Thermostatic – Boston Office Thermostat Wars. A Cold War With Heated Battles.

September 25, 2008

It’s 8:15AM in Boston. Barbara drops her bag and strides to the thermostat. She reaches into the locked box with a nail file and flicks the plastic tab up. Barbara returns to her desk, hoping nobody saw her.

Sound familiar?

Of all the issues at the office, nothing is so divisive and secretive as control of the office thermostat.

A woman who works near Boston’s Financial District refused to share her industry and was uncertain if she should even reveal her office location.

This woman said she enjoys the large window near her desk because it keeps her warm. But when it comes to overcast days or bitterly cold periods in the winter, she finds herself in a battle between coworkers who bump the heat up and others who cry for cooler temps. The thermostat seems to do nothing.

This results in frequent calls to the HVAC crew who run around the office all year long adjusting thermostats. Ultimately, this woman has found other ways to stay warm.

“I find it easier, more conducive to my working relationships,” she said. “To keep sweaters and scarves within easy reach.”

She’s not alone. At one company in southern New Hampshire, the thermostats appear to be only decorative. Recently the thermometers on the wall read 81° while the thermostats were set at 68°.

Said one employee, “I don’t know enough about the heating system to know if the thermostats are inadequate, or if the heat doesn’t work properly, or if the thermostat and heat are ill-suited to one another, or ill-suited to this office. But it gets headache-inducing hot every afternoon, then mysteriously near-comfy at 3PM.”

What’s the big deal with controlling the office climate? We can agree that some people have their own internal furnace and others run reptilian and need to carry a space heater around with them to meetings. But in an age where robotic vacuums clean up our homes, shouldn’t it be easier to keep employees comfortable?

Apparently, it’s more difficult than you’d think. Raymond Falite is vice president Falite Brothers , an HVAC company that has served businesses, homes and schools in the Boston area for 32 years. He said that the real difficulty in maintaining comfort comes down to zones.

Most buildings have zones that vary between 500 and 2000 feet and depending on the size of the zone, you’re going to have people who are either too hot or too cold.

Ideally, he said, you would want to design a building so that the zones are only 500 feet. The smaller the zone, the more completely and accurately you can control the heat and cooling. When spaces get larger, that’s when you get thermostat wars.

“Over the years, we’ve put a lot of locking thermostats on,” said Falite.

But heat zones are where every builder wants to cheat. It saves you money if you put a 2000-foot zone in instead of a 500-foot zone. Less equipment. But that means less control.

“In a 2000-foot zone you’re going to have four to eight people,” he said. “And they all have a different temperature threshold.”

He explained that women are typically colder than men, but everyone’s body temperatures run differently.

“You’re always going to have people who feel uncomfortable,” said Falite.

Aaron Strout was willing to share his name as long as his company name stayed secret.

“During the summer, everyone on my side of the building got so cold, they literally needed space heaters to keep from becoming popsicles,” said Strout. “Some days, you could literally go from 90 degrees outside to 58 degrees in the office—in spite of regular complaining to our building manager.”

Is there a solution? Maybe if construction companies stop cutting corners and put more zones in new buildings we won’t have this problem in the future. But for now, a sweater, a fan and maybe a space heater are the best ways to survive at the office.


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