Cold in the Office? Blame the Equation Used to Set the Thermostat

Illustration for article titled Cold in the Office? Blame the Equation Used to Set the Thermostat

If you work in an office, chances are you or the person sitting next to you has grumbled about it being too hot or cold. No one likes rugging up on a summer’s day to contend with the air-conditioning. Or having to shed one too many layers in winter to compensate for stifling heat indoors.


According to a paper published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, this scenario is more likely if you’re a woman. Climate control systems in office buildings are often set according to an old formula based on men’s thermal comfort. This gender bias, the authors argue, is wasting energy.

What is thermal comfort?

Keeping office workers from feeling too hot or too cold is no simple task. While most office air conditioners control only air temperature, the way we exchange heat with the environment depends on a suite of environmental factors. And so does our thermal comfort.

Engineers need to consider:

  • the humidity
  • the movement of air (wind speed)
  • the radiation temperature (the temperature of everything the body can “see”)
  • the temperature of everything we touch.

In the 1970s, Danish engineer Ole Fanger developed a model to determine the combination of environmental variables that we find comfortable.

Because heat exchange also depends on individual factors such as body size (and therefore body surface area), metabolic rate (that determines metabolic heat production), tissue insulation (related to the amount of body fat), and clothing, Fanger’s own experiments showed that no office thermal environment ever would satisfy everyone.

Even before Fanger, we knew that, at the low wind speeds typical of offices, radiant heat exchange mattered more than convective heat exchange. In other words, radiation temperature is more important for thermal comfort than air temperature. You could argue that offices should have wall conditioners, rather than air conditioners.


In today’s Nature Climate Change paper, Dutch researchers Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt show that if the thermostat is set for men, as it usually is, the air temperature will be too low for women.

Because women are smaller, the authors explain, they generate less metabolic heat than men, and so will not feel comfortable in winter at office temperatures set for men.


By the same logic, if the thermostat is set for Europeans, it will be too low for Asians, who weigh, on average, 30% less than Europeans.

In countries such as Australia and South Africa, where air conditioning generally is used for cooling, setting the thermostat to satisfy large people in summer will leave smaller people feeling too cold.


But while Fanger’s equations predict thermal comfort – how satisfied we are with the thermal environment – that is only one of the body functions relevant to the question of where we set the thermostat.

More than just comfort

Heat exchange also affects our body temperature control (how hot our bodies are), thermal sensation (how hot or cold we feel the environment to be), and our performance (how well we do on a particular task).


Those body functions are not necessarily correlated. In a hot bath, for instance, body temperature rises and we feel hot, but we meet Fanger’s criterion for thermal comfort: we wouldn’t want the temperature to be any different.

We perform some cognitive and physical tasks best when we’re slightly-uncomfortably cold. But manual dexterity is better at a warm 32°C than at 20°C in simulated factory work.


Performance at some tasks drops off when body temperature rises, even if we do not feel the environment as warm. For that reason, and those outlined in the Nature Climate Change paper, children probably underperform on learning tasks in classrooms that teachers assess as feeling just right. Perhaps the smaller children should set the thermostat.

As if all that complexity weren’t enough, Australian researchers have challenged Fanger’s 1970s thermal comfort model on the basis of the concept of adaptive thermal comfort. Should we set the thermostat at the same level in winter, they asked, when we are acclimated to colder outdoor environments, as in summer?


Some occupants of offices in the tropics want the thermostat set higher than Fanger predicts. Thirty years ago, people of European ancestry living in Darwin rejected air conditioning in the “the Dry” (July and August) because they felt overcooled. Though it’s unclear whether modern Darwinians, many of whom use air-conditioning at home, would say the same.

So, what can we do?

We certainly could maintain thermal comfort and simultaneously relax the demands on the thermostat if we were prepared to wear warmer clothes in our offices in winter and cooler clothes in summer. Selecting clothing also would solve the dilemma of providing thermal comfort to both men and women in the same office.


In the new Nature Climate Change paper, the authors estimate that energy consumption of residences and offices “adds up to about 30% of total carbon dioxide emissions”.

It’s true, we could substantially reduce the energy required for acceptable thermal environments in offices and consequently reduce greenhouse gases. But that approach would require us to abandon the compulsion to create a shirt-sleeve thermal environment in offices, and to vary the thermostat between summer and winter.


We would also need to switch to wall-conditioning rather than air-conditioning and use green engineering to get the thermal design of the office building right. We can be comfortable without it costing the earth.

Shane Maloney is Professor and Head of School, Anatomy Physiology and Human Biology at University of Western Australia. Andrea Fuller is Professor, School of Physiology; Director, Brain Function Research Group at University of the Witwatersrand. Duncan Mitchellis Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Adjunct Professor in the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at University of Western Australia.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image by Hadria/Shutterstock.



This is the second article I’ve seen that misrepresents the paper and jumps on the “sexist” angle hard. It has nothing to do with setting the thermostat. Anyone can change that for a given floor or space. Also, the article seems like it completely misses the point because it doesn’t look at the big picture.

As any engineer could tell you there’s a ton of assumptions that goes into building a heating/cooling system for an entire building. The thermal load of the people is only one of the many things that goes into that consideration and isn’t always the highest load. It is often dwarfed by the other stuff going on in the building. The solar heating from the windows is often a very high contributor and can be make the body heat of the people inside a joke. Not just that, but a building designer has to estimate how many people per floor and often doesn’t know what sort of activity will go on. Are they standing and moving around a lot or sitting? That changes the thermal load from people far more than male/female. How many people on a given floor? Depending on the potential type of activity you could have half the number of bodies on the floor that the calculations were based on.

But, again, as any good engineer will tell you ... in that situation you design for the worst case scenario and that means that, yes, when you have a lawyer’s office instead of a call centre the system will be far bigger than the heat load being generated. But, the building can handle the person density of the call centre should the lawyer move out and someone else move in. Factor in female versus male? Sure ... but it isn’t going to change much on how efficient the building design is. The system has to be designed for the worst case scenario so it’ll be based on the highest potential heat load. You can’t save money because women like it a little hotter and therefore you can save some on the capacity of the air conditioning system. You have to assume it’ll be the highest heat generators doing the highest potential load.

I mean, I could design an air conditioning system for a law office that is 50% men and 50% women with a body density of one person per 100 sq ft but what happens when they move out and the hot yoga studio moves in? The whole system will have to be redesigned for the substantially higher heat load. No, an engineer won’t design a high rise assuming they’re all hot yoga studios or gyms with tons of treadmills but they also can’t assume that the building is 50% male and 50% female and that they’re all doing sit-down tasks. If they did they’d be under sizing the air conditioning system and hoping it all works out. We don’t work that way.