmborg, public utilities manager for the City, who said that if a pilot light goes out more than a couple of times, "obviously, there's something malfunctioning." The good news for people like me, who like gas heat but half-believe that the furnace could blow up for no apparent reason, is that an extinguished pilot light poses no danger.

Next, I talked with Wade Tremblay, general manager of Wade Apartments, who was able to go into quite a bit of detail about the apartment's furnace and maintenance history. When Tremblay says his company keeps good records, he means it; he began by telling me that there had been seven work orders for the pilot light at the Valley Road address: two in October, four in December, and one in January.

Wade ended up calling in not one, but two outside contractors to look at the furnace. The second one was successful; he diagnosed a blocked tube in the pilot light. "We certainly can be criticized for not fixing it quicker," Tremblay told me, and added that if a furnace is going to go off, "inevitably, it goes off in the dark hours of the morning."

We discussed two of Riener's other complaints, and he was ready with details on both. There had been a mice problem last December, which was ultimately fixed, and a promised motion-sensor light took longer to be installed than Riener felt was acceptable.

One reason for the delay with the motion-sensor light was that the property manager responsible quit about that time. "We don't ignore our residents," Tremblay said, and pointed out that Riener and Levy had chosen to renew their lease for a second year. Indeed, Riener says, "The maintenance people who have worked in our apartment have by and large been friendly and hard-working (when they come)."

I suspect that if the faulty furnace had been attended to quicker, the problems that followed wouldn't have been so frustrating. But having to call seven times to report a cold furnace– and all but the first two times in either December or January– would certainly test one's patience. Wade might consider instituting a policy that requires an immediate and rigorous response to any furnace that malfunctions more than twice.

Tremblay mentioned that the business had been started by his grandfather in the 1920s, and I was curious to hear more. Beginning in 1926, C.M. Wade and his partner built about 150 apartments around Charlottesville; the Rugby and Raleigh Court, two grande dames of University Circle, were his first. The business has grown to include approximately 300 units, which means that living in a Wade apartment is probably about as much of a UVA tradition as walking down the Lawn. It was for me; my first apartment in Charlottesville, on Brandon Avenue, was a Wade apartment.

On another topic of interest to tenants: Dick Bell of Re/Max Realty Specialists called with the latest word on security deposits: As of the last legislative session, landlords now have 45 days– instead of 30– to refund a tenant's deposit.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.