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Alignment of Comfort & Energy Savings in Utility Program Design

If you’ve ever had the experience that the building you work in is too warm in winter and/or too cool in summer, you are not alone. Americans often find themselves in an office, store or restaurant that’s either frigid or sweltering, when the weather outside is the opposite.

According to an article in Utility Dive, a new study from researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology found “commercial buildings are spending $600 million more than necessary every year to heat and cool spaces, while wasting significant energy doing so.” The research showed that only 11 percent of commercial buildings met the ASHRAE thermal comfort standard, meaning that inappropriate indoor temps left workers dissatisfied—and wasted energy to boot.

Even if this seems like a pretty insignificant issue, it does add up. Somewhat surprisingly, the study found “that 42 percent of workers report being dissatisfied with the temperature in their offices, with 14 percent being very dissatisfied.”

Environmentally, it takes a hefty toll as well. The study suggests that moderately adjusting the thermostat could reduce 2.5 percent of energy use in US office buildings and restaurants. This amounts to a national savings on utility bills to the tune of $600 million.

If hotels and stores get in on the act, the total reduction in carbon emissions would be 0.3 percent annually—the equivalent of the carbon pollution generated by four million automobiles in a year. This is an attainable efficiency opportunity: an easy way to trim emissions and keep people more comfortable in the process.

Optimum efficiency levels
Ideally, buildings would be commissioned to operate with efficient heating and cooling settings. But many buildings have never been properly commissioned, and older buildings need constant monitoring and adjustment. As wrong as it sounds, in many cases there is even simultaneous heating and cooling—where both systems operate at the same time, in effect cancelling each other out.

Need for programmable thermostats
In light of the study’s findings, there is the strong case for rethinking thermostat settings in offices, stores, restaurants and other commercial buildings. Deploying programmable thermostats or even smart thermostats are ways utilities can boost efficiency. However, the issue goes beyond this technology.

In larger buildings, for example, the heating and cooling is often controlled by a building management system that needs to make constant micro adjustments beyond the scope of a thermostat. More data is needed to determine the best temperature settings for each climate zone. In addition, there are plenty of extenuating circumstances that can influence thermostat settings, such as dress codes. The most energy efficient dress code is one in which employees' clothing is closely aligned with the outdoor environment, so that thermostat settings can move closer to ambient.

Smart thermostats do have a huge role to play in providing better indoor microclimates. ComEd, for example, has the ambitious initiative to install 1 million smart thermostats in its Chicago-area territory by 2020.

Establishing a new baseline for temperature settings needs to be an integrated, countrywide goal. Otherwise the information will be isolated and of limited use. There are a couple of feasible options. One is that thermostat vendors or building management software developers create a repository for initial temperature settings. Another viable possibility is for the US Energy Information Administration to start collecting data on thermostat settings in commercial buildings, a task it’s already immersed in on the residential side. All in all, between thermostats and sensible clothing choices, there’s a lot of potential to make indoor temperatures more congruent with outdoor temperatures.

Let’s put a stop to excessive, off-kilter temps that make one reach for a sweater in the height of summer and strip down to a t-shirt in winter.


Amin Esmaeili
Written by Amin Esmaeili

Engineering Product Manager
Amin Esmaeili is a leader of innovation within engineering, combining impressive experience with years of education to produce proven results. He is responsible for the development of new program solutions and the design of new grid optimization and demand side management programs. Amin is also involved in quality assurance and collaborating with utility clients for the outcome evaluations of implemented programs. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering and a PhD in industrial and system engineering from Wichita State University.


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