Temperature Wars: The Struggle Between Energy Savings and Employee Comfort

Temperature Wars: The Struggle Between Energy Savings and Employee Comfort

Some the biggest headaches for facility managers occur when the drive for energy savings bumps up against what building occupants consider are uncomfortable temperatures -- even when heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are working properly, according to a new report from the International Facility Management Association.

Typically, complaints about office temperatures outdistance all others from employees, whose list of peeves can include noise, limited space and odors, according to IFMA. The organization conducted a survey of members this summer to see when most of the complaints about temperature occur and what facility managers do about them.

The results in the report "Temperature Wars: Savings vs. Comfort" [PDF], which was released last week, also provided an interesting look at what employees do when they feel the building's HVAC systems aren't up to snuff -- everything from donning lap blankets and fingerless gloves in the winter and to soaking their feet in mini kiddie pools under their desks during summer.

Noting that "facility managers go to great lengths to keep facilities comfortable for workers, as this comfort is directly tied to worker productivity," the report also acknowledged a growing trend among facility managers to adjust the thermostat to higher settings in the summer and lower settings in the winter to save on energy use and costs.

Facility managers said 34 percent of the temperature complaints they receive occur in the winter, 29 percent in the summer, 25 percent in spring and 12 percent in fall. The number of claims about it being too cold or too hot throughout a year usually run neck and neck. And while the types of complaints generally are in sync with the season (too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer), the temperature issues can also be influenced by the types of facilities: In summer, for example, office workers often complain about it being too chilly at their desks, and employees at educational facilities, call centers or industrial sites say it's too warm.

Facility managers said the steps they take to remedy the situations include:
• Spot-checking temperature, humidity or air flow in the complaint area, 90 percent
• Verifying that the HVAC system is working correctly, 87 percent
• Adjusting thermostats, 75 percent
• Checking or readjusting diffusers, 49 percent
• Encouraging people to wear layered clothing, 35 percent
• Installing data loggers to monitor temperatures, 31 percent
• Moving workers to other areas in the facility temporarily, 4 percent
• Taking other steps that range from moving diffusers or other equipment to asking employees to wait "as their desired comfort will most likely change shortly."
Other solutions, said respondents whose comments were included in the report, are to: "take a vote of all occupants in a given control zone, and the majority rules," and "ask people for their budget code to charge them additional costs associated with units running more than agreed-upon parameters."

A couple of respondents said sometimes they do nothing and occupants apparently adjust to the conditions, according to a news release about the study:
"We sometimes say we'll make an adjustment, but don't," the release quoted one respondent as saying. "This actually seems to work."

"Usually, a prompt response saying that we are handling it is key," said another. "Then, we follow up in a couple of hours to find out if the 'adjustments' made an improvement. Often, we haven't actually physically done anything to change the temperature."
Workers also have their way of adapting to the situations.

Employees' remedies, the facility managers said, include using personal fans, 66 percent; putting on more clothing, 64 percent; using personal heaters -- even though they are banned at many sites for safety reasons -- 60 percent; blocking or redirecting vents, 56 percent; and readjusting (some respondents called this tampering with) thermostats, 51 percent.

And here's what the facilities managers had to say about that:
• "We recently finished a complete test and balance of our system and banned personal heaters. We have also attempted to educate occupants with regard to system design and why some of their 'fixes' make the problem worse."

•"Some people tape cardboard to the diffusers to redirect the air away from them. They also tape ribbons to the diffusers to show us that there is air blowing from them."

• "Unfortunately, more employees dress for summer (i.e. sleeveless tops/dresses, sandals, etc.) and are ill-equipped for the interior temperature."

• "Most of the complaints come from staff who are close to windows, so we ask them to keep their blinds closed if they are too hot or too cold."

• "We have people with lap blankets and fingerless gloves. Sad, isn't it?"
• "Stand alone AC units, large baseboard heaters, small wading pool under the desk to 'paddle' their feet … [I] have seen most things …"

• "[Some people] call my phone with tape recordings of the Weather Channel forecast for today."
The age the HVAC systems at facilities ranged from less than 5 years old to more than 50: 36 percent were 10 years old or newer, 38 percent were 11 to 20 years old, 18 percent were 21 to 30 years old, 7 percent were 31 to 50 years old and 1 percent was more than 50 years old. Seventy-seven percent of the systems had been updated or fitted with new components to increase efficiency, the facilities managers said.

The IFMA report was based on 473 responses, about a 15 percent response rate, from organization members. The survey was emailed to June 2 to 4 and responses received by July 28 were tallied for the report.

Image courtesy of IFMA from "Temperature Wars: Savings vs. Comfort."