Your Office Is Too Cold. Or Too Hot. But Science Wants to Help
The forever war over the office thermostat has a new beachhead: the “Comfort Suite” at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where researchers are chasing detente between the half of the office that wants the air conditioning on maximum and the other half shivering in their cubicles, huddled under sweaters, pointing their toes toward wan little electric heaters.
In the suite—actually a 250 square-foot office simulator in NREL’s Golden, Colo. headquarters—engineers and ergonomics specialists are testing all kinds of technologies to see if they can improve comfort while reducing the energy an office building uses. Desk chairs warm up and cool down in seconds, controlled via a smart phone app. Infrared cameras show when someone’s fingers are starting to chill. Sensors track the concentration of carbon dioxide as 20 registers alternately blast hot and cold air at pretend-office workers.
Some of this kind of tech is already out in the world—heated computer mice, desk fans, and so on, says Dane Christensen, manager of Residential Systems Innovation and Performance at NREL. But the lab wants to see personal comfort bear energy savings. “The purpose of this project is really to try to improve the interactions between those individual devices,” Christensen says, “and the whole building.”
As it becomes easier and cheaper to put computer chips in more devices, systems that previously couldn’t communicate will be able to talk to each other. And that’s not limited to electronics. NREL retrofitted the chairs in the Comfort Suite with a $30 Arduino microcomputer.
Comfort Suite-type technologies aren’t just experimental. More and more companies are getting into the business of improving the office climate. Last month, Personal Comfort Systems shipped 70 Hyperchairs to the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, says Peter Rumsey, the Oakland-based company’s co-founder and CEO. Like the ones in the Comfort Suite, Hyperchairs have luxury car-like climate controls built in, controlled from an interface on the chair or with a smartphone. Sitters charge them overnight, and they use a maximum power of 15 watts, compared to about 1,500 watts consumed by a space heater. Of course, a space heater is also a fraction of the cost; Hyperchairs cost $1,900 a pop. That’s about $750 more than a top-of-the-line Aeron.
But it might be worth it. “When you ask a building facility manager, ‘what’s the No. 1 complaint?’ By far it’s ‘too hot, too cold,’” Rumsey says. When HVAC systems are set to maintain a temperature between, say, 72 and 74 degrees, they use extra energy throttling up and down as the building overheats and then gets too cold. Rumsey thinks that as more people using devices like the Hyperchair would let buildings broaden that range while the drones inside stayed comfortable.
Meanwhile everyone in working in a high-fashion collaborative space (as opposed to offices, which are so 20th century) can also use an app called Comfy to vote on the temperature setting for their thermostat. The system considers the time of day and the weather but has an added dose of instant gratification, cooling down a stuffy meeting room for about 15 minutes on command. After debuting Comfy on two floors of the headquarters of Johnson Controls in Hayward, Calif. in January 2014, the building reduced steam used for heating the space by about 23 percent over a four-month period. Electricity used for cooling went down by about the same amount.
And at the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley, architect Edward Arens is working on adapting standing desks to the same climate ideas. Arens, director of the center, uses a standing desk himself. And he’s working on insoles that use electricity wirelessly transmitted from a floor mat to warm a pair of feet.
Ideally, all this new gear will mesh into the burgeoning Internet of Things, integrated into energy systems overall. NREL researchers are now taking what they’ve learned from tests of the heating-and-cooling chair and building it into simulations of whole buildings’ energy use. Then they’ll try to figure out how to connect the chairs to building HVAC systems directly–no thermostat resetting required. “We’ll be able to reduce operating costs for buildings but actually keep people more comfortable than we do today,” NREL’s Christensen says. “The work that we’re doing should make the world better for occupants of the buildings, as well as for the owner and the operator.” Which all sounds…pretty cool, actually.