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Could Smart Chairs End the HVAC Wars?

Infrared images from smart chairAs every facility manager knows, all the HVAC wizardry in the world won’t matter if your staff aren’t comfortable. Companies have shelled out big bucks for control and automation systems promising to deliver huge energy savings – only to find those savings out the window when employees are too hot or too cold, and manually override settings to cope.

Researchers at the Center for the Built Environment, at the University of California, Berkeley, are trying to tackle this – by handing control to employees right at the start. Their Personal Comfort System uses low-wattage devices embedded into chairs, foot warmers and fans. The idea is to heat or cool individuals as needed – rather than adjust settings for the entire building or floor. It makes intuitive sense, since people can rarely agree on what’s “comfortable.”

Going a step beyond, the system uses smart phone apps, software and sensors to send these “thermal satisfaction responses,” as the center calls them, up to energy decision-makers. And at 40 watts on average for heating, the PCS’s consumption compares favorably to space heaters, which use about 1,500 watts. The researchers estimate these tools can cut natural gas use by 39 percent and HVAC electricity use by 30 percent in a typical California office.

But the center acknowledges some potential hurdles: for one, the building industry is notoriously slow to innovate. Integration with existing HVAC systems and with outdated standards could also pose issues. And one they don’t mention, that may make all the difference: price. Companies willing to deal with integration difficulties will no doubt want a quick ROI for their troubles.

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