What's the right temperature?

Published: July 16, 2009 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating, Troubled Heating Systems

thermostat

Comfort is perception

Back when I was working for the manufacturers rep company we moved into this big new office on the Isle of Long that was split up into Dilbert-like cubbies. The place had a two-pipe, direct-return hydronic hot water heating system, running on three main zones. Each zone had its own circulator and day-night thermostat. Within each zone there were about six thermostatic radiator valves. We set the electric thermostats for 80-degrees F. during the day, which made the circulators run continuously. The thermostatic radiator valves throttled and did a great job (or so I thought) of keeping the individual cubbies from overheating. At night, the electric thermostats setback to 60-degrees F, which caused the TRVs to open fully and the circulators to operate intermittently. It was a simple, but very effective, control system for the days before outdoor reset became as popular as it is today. Or so it seemed to me.

The challenge, as is often the case, turned out to be a human one. We had people of all ages and both sexes working for our company. One day, one of the women in the Accounting Department decided that it was too hot for her. She was of an age where the anticipator on the internal thermostat was a bit out of calibration. So she began to complain to the other women in the accounting department.

I went into her space and dialed down the TRV, but that didn't stop her complaining. She wasn't a technical person and the concept of the TRV was new to her. At home, she had an electrical thermostat. Couldn't she just turn down the electrical thermostat? The one out in the hallway?

I explained that if she did this then the entire accounting department would be cold. She told me that I was an idiot. She also told the other women in the Accounting Department that I was an idiot, and after a while, she won them over, convincing them that they were also hot. Comfort is perception and the majority rules.

So we did the thing that has nearly become a cliche in our industry. We stayed late one night and nailed a Honeywell T87 thermostat to the wall of each accounting cubby. We didn't wire the T87s; we just hung them.

The next day, all the women in accounting thanked me.

See what I mean? Comfort is perception.

I was doing a seminar last January in some Holiday Inn. It was 70-degrees F in our meeting room and the humidity level was just fine. Most of the people in the room were wearing long-sleeve shirts and some wore sweaters as well because it was colder than outer space outside. The people at the seminar had left home that morning dressed for the cold. When they got to the Holiday Inn, the climate was controlled, but they were still wearing their long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. I asked if everyone was comfortable and they all nodded. Temperature okay? Too hot? Too cool? Everyone said it was just fine, and why was I asking?

Long sleeve shirts and sweaters in 70-degree F air.

Last July, I did a seminar in another Holiday Inn. It was hot and humid that day, but in our conference room the air-conditioning system was keeping the temperature at 70-degrees F, and the humidity level was just fine. The people at that seminar were wearing short-sleeve shirts. Some even wore shorts. They had gotten up that morning and dressed for the summer. When they got to the Holiday Inn, the indoor temperature and humidity were pretty much the same as they were during the winter, but no one wore a long-sleeved shirt, and no one wore a sweater. And had I asked why no one was dressed that way, the people in the room would have looked at me like I was crazy. Just as they would have looked at me if I had asked during the winter why no one was wearing shorts.

Ever stop to think about that? Comfort is perception, and the majority rules. People dress the way others dress on any given day, regardless of the indoor temperature.

I'm writing this on February 7. I'm sitting on a lanai on the island of Maui, looking at the blue Pacific. It's 80-degrees F right now, with a gentle breeze. I'm wearing shorts and a snazzy Hawaiian shirt. I am perfectly comfortable and in a state of complete bliss. There's no need for air conditioning here because no one is using air conditioning on Maui today. Crazy as that may sound.

The condo where Marianne and I are staying has air conditioning but we're not using it, and neither are our neighbors. Is it hot? Yep. Is it humid? You bet. Why no AC? Because no one else is using it.

Marianne and I went out to dinner last night. We were in a Chinese restaurant and the temperature inside was pretty much what it was outside, that being wonderfully warm. All the windows in the restaurant were wide open and the ceiling fans were stirring the air lazily. None of the diners complained, and everyone seemed to be moving a bit slower because of the tropical warmth. I mentioned to Marianne that if this restaurant were in New York City and there was no air conditioning on an 80-degree day the owner would be on the phone, screaming at some poor slob contractor. Here, everyone thinks no AC is normal, which it is.

Comfort is perception, and as long as everyone is okay with it then it's okay.

Majority rules.

When we were kids we had no air conditioning. My brother and I were tickled pink if we got to have an oscillating fan in our bedroom. We slept in our drawers and that's just the way it was. If it was really hot, we slept in the backyard, and this was the biggest deal in the world to my brother and me. Now, if I have to sleep without air conditioning on the Isle of Long I get grouchy. Why? Because my neighbors have air conditioning and if they have it then I have to have it too.

But here on Maui, my neighbors are just digging the breeze, and so are we. It's hot but who cares? Comfort is perception and the majority rules. When in Maui we do as the Hawaiians do.

We were shopping the other day when Marianne led me into this store that had air conditioning. It hit us like a cold slap in the face when we walked through the door. She looked at me and shook her head. "It's chilly in here," she said, and then spent less time shopping in that store than in any of the other stores where there was just a gentle breeze and open walls. Isn't it funny what we get used to?

We dress for the weather outside, regardless of the weather inside, because that's what we expect of each other. If we expect air conditioning, then we get upset when it's not there for us. If we expect thermostats then, by gosh, we'd better have thermostats.

But if the majority of the people don't expect these things then we somehow wind up just as happy. Comfort is perception.

Majority rules.