Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

with 2 comments

One of the great annoyances with living in Germany is the one, two, or more* service companies that invariably demand entry to one’s apartment every year—after having made a one-sided declaration of date and time, and usually with a comparatively short** advance warning. Moreover, this is usually done through simply posting a notice on the door of the building (often on the outside), with the implications that (a) people who are not currently present, including those who live elsewhere*** and those currently on vacation, might not have the ability to react in time, (b) the notice can be removed by another party, including playing children. Of course, this type of announcement could easily be done by a fraudulent entity who just wants access to the apartments.

*I have three myself, and it might have been four or five had not the gas and electricity meters been outside the apartment… These are two to respectively inspect the smoke detectors and the exhaust/chimney for the gas heater, and a third to read the water meter. (An earlier text might have claimed that the chimney inspection took place once every three years. This was an early misunderstanding on my part.)

**I have not paid great attention, but a rough guesstimate would be ten days for a typical notice. I have seen less than a week on at least some occasion.

***For instance, those who try to rent out an apartment and who currently do not have a tenant; for instance, those (like me, in the past) who spend months at an end living elsewhere due to work.

True, missing the date is not the end of the world, because these companies are obliged to provide alternative dates upon request. However, this is usually not handled well. For instance, many notices fail to inform about the right to request a different date, and contact information is usually limited to telephone* only. The chimney-sweep, whose recent notice is the trigger for this text, does have an email address, but fails to mention it. The notice does mention the possibility of requesting an alternate date, but it does so in such a different font size and color (compared to the rest of the text) that I actually did not recognize it before a closer inspection.** Moreover, it speaks of a “rechtzeitig” (roughly, “timely”) contact, which is very vague and in most circumstance would be taken to imply that the contact must take place before the scheduled date (which is not the case and would be unconscionable for the absent). The smoke-detector service, on the other hand, appears to have no interest in actually going through with replacement dates,*** implying that my smoke detectors have not been serviced since before I bought the apartment, because the previous owner apparently also had problems with it. A similar issue is present with some other apartments in my building.

*Which, combined with typical office hours, can be inconvenient for those who work during the day, highly troublesome for those who work during the night, and a severe obstacle for the deaf and mute.

**But, unlike many others, I was already well aware of my right.

***Presumably, either to avoid the extra cost of a second visit or to push the delay to the point that there is a pseudo-justification to request a billable visit. (By regulation, at least a first replacement date must not come with an extra charge to the apartment residents.)

Now, the chimney inspector was open to providing a new date, but this too was fraught with complications. On the one hand, no dates were available before July 12th (still more than a month ahead). My suggestions of the 19th and the 26th, picked to have a greater time flexibility than the 12th, were rejected due to “betriebsferien” (“company holidays”) between July 15th and August 1st… Moreover, the possible hours were restricted independent of date, including a 3 PM upper limit Monday through Thursday and 2 (!) PM on Fridays. Effectively, to get it done after work is not possible without infringing severely on typical working hours—not just leaving an hour or so earlier than the colleagues. While “before work” is a little easier and might work for most local workers (but not for all and not for many commuters), the end effect is that a portion of the regular work day must be sacrificed. (That Saturday and Sunday are out entirely is hardly worth mentioning in Germany.) This continues an idiocy already discussed for delivery services—a failure to adapt to the needs of the service recipients in favor of a strict adherence to “traditional” working hours, even when the result is more work for the service provider. Indeed, here the working* hours are even a sub-set of the normal working hours, making it even harder. As elsewhere, an outdated world-view (or resulting “legacy procedures”) might have survived through the implicit assumption that every apartment comes with a house-wife.

*The word “working” might be misleading, because the individual employees might have other tasks to perform at other times. The end effect on the residents is the same, however.

Even in those cases, however, when everything works as planned, these notifications are problematic through giving intervals of hours,* often in the middle of the day. For instance, the gas-inspection notice gives 9–11 AM, which implies that even someone who works locally might be forced to take half-a-day off from work—and, when working in Cologne, I would have been forced to take so much time off that I likely would have skipped work altogether.

*Which, obviously, do not state how long the individual visit will take. Instead, it is an understandable matter of “we could come at any time during this interval”, with an eye on questions like how long the visits to other apartments, or even apartment houses, take. The long intervals make this issue worse than the similar problem discussed a paragraph earlier.

Looking at possible solutions, at least some of this will likely take care of it self over time, through the spread of new technology*. However, improvements here and now still make sense. For instance, how about requiring a considerably longer interval for notification, e.g. that notices must be published at least one month in advance?** How about a requirement that notifications are also given per e.g. email (to those who have registered in some manner)? How about more reasonable hours and/or days of visit? Or how about my personal pet idea: Have each city (or some other unit) coordinate two*** fix, known-to-all, and non-adjacent days a year, for some sub-area. On these, the residents within the sub-area are required to give access to (legitimate) service providers; on others, they must not be bothered****. Notably, this would bring great benefits even to the service providers, because they could cut the costs for repeat visits and most of their own efforts to coordinate with absent residents—or actually charge for them from day one. This scheme would, obviously, require a considerable first effort of coordination, but later adjustments are likely to be small for a typical year.

