Nothing says summer like smoke billowing into my kitchen window. The smoke is courtesy of my very nosy, very fashionable downstairs neighbor, who has lived in the building for 14 years and thus feels entitled to firing up his propane grill. I don’t always mind; smoke aside, he’s pretty generous with his grilled chicken. But I do wonder: Is that legal? Specifically, can an apartment dweller grill on their balcony?
The answer is complicated. First, let’s look at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines, which recommend placing the grill “well away from the home, deck railings, and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.” But that isn’t a law—just a suggestion. It turns out that grilling regulations vary by state, city, and individual property managers.
I live in Chicago, so let’s take a look at the city’s current fire code regulations. Chicago code Section 15-26-540(4) states that “the storage, handling, keeping or using of any liquefied petroleum gas” is not permitted in apartment buildings housing 20 or more people. My building only houses seven people, so my neighbor’s propane grill is technically legal. It’s also worth noting that I couldn’t find any laws regarding charcoal grills on balconies, which is good news for me and my dinky camp grill.
One more note: While the city of Chicago technically allows propane grills, landlords, condo boards, and homeowners’ associations all have the power to make their own rules. I double-checked my lease, and my landlord specifically prohibits grills in outdoor spaces. Ah, well. I’m no narc. I might just double-check my smoke alarms.
The NFPA reports that gas grills have historically been involved in an average of 8,900 home fires per year, including 3,900 structure fires and 4,900 outdoor fires annually. With that in mind, here are a few tips gleaned from the NFPA website:
- Double-check your propane tank for leaks: The agency reports that around 10% percent of gas grill structure fires and 22% of outside gas grill fires were caused by “leaks or breaks.”
- Keep your grill away from building structures: NFPA research found that 29% of structural grill fires started on an exterior balcony or open porch, while 27% started in a courtyard, terrace, or patio. Please, I beg you, make sure your grill is a safe distance away from eaves and awnings. (I need to talk to my neighbor about this one.)
- When in doubt, stick to charcoal: The NFPA found that gas grills started four out of five structural fires. If you’re not a confident griller, consider switching to a lower-risk charcoal grill.