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What to do if your Philly home doesn’t have heat or hot water

Know your basic tenant rights during the winter

Philly is experiencing below-freezing temps and lots of frozen pipes.
Courtesy of Tyler Sprague/

It’s winter all right here in Philly, with temperatures dipping below freezing for the rest of the week and Code Blue in full effect. Thanks to the “bomb cyclone” that is wreaking winter havoc all over the East Coast, with a few inches of snow expected in Philly and the region and temps dipping to a ghastly 15 degrees (that’s the high!) this weekend.

Already, pipes have been bursting left and right throughout the city and going outside feels, well, terrible. Your first instinct is to burrow beneath a blanket, but what the heat or hot water in your apartment or house isn’t working?

It’s not unheard of—Philly’s housing stock is pretty old and prone to having issues especially during the winter months. Philadelphia’s Water Department says it has received a big uptick of frozen and burst pipes. Unfortunately, when that happens there’s nothing the PWD can do to help.

So here’s what you do. First things first for renters: Know your tenant rights. According to Licenses & Inspections (L&I), landlords must provide a heating system for every rental unit and apartment. Here’s the official word:

The landlord must provide a central heating system or an approved separate permanent heating system for each rental house or apartment. Heating equipment must be safe, properly installed, and adequate to heat the entire dwelling unit.

In buildings with two or more dwelling units and in rooming houses, the landlord must supply heat at a temperature of 68 degrees for each apartment from October 1 through April 30. Cooking equipment or appliances cannot be used for heating.

The landlord does not have to supply heat if the dwelling unit is provided with separate permanent heating equipment solely under the control of the tenant of that apartment.

My heat isn’t working—what do I do?

If you live in an apartment building, check with your neighbors to see if they’re in the same boat. Then, give your landlord a head’s up. That may well be enough to get the problem fixed.

If that doesn’t work, call 311 and report your complaint to the city. In the meantime, try to get your hands on a portable heater. Here’s the official word on these warmers:

Approved portable kerosene heaters are only permitted in one- and two-family dwellings provided they comply with the Fire Code. They should not be within 3’ of combustible materials, have all fuel containers stored outside, should never be left unattended, be shut down before sleeping, and should only be re-fueled outdoors.

I don’t have water! Now what?

Don’t call the PWD, they can’t help at this point. First, holler at your neighbors and ask if they have water. They do? Then it’s likely your pipes are frozen or burst. (If your whole block is affected, it may be a main break.)

The next step is to try to warm up your pipes. If you’re willing to try it on your own, follow these steps via the PWD. Otherwise, give your plumber a call, who can thaw out the pipes and hopefully get things working again.