The Goldilocks Syndrome: Balancing Needs with Commercial HVAC

By Kevin Bartley, Division Manager with Nexus 5 Group


Every month, I have to think about what my blog will be about and try to come up with an informative topic to keep everyone engaged. This month, it's about something that I fight every summer, and my hopes are that everyone that works in an office reads this story.


I know that this will probably not be seen by everyone in the world that works in an office, but If this can help just a few, it will have been worth it.


My office is cold… My office is hot!

In the world of HVAC, these are the complaints that we hear every day. We make trips to clients just to inform them that the reason for the temperature issue is the office that has the thermostat in it has been closed up for days... or that they need to keep their blinds closed in the afternoon in August when the heat index is 110 degrees. These may seem like super simple solutions, but they're not always obvious.


So in this blog I want to help people understand more about Commercial HVAC. Please know that I'm not calling out anyone. This is a public service announcement to help people learn something.


The dilemma in Commercial HVAC is the push and pull between what the Mechanical Contractor/Engineer wants to do versus what the building owner or landlord wants to pay for. In today’s competitive real estate market, it's all about where a company can get the best deal. To get the best deal, sometimes corners are cut and the minimum is done to get things within budget for a client. Clients tend to want to put their money in design aspects and cool lighting fixtures instead of climate control. This is what we call “Value Engineering”.


Value Engineering

Value Engineering doesn’t mean we put less HVAC capacity into a building that it needs. It means that not everyone with an office gets a thermostat and has control of their particular area. We have to spread things out... so we get climate control in the space, but not necessarily comfort control.


When a system is designed for a building, we use Nominal Load Calculations. These calculations tell us what the average temperatures are throughout the year for that geographical area. It also means that when it's -10 degrees or heat indexes are 120 degrees for 3 weeks in a row, the system will not provide the comfort that you “think” it will. These temperatures aren't common for the Kansas City area. But sometimes they do happen. When they do, the expectation that you should have comfort control goes straight out the window.


Doing small things like reprogramming your thermostat schedules and keeping blinds closed thought the day goes a long way in helping with these temperature extremes. The tenant doesn't usually care as much about Energy Management... they care about how cool or warm it is in their space. On the other hand, the building owner or landlord does care about Energy Management and how much the utility bills will be.


A Teaching Moment


Equipment can break down and components do fail, but generally this isn't the problem. As a Contractor, we always try to please everyone by listening to complaints and trying to explain their systems to them. Unfortunately, when people are either hot or cold, they tend to get defensive and want the problem fixed. It's not always that easy, and we try to use an informative approach.


People need to understand that their office may not be as comfortable as their house. There isn't just one system that controls the heat or air in 5 – 6 rooms. These are giant systems that have to be smart and control many different floors, exposures and conditions.

Generally speaking, most thermostats only have a few degrees of swing in them. This keeps tenants from cranking the air down to 50 and letting it run constantly. Also, these systems never turn off. They're what we call Constant Volume. They run constantly so there will always be flowing air of some type, even if it's just room temperature air.


The tenant is sharing a space with many other people and generally not paying the utility bill. (I say this knowing that right now, I have a Project Coordinator in our office that has a heater running under her desk in August.) Everyone has a different set of tolerances for their body temperature. What may be uncomfortable for some, may be comfortable for others. If someone is cold natured, they can layer with more clothing.


Redesigning an HVAC system for a specific employee is never the answer.


Be patient during extreme temperatures, those conditions won't last long. Set thermostats to match the conditions that are coming based on the forecast. If possible, keep blinds closed and doors open to maintain temperature and improve airflow.


In most office spaces, just because you turn the thermostat up doesn't mean you're actually turning on the heat (shocking right?) Most of the time, there's only heat on the perimeter of the building where heat loads are lost. Believe it or not, if you're in an interior office or team space, chances are that you don't have heat at all. You can turn the thermostat up as high as it will go if you are cold and it will never change the temperature in that space.


So how do we find the balance?

Our job as the contractor is to make our clients happy while providing a cost-effective budget. And we work hard to get the work done on time and on budget. Building owners are ultimately accountable for making good business decisions... and unfortunately, many of these decisions are based on costs and budget while trying to balance the comfort of the employees.


I understand that everyone spends many hours in their workspace and they deserve to be comfortable. If you're the CEO of the company, chances are that you have a thermostat in your office (and most likely the ability to keep it very comfortable.) But realistically, not everyone will feel the same comfort level in all areas of the building. Just be patient and dress accordingly. It's ok to wear a sweater in August if that makes you more comfortable at work. Good luck out there!

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