*Notably, meters that can be read electronically without entering an apartment. However, like e.g. my own current outside-the-apartment gas and electricity meters, this comes with an increased risk of leak of data to unauthorized third parties.

**Note that anything less than two weeks is inherently problematic due to the larger risk that e.g. a vacation absence prevents the residents from being informed on time. In contrast, a full month would make it a near certainty that the notice is present in time for the residents to react. Moreover, the longer interval makes it easier to arrange for e.g. a work absence.

***Using two, instead of one, allows for a greater flexibility, e.g. to compensate for a strike or to make life easier on service providers with unfortunate day collisions for serviced sub-areas; however, each service provider would be expected to only use one of the two (per apartment and/or sub-area), just like it is one day a year today. Note that reserving two days a year will not increase the effort for the average resident, because the two days are the same for all service providers (but it will allow for far better planning).

****Among these annual (or otherwise recurring) activities: when we move to more ad-hoc matters or something requiring a short-term response, e.g. a burst pipe, a strict adherence will not always be reasonable.

I note that as far as solutions are concerned, it is positive if a portion of the burden is passed from the residents to the service providers, because (a) the current system is constructed to the very one-sided advantage of the latter, (b) not all of these bring an advantage to the residents, notably the borderline idiotic yearly smoke-detector inspections and many chimney inspections and whatnots (also see excursion), (c) the matter of entering someone else’s home should not be trifled with. As to the latter, I would personally very much prefer never to have someone in my apartment that I have not explicitly invited (and I would not invite many to being with); other relevant concerns include the extra cleaning efforts that many, likely in particular the “neat freaks”, will feel necessary to make the apartment sufficiently presentable.

Excursion on chimney-sweeps:
The problems are increased by regulations relating to chimney-sweeps, who are responsible for some tasks in a semi-governmental role—including at least some inspections. Among the many problems is that there is one “official” chimney-sweep who has the right to perform the semi-governmental tasks in a given area: I am allowed to hire another chimney-sweep to perform various tasks—but not all tasks. Because the official chimney-sweep still needs to involved, there is a strong incentive to just stick with him through-out. To boot, it can be disputed whether the exact checks* involved in my case really should be done by a chimney-sweep at all, or not rather the gas company or a service specialist for gas-heaters.

*Strictly speaking, it appears to be more of an emissions check than a chimney check, with the chimney only playing in as far as a blocked chimney would lead to dangerously large emissions in the apartment.

I read up a fair bit my first year in the apartment, but have forgotten most of what I read by know. However, there were several web sites and/or forums dedicated to problems around the flawed system. One recurring issue (that I do remember) was skepticism towards the reasonability of inspection intervals in at least some contexts, and some inspections that were outright nonsensical, e.g. that chimneys that were not even used still needed* a yearly inspection.

*In the eyes of the local chimney-sweep. That his interpretation was even formally/legally/bureaucratically correct (let alone practical), was not always a given.

Excursion on other means to calculate costs:
The use of meters to measure consumption of e.g. heating* is laudable from a fairness perspective and might or might not give incentives to consume less energy. However, it is not the only approach possible. For instance, in Sweden, heating costs are typically included in the rent in a blanket manner, and this appears to work well. The heating costs per apartment might be higher** in Sweden, but this is offset** by the costs for reading meters. Similarly, the overall environmental impact might be greater***, but this is partially offset by e.g. the environmental impact of meter readers traveling in cars.

*One of the more common German meter-types is the per-radiator meter that attempts to track the amount of central heating used by individual apartments, to allow a corresponding division of the overall costs.

**The degree varies depending on what is measured and on details unknown to me. If only the cost for the service company is included, it is likely only a partial offset; if the lost time and extra effort for otherwise working residents are included, at least these are likely see approximately a full offset; and if we look at the overall societal cost, it is almost certainly more than an offset.

***After adjusting for the effects of a colder climate, or it would be a near given.

Excursion on use of “layers” in texts:
A very common practice in e.g. notices, advertisements, prospects, web pages, …, is to give different types of information a different “look”. This is presumably with the intention of putting information in “layers” to be read independently. In my personal experience, this works very poorly, because people (like I above) tend only see one layer at a time, which implies that the information put into a different layer through e.g. a radically different (foreground?) color runs a risk of being overlooked entirely, especially when having a poor contrast. Such layers might sometimes be helpful when the reader is aware of them in advance, e.g. when comparing the descriptions of many products that have the same layering. More often, it is likely better to not try such tricks and to rely on a simple text flow, intended to be read as a single layer. This text, in turn, might then contain changes in (background?) colors to high-light a different purpose without causing a layer division. If in doubt, just put the different layers on different pages. (Disclaimer: This excursion is unusually “spur of the moment” and might be unusually open to revisions of opinion.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2019 at 4:19 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] see e.g. [1] and [2] for some other points on e.g. laws and standards of behavior being influenced by an […]

  2. […] Last Friday, the exhaust inspection for my gas heater took place (cf. [1]). […]


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