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Fake Thermostats Can Provide Real Comfort to Office Workers

The unspoken battle over the office thermostat setting is so fraught with drama that it became its own trope. Just like how Oscar and Angela famously squabbled over an acceptable temperature in The Office, the temp tug-of-war seems to be the ubiquitous bane of the office experience. While one person can thrive in an environment with a crisp 66 degrees, the same temp might send shivers down another employee’s spine. Though there are viable physiological reasons as to how people perceive temperature, office and building managers have to contend with keeping people happy while optimizing their energy costs. That’s why I am about to expose one of the biggest secrets in office management: most office thermostats aren’t really thermostats at all, they’re decoys that give the illusion of control.

Oh, the deception!

It’s almost impressive the amount of work that goes into creating the illusion of power when it comes to the office thermostat. If the thermostat isn’t strategically tucked away in a hard-to-reach place or locked completely to the public, there’s a devious technique that keeps anyone from really changing the office temperature at work. Fake thermostats can be found in offices all over the world. Oftentimes, these false controls are even rigged with white noise generators in order to imitate the hem and haw of the air conditioning or heating fan. 

Some of these decoy thermostats go further into needlessly complicated engineering. Greg Perakes, an HVACR Tech Instructor at TN Technology Center at Murfreesboro, told one story of crafting a dummy thermostat that had its own little air pump to assuage one employee who constantly complained of feeling too hot in her office. “Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat,” Perakes told The Oklahoman. “We ran the main air line inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.).” The thermostat did nothing to change the overall temperature of the employee’s office, but it created enough feedback for the employee to believe that she did. With the added whiff of air coming from the siphoning tube, it’s no wonder that anyone would think they had just successfully adjusted the office temperature.  

Apparently, thermal comfort is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, at least that’s what many building engineers believe. But a decoy thermostat that simulates turning on the cooling and heating systems isn’t just a nudge towards the Placebo effect, it’s a full-on shove.

HVAC technicians far and wide seem to agree that allowing office workers to adjust the temperature to suit their individual needs proves to be a fruitless endeavor. Not just for energy consumption, but more so to put an end to the torrent of complaints. Because of this, you may find technicians to be unrepentant about installing a fake thermostat solely to bamboozle office workers.

Complaint box

Vaughn Langless, an electrical inspector in Rochester, New York, spoke of an office renovation he worked on where he installed heating and air systems. In spite of the system working perfectly, Langless was inundated with complaints about the systems not functioning correctly shortly after the fact. “We could never completely satisfy the occupants of the space,” remembered Langless. “So we mounted dummy thermostats adjacent to the controlling thermostat and gave the floor manager the key to the stat, now the occupants could ‘control’ their space as they desired within the permission of the manager. The dummy stat did nothing… Our service calls disappeared, and to my knowledge, the system is still set up and working as it has since 1987.” 

Duplicitous thermostats go all the way back to the 1960s when demand for electricity surged in some parts of the U.S. In order to mitigate rising heating costs, some companies did in fact install white-noise generators to mimic the hum of the fan even though the whole system remained off. But, as heating prices rose, “landlords began to write leases specifying a narrow range for air temperatures,” according to writer Jared Sandberg of The Wall Street Journal. In doing so, fixing thermostats to stay within a range of just a few degrees became a building necessity.

In a study conducted by scientists Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, it was revealed that most building thermostats operate on a thermal comfort model that was developed in the 1960s. “Indoor thermal environment design is primarily based on the predicted mean vote and the percentage of people dissatisfied (PPD),” wrote Kingma and Lichtenbelt. Though the two scientists admitted that the accuracy of the variables used to determine PPD, like a person’s metabolic rate and the amount of insulation that their clothing provides are “poorly defined. Nevertheless, standard reference values for the metabolic rate and clothing are tabulated and used worldwide.” 

Total eclipse of the smart (thermostat)

You might think that the latest advancement in thermostat technology might do away with placebos. Alas, modern HVAC systems use temperature sensors strategically located that are then used by a central computer controller at each location within a narrow allowable range. The computer system that controls the temperature will often use readings from several thermistors within a section of a building to properly regulate the overall temperature.

That said, the fixed thermostat is no longer a placebo as there is an understanding that the overall temperature is regulated elsewhere. But let’s say someone in the office tried to trick the system back. The only way for office workers to adjust the temperature of their workspace is to try to manipulate the temperature around the smart thermostat’s sensors. 

For instance, if someone felt that the office was too warm and wanted to cool it down (and they had too much time on their hands), they might try to manipulate the thermal readings of the smart thermostat system by placing something hot, like an incandescent bulb, next to the sensor. Or, someone who felt the office was too cold might try to place an ice pack next to one of the sensors. Either way, any attempt to “trick” the overall system into making the space a few degrees colder or warmer won’t really work. If all the other sensors register 68 degrees Fahrenheit but the one that is near the “fake” heat source registers 78 degrees, the central system will likely regard the sensor providing the 78-degree reading as faulty. The temperature would remain unchanged.

Smart thermostats are becoming extremely attractive products for building managers and property owners as a way to better optimize their building’s energy consumption. The aforementioned scientists Kingma and Lichtenbelt concluded in their study that energy consumption of buildings, office and residential, adds up to about 30 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions. The occupant behavior within those buildings contributes to 80 percent of the variation in energy consumption. From an environmental and economic standpoint, keeping a space at a fixed temperature seems to be the best option. Giving employees free reign to adjust the temperature to their individual preferences sounds great but it gets expensive fast.

It also incites hostility between co-workers, as we’ve witnessed either in-person or in a TV episode. That said, the illusion of control has proven to be the best way to handle that predicament. “If you have the opportunity to give the public control over their environment, you should,” says Dan Int-Hout, chief engineer for Dallas-based manufacturer Krueger and former chair of the ASHRAE Standard 55 (Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy) committee. “Locked thermostats send a message that management doesn’t trust the employees.” There is a fine line that needs to be walked between control and efficiency when it comes to office temperature. The way that many have chosen to walk that line is to not walk it at all and rather install fake thermostats that give the illusion of control. While it sounds shady, it certainly leads to less ill will than merely telling office occupants to “deal with it.”

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