Little action taken on dripping air-cons

While complaints flood in, the official response is cool, yet academics warn the drip of grimy water is not only unpleasant but bad for health

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 3:56am

Soaring summer temperatures are amplified in Hong Kong's concrete jungle, driving urbanites indoors and into the refuge of air conditioning.

But outside, irksome droplets of grimy water rain down on pedestrians from leaky air-conditioning units above.

The problem is worsening year by year, according to government statistics, yet the policy response so far has been underwhelming.

Complaints about dripping air-cons have doubled since 2004, as have nuisance notices issued by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) warning property owners to fix leaks within three days. However, even though there were 20,000 complaints last year, only 631 nuisance notices were issued.

"This is just the reported number," said James Middleton, chairman of environmental group Clear the Air. "It is obviously higher, considering the [number] of pedestrians who get dripped on."

Dr Christopher Chao Yu-hang, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Science and Technology, said: "Dripping from A/C systems may provide sites for micro-organisms to germinate, such as those leading to legionnaires' disease, and may pose potential health hazards to occupants."

Middleton said domestic air conditioners did not have high-efficiency particulate air filters such as those used in aircraft, and allowed bacteria to pass easily through to outdoor air and to be carried in condensation.

Chao said: "If these droplets are allowed to pass into open air instead of through a pipe to drain, they can become airborne mist and a means of spreading diseases." He added that if they formed puddles, they could help mosquitoes to breed.

Dr Zhi Ning, a City University civil and environmental engineer, said: "Under-maintained filters promote the growth of mould within the duct, causing a musty smell from microbial volatile organic compounds."

There are currently no regulations in Hong Kong mandating the installation of systems to drain rain or air-conditioning water in buildings.

A spokesman for the Buildings Department said that even if air-con drainage ducts become faulty or are badly attached to sewage pipes, individual flat owners were responsible, not the department.

Lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan of the Kowloon West constituency said the problem of old, leaky air conditioners in areas such as Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei was so severe that it was as though "it's raining on the streets".

"I know of many people who have complained, and the FEHD issues warnings, but afterwards the follow-up will usually stop," Chiang said. "Therefore, people begin caring less about fixing faulty air-cons as prosecutions are not upheld properly."

The department said that upon receiving a complaint, it would conduct a site inspection within six working days to identify the source of the nuisance. Occupants who fail to rectify the problem could face prosecution and fines of HK$10,000 plus HK$200 for every additional day of non-compliance.

But only two cases have been prosecuted in the past nine years.

Sham Shui Po community officer Miu Hoi-ming said the dripping-air-con problem in the district's Ap Liu Street market had severely affected the businesses of street vendors.

"In January, a stall owner on Yu Chao Street extended his shop roof due to air-con water dripping from flats above," Miu said. "This threatened surrounding shop spaces, leading them to file complaints against the stall owner. But when the FEHD intervened, they only came during work hours, when the flat occupants were at work, thus failing to identify the source of leakage."

Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth, said the dripping was caused by improper installation of air conditioners, and most of their owners paid little attention to the problem.