Berkeley Lab Analysis Finds Reduced HVAC May Improve Health

Buildings Substantially Overcooled in Summer

In winter, the researchers found, the buildings were kept mostly within the recommended temperature comfort range for winter, but in summer building temperatures were, on average, below the comfort range for summer. Surprisingly, buildings were, on average, kept even cooler in the summer than in the winter, by almost 1°F (0.5°C), even though people are more comfortable with warmer temperatures in summer.

These low temperatures in summer suggest that many occupants would be too cold in their offices, and this overcooling by the air conditioning systems also indicates wasted energy.

Some Building Temperatures Associated with Increased Symptoms in Office Workers

Furthermore, in summer, a variety of building-related symptoms such as headache, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating were increased by over 50 percent in the buildings kept below 73.4°F (23°C). These buildings, kept too cold for comfort in summer, included almost half the buildings measured in summer. These symptoms thus might be expected to decrease if buildings were air-conditioned less and kept warmer in the summer.

In winter, buildings with higher indoor temperatures (above 73.4°F, even though that is near the middle of the recommended temperature range) were associated with approximately 30 to 80 percent increases in building-related nose, eye, and skin symptoms, as well as headache. This included more than half the buildings measured in winter. These symptoms thus might decrease if buildings were kept cooler in the winter.

Simply put, avoiding overcooled buildings in the summer, and keeping buildings at the cooler end of the recommended temperature range in the winter, may result in a substantial decrease in building-related symptoms. This should still maintain thermal comfort in the buildings in winter and should actually improve comfort in the summer.

Benefits Seen for Both Energy Efficiency and Occupant Health

Keeping air-conditioned buildings warmer in summer will save energy, and keeping buildings cooler in the winter will in many cases also save energy, through reduced heating. However, many of the buildings studied in winter, especially those with moderate outdoor temperatures at the time, may have been in "cooling" mode to handle internally generated heat from occupants, lights, and equipment. For these buildings, lowering indoor temperatures in the winter to decrease occupant symptoms would not be expected to provide energy savings, and in some cases might increase energy use.

"As we look for ways to save energy, these results suggest a potential win-win situation," says Mendell. "Our findings suggest that energy efficiency and keeping buildings healthy and comfortable for the occupants are not necessarily in conflict. Less summer cooling in air-conditioned buildings and less winter heating in heated buildings might reduce energy use in buildings substantially, yet have health benefits for the occupants that we did not expect, and still keep occupants as comfortable as before or even more comfortable."

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