Is Your Office Air Conditioning Doing its Job? 1

Thursday, February 11th, 2016
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Summer is in full swing and many of us are giving thanks for our air conditioned workplaces.

Yet, go into many offices and it’s not unusual to see someone – usually a woman – wrapping themselves in a cardigan or pashmina because despite the warm weather outside, they are freezing inside.

Before you put this down to a personal preference or individual sensitivity, did you know that the formula for calculating the ideal heating and cooling requirements is based on the metabolism of an average size man? And that size for size, women produce less heat than men? So in workplaces across the country, temperatures are set at a level that doesn’t take the needs of half the population into consideration. Women are literally being frozen in the workplace.

Another factor that can influence employee comfort is the placement of air conditioning vents as compared to the position of the employees’ chair. Air coming out of the vents can be substantially colder than the ambient temperature. This is especially true when the vent is being used to manage the temperature of a large space – like many open plan offices.

So, what can you do to increase the comfort for all employees?

Some newer systems provide more thermostats for zoned or even individual control of the temperature. However, this can require substantially more wiring and added expense.

An alternative is to use different diffusers to reduce draughts for employees situated next to vents and create a more even air temperature throughout your workspace. There are a range of different diffuser styles available that suit various environments. Some are adjustable and others are not, so consulting with an experienced architect and engineer who specialises in interior commercial design can help you to find the right solution for your space.

The other major concern with office air conditioning apart from temperature related comfort is the actual quality of the air itself. Unfortunately, in many buildings, air conditioning maintenance is sorely neglected. This can lead to an array of respiratory issues and even the spread of serious and life threatening illnesses.

Fresh air is vital for employee health and has also been demonstrated time and time again to play an important role in productivity. To keep your air conditioning unit operating effectively and healthily, pay attention to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. Make sure vents are free of dust and that filters are regularly cleaned. It’s also important to regularly re-gas and service your air conditioning system.

Another regular pitfall that I see is businesses renovating the interior of their workspace – for example creating new offices, or installing partitions between zones – without considering the impact on air flow and temperature. Often installing new walls or removing walls can have a significant effect on the operation of the air conditioning system and the overall ambient temperature. Hot or cold spots and unpleasant draughts can form in places where this wasn’t previously a problem.

It is important to get expert advice to adjust and rebalance the air conditioning system following any renovation or new fitout to make sure that everything is operating at an optimal level. Your architect can help to coordinate this process and work with engineers and HVAC specialists to ensure your workplace is a comfortable, healthy and safe environment for your employees, customers, suppliers and any other visitors.

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  1. Bruce Christopher

    Ruth, great topic and one I'm sure many people will agree rarely gets sorted properly.
    Having the advantage of working on heat pump R&D and design at the start of my career, I find it interesting to debate issues of air conditioning with people when the vast majority do not understand the basic system workings. The critical one being the temperature differential cycle, that is the system's design to cover a differential shift from outside to inside temperature, rather than assuming 'limitless' capacity which leads to operational stress and problems.

    As you point out, there is no way to please the many different metabolisms, other than a little local diffuser tweaking, so a standard guideline needs to be followed considering the majority, along with energy efficiency and system design. So many people will apply reverse logic and set the thermostat to 25 when it's 15 outside and 20 when it's 30 outside when the proper settings should have been say 22 for the first case and 24 for the second. A pleasant change rather than a shock is recommended when entering a building. Even better, a smart auto control system that adjusts according to outside and inside temperature, maintains fresh quality air and which no one but an expert can adjust.

    I have also experienced the problem of offices being built in where there was once an open plan, without due consideration to the air conditioning distribution and believe that most diffusers are of poor design. A better understanding and maintenance of reverse cycle heat pump air conditioners will be much better for people as well as the poor abused systems.