We Americans like things cold. We like ice in our drinks, we like to crank up the air conditioning in our cars, and we like to turn down the thermostat to Arctic temperatures when we sleep. Where we don’t like to be cold is at work. In fact, as more employees are returning to office buildings, being cold is one of their biggest complaints.
As a recent Wall Street Journal article noted, for the last two years, “people who worked from home could fine-tune thermostats to their liking. As they head back to offices, many are lamenting the loss of control over their workday environment.” The article cited examples of workers who bring blankets and sweaters to work because of frigid office temperatures, which are controlled by a thermostat that is usually under lock and key.
Offices are often kept cool, because studies have shown that employees may perform better at lower temperatures. Indeed, according to the WSJ article, “a review of scientific literature about temperature and work performance published in February 2021 by the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health determined that cognitive and work performance is optimal between 71.6° and 75.2°F.”
That’s a pretty wide range, and as we all know, a thermostat setting does not account for other factors, such as sitting near a window or underneath a vent. But this does raise the question of whether office buildings and other spaces in the U.S. are overcooled, which could further tax an already strained electrical grid.
Several European countries are already mandating higher temperatures in public buildings, primarily in response to the war in Ukraine, which has caused an energy crisis across Europe. Italy, for example, has mandated that schools and other public buildings are not allowed to set their air conditioning any lower than 80.6°F. The measure, dubbed “Operation Thermostat,” started on May 1 and will last until April 2023, and according to Politico, those who do not comply can be hit with fines from €500 to €3,000 ($535 to $3,210).
Spain followed suit, mandating that air conditioning in public buildings be set no lower than 80.6°F in the summer. According to Reuters, the Spanish plan also includes the “mass installation of solar panels on public buildings' roofs and will encourage employees to work more from home.” Public workers will also be encouraged to use public transport or bicycles to go to work, and lights will be turned off earlier in public buildings.
Commercial refrigeration, which consumes a large amount of electricity, is also getting a second look in Europe. The company, Unilever, has launched a pilot project in Germany to see if warming ice cream freezer cabinets from -18°C (0°F) to -12°C (10.4°F) can be done without harming ice cream quality or consumer experience. According to Unilever, making this temperature adjustment could reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by about 20% to 30% per freezer.
So that brings us back to the U.S., where we keep our freezers at or below 0°F and our office spaces — and most other buildings — well below 75°F during the summer. Freezer temperatures are not likely to change, given that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that they should be at or below 0° F for optimal food safety. However, office temperatures are definitely at the discretion of building management, as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) only recommends that they be kept between 68° and 76°F. ASHRAE Standard 55-2017 recommends that for thermal comfort purposes, temperatures be kept between 67° and 82°F.
Bumping up the thermostat a few degrees in office buildings could result in employees and other occupants not only being more comfortable, but more productive. The same is true for shopping malls and other retail establishments, where some studies have shown that people buy more when the indoor temperature is 78°F.
While warmer spaces will likely improve occupant (and shopper) comfort, the larger issue is energy savings. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “overcooling wastes about 0.5 Quads of primary energy annually in U.S. commercial buildings and may waste a comparable amount of energy in U.S. homes.” That means at a minimum, 146,535,541,666 kWh is wasted each year due to overcooling.
Given the precarious state of our electrical grid, maybe it’s time to talk to building owners about the benefits of turning up the thermostat a few degrees.