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The thermostat battle claims many victims in the modern office. Weapons include the “office sweater” in the summertime and the desk fan in the winter. Women disproportionately suffer.
A new study published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change sheds some light on this gender divide.
Current guidelines used to set most building temperature assume all employees are 150-pound, 40-year-old males. Or at least have that body composition. And the corresponding temperature wastes energy.
The current model for office A/C was established in the 1960s by the American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. It accounts for many variables, such as the current room temperature, airflow, humidity, clothing, and the metabolic rate for an average male. This model changes depending on the workplace. For example, less air conditioning is needed for employees doing light office jobs than for those conducting physical labor, such as factory workers on an assembly line.
The researchers created a new room temperature model that, in addition to the factors above, considers body composition. The model predicted that women are more comfortable at higher room temperatures. This is consistent with what women report, said Boris Kingma, a biologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and lead author on the study.
“The metabolic rate for women is 30 to 40 percent lower than for men,” Kingma said. This is because women tend to have more fat and less muscle compared to men.
Metabolic rate is based on the amount of energy or calories your body needs to maintain itself. This energy supports simple tasks, like breathing, along with more demanding endeavors, like running a marathon. Muscle cells demand more energy than fat cells. People with a higher muscle-to-fat ratio have a higher metabolic rate, or burn calories faster. This explains why some athletes can devour pounds of food without becoming chubby.
We also lose muscle mass as we get older, which contributes to lower metabolic rate in old age.
Kingma’s group believes that it is a waste of energy to keep the office at a comfortable climate for the average 1960s man. Today’s workforce includes more women and elderly.
But if we change the guideline to better meet the needs of others, will the men that were comfortable before overheat in the new office climate? The simple answer is no.
Imagine this scenario: It’s the summertime and your office is pumped with cool air to maintain a 70-degree-Fahrenheit temperature. Let’s say the building is using 100 units of energy to keep cool. Freezing employees turn on personal heaters, using an additional 20 units of energy, to counteract the cool air. In total, the building is using 120 units of energy.
Kingma suggests that the target building temperature should be raised to reduce energy use. In this scenario, your building is now using only 80 units of energy plus the natural heat seeping in from the summer sun to maintain at a slightly warmer temperature. Hot employees could use “ventilated chairs” or fans, which could use an additional 20 units of energy. In sum, this building is using 100 units of energy to keep all occupants comfortable. This is assuming that the amount of energy used by a fan and a heater is similar. Because you’ve lowered the amount of energy used to cool the whole building, employees can still use personal electronics and not exceed the amount of energy used in the building in the first scenario, Kingma said.
Catherine Woods is a 2015 mass media science and engineering fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She worked with the PBS NewsHour in the summer of 2015.
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