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How Offices Could Be More Comfortable With Less Air Conditioning

June 28, 2013 | Northwest Public Radio
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Courtney Flatt

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  • Michael Brambley (left) and Guopeng Liu in Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Building Controls Lab. New research at the lab has found a way to keep you more comfortable and keep office costs down. credit: Flickr Creative Commons: PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Michael Brambley (left) and Guopeng Liu in Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Building Controls Lab. New research at the lab has found a way to keep you more comfortable and keep office costs down. | credit: Flickr Creative Commons: PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory | rollover image for more

If you’ve ever shivered through a meeting in a conference room when it’s warm outside, you may have wondered: “Why don’t they just turn off the air-conditioning?” New research has found a way to keep you more comfortable — and keep office HVAC costs down.

Research out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., is proposing a new sensor that can turn heating and air conditioning systems off when people leave a room.

Right now, most air conditioning and heating systems are set to full-blast throughout the day, said Michael Brambley, who led the team that wrote the report.

“You can see people coming to a meeting early in an auditorium or a large conference room. They’re sitting there shivering because there’s too much air being provided. The system can’t compensate for that and make it comfortable for that one person,” Brambley said.

The new sensor uses infrared detection to count how many people are in a room. It can then adjust the air-flow properly. That way the air won’t blow too fast or too slow. It would shut off completely when rooms are empty.

That could save 18 percent of the overall energy use in commercial office buildings across the country, adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.

“We’re finding many things that can be accomplished with controls that save significant amounts of energy, just by changing how things are operated, when they turn on and off, how they interact with the presence of people,” Brambley said.

Brambley said savings are larger if lights turn off at the same time as the air. The report simulated office and weather conditions in warm, cold, dry and humid places throughout the U.S. In the Northwest, offices in Salem, Ore., would save roughly 23 percent of their energy consumption. Dollar savings in the region are lower because of low energy costs. A Salem office would save about $50,000 per year. In Duluth, Minn., savings would add up to more than $100,000 per year.

Brambley said the system costs too much right now for commercial use. The team is working to make it more affordable.

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