Air Conditioning Makes You Smarter: Increasing the Bottom Line with Better HVAC Maintenance

CareerBuilder.com released a 2018 survey stating that 46% of employees think their office is too hot to too cold. Despite untold millions of dollars spent on heating and air conditioning systems, almost half of everyone in a building is uncomfortable. Year after year complaints about office temperature outrank dirty bathrooms, noise levels, no parking, or even bad indoor quality. It seems being uncomfortable is what is on people’s minds and for good reason. Several studies have shown a direct link between an employee’s comfort and their productivity, which is one of the many reasons why proper HVAC maintenance is so critical.

In 2006, Helsinki University of Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a study entitled “Room Temperature and Productivity in Office Work.” The study measured the productivity of office workers at different temperature levels performing various tasks such as typing, proofreading documents, and simple mathematical calculations.

The results showed that as room temperature rises above the 73.5°F – 75°F range, employee productivity begins to decrease. But as temperatures cool back down to 70°F – 72°F, productivity returns to normal levels. In an office building with insufficient air conditioning, productivity suffered a decrease of 3.5% per °F as the temperature rose above 77°F. This means in a facility with broken air conditioning unit at 80°F inside, employee productivity throughout the building is diminished by more than 10%. Productivity only returns when temperatures cool down. Interestingly, the highest productivity point is at a temperature of around 72 °F.

A similar study published in Thailand in 2007 came to the same conclusion, but with some interesting details. The study found that for office workers to maintain consistent productivity throughout the day, indoor office temperatures should be slightly cooler in the afternoon than in the morning. As employees tire throughout the work day, if the indoor temperature was not lowered in the afternoon, productivity suffered. The building air conditioning needs to have the capacity to reduce the indoor temperature in the afternoon when outside temperatures are the hottest and employees began getting worn out from the day’s work. Cooler temperatures are a key component to consistent productivity.

Other studies have attempted to assign a dollar value to lost productivity related to elevated indoor temperatures. Another Berkeley study calculated that an employee making $100,000 will have improved productivity of $1,200 per year when they work in a 72°F office compared to a 76°F office. For a building with 200 people that’s an increased productivity value of $240,000 per year. For a medium size company, that is a significant difference in the bottom line.

The same principles hold true for schools. In June of this year, as the end of the school year approached, Massachusetts faced a brutal heatwave. Many Massachusetts public schools, designed and built primarily to keep students warm, do not have air conditioning. During heat waves students roast in their classrooms relying on open windows and ceiling fans for relief. Recognizing the link between productivity, in this case learning ability, and hot indoor temperatures the school closed for several days.

One school’s website said classes were suspended “due to the forecasted extreme heat conditions.” Common sense tells us that young children sitting in oppressive heat will learn less than those studying in comfort. The research on learning in schools backs up that idea.

A May 2018 research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Heat and Learning” sought to find a link between heat and quality of education. The white paper notes “that cumulative heat exposure inhibits cognitive skill development and that school air conditioning can mitigate this effect. Student fixed effects models using 10 million PSAT-takers show that hotter school days in the year prior to the test reduce learning, with extreme heat being particularly damaging and larger effects for low income and minority students. “

Perhaps the most striking conclusion was that, “without air conditioning, each 1° F increase in school year temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent.” Hot classrooms are simply not conducive to good learning and sitting in a sweltering classroom day after day, year after year stunts a child’s long term education ultimately making them less competitive in the job market.

Whether in an office building of school, air conditioning systems need to be functioning to keep the occupants working, or learning, effectively.

Facility managers play a direct role in maintaining occupant productivity because they are the ones responsible for the maintenance of the air conditioning systems. To keep these systems operating efficiently, maintenance staff must have air conditioning units on a preventative maintenance schedule. Regular filter changes, greasing bearings, cleaning coils and checking refrigerant levels are typical maintenance tasks that keep the units working properly. Not performing these duties leads to reduced cooling output, increased indoor temperatures, and eventually equipment breakdowns.

If air filters are clogged and never or rarely changed, the cooling equipment cannot move the correct amount of cold air through the building. That reduced air flow prevents cooling and indoor temperatures begin to creep up. As the studies show, when indoor temperatures rise above 77°F, perhaps due to a clogged filter or other maintenance problem, productivity and ultimately a company’s bottom line suffers.

Maintenance work can be outsourced to a local service contractor or performed by in-house staff, but the work cannot be deferred or ignored. Of course, taking care of air conditioning equipment goes beyond keeping employee productivity up, systems properly maintained save money for building owners compared to systems that are neglected. Units that are maintained also breakdown less meaning employees are not inconvenienced by outages. Occupants who have to go home or relocate offices because of constant air conditioning problems work less, complain more, and consider leaving the building and that hurts everyone’s bottom line.

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