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Baby, it’s cold…inside?

On your way to work this morning, you probably had to push through a wall of hot, muggy, stagnant air— the sign that summer has finally laid its hands on the Midwest.

So why does it feel like the middle of an Ice Age in the office building?

Americans are addicted to blasting the air conditioning.  As temperatures soar into the 80s and 90s outside, workers inside are bundling in sweaters and blankets to avoid the deep freeze of the office.  This AC addiction represents a huge waste of energy and money… so why do we do it?

The New York Times recently hypothesized several causes for the perplexing phenomenon.  Some were cultural.  Being able to control temperature in a building—having god-like control over the weather—could be a sign of power for people.  Others believe, erroneously, that lower temperatures increase productivity.  Then, there’s the fashion component: Men in the corporate world wear heavier suits that can be stifling in the summer heat, leading them to keep the thermostat much lower.

Other explanations examined the consequences of building and system design.

For example, air conditioning systems are designed often for “worst-case scenarios,” such as a building packed with people on the hottest days of the summer (also accounting for older models of electronics and lighting that may generate more heat).  Consequently, engineers may add a “20 percent upward correction, just to be on the safe side.”  The end result?  Brrrr…

Another issue at play is how energy efficient a building is.  Energy efficient buildings keep the cold air in and fresh air out much better.  But in order to meet air quality control standards for levels of carbon dioxide that build up in the absence of outside air, building manager’s often blast the AC.

Unfortunately, given the various causes that contribute to our AC addiction, fixing the problem can be a challenge.  But there are a few cures for this energy bleed.

Programmable and smart thermostats probably represent the most immediate solution.  These thermostats allow you to program set temperatures for different times of day.  For example, you could schedule different temperature settings for the afternoon, when the office is full of heat-producing humans, and at night, when the building is empty.  Sophisticated models have sensors that can read temperatures in real time and make adjustments as needed.

Using these thermostats could have a big impact on bills:  Adjusting the thermostat 10° to 15° for 8 hours can save 5 percent to 15 percent a year on energy bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

If you’re not involved in your office’s temperature-decision-making, you can still help cut energy use in your own home.  Read CUB’s tips on how to stay energy efficient during the summer heat.