A less sexist approach to addressing climate change

Men and women are different, on average, in a number of ways. It all probably starts with who has the physiology to have babies and who doesn't, and the differences spread out from there, affecting both the body and the mind. Decades of research show us that many of the body differences (but not all) are determined by developmental processes while many of the mind differences (but maybe not all) are determined by culture, but culture still has men and women as being different, so those differences tend to be persistent and predictable, on average.

One of the differences which seems to meld body and mind, in the West anyway, is the tendency for women to be cold while men are comfortable across a certain range of temperature. It turns out that many decades ago a study was done that developed standards for installing and running air conditioning systems that, typically, set ambient in-room temperature levels to accommodate men. Damn the patriarchy, one more time. Since men are more comfortable on average at lower temperatures, this means a) air conditioners are set relatively low (which means high, in terms of energy use) and, b0 on average, women are doomed to wear sweaters or carry around blanket like objects while at work, at movies, at the mall, or anywhere where sexist air conditioning is operating.

This is important not only for comfort of half the population, but also for climate change. A large amount (about 30%) of the CO2 emmissions in the West are the result of energy use in the buildings we live and work in, and a good part of that is heating and cooling. A new study, just out in Nature Climate Change, addresses this issue. The study is by Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, and is called "Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand." The authors point out that not only is a large amount of our energy used to heat and cool buildings, but that about 80% of the variation in that energy use is account for by variation in the behavior of the humans that live and work in those buildings.

The standard for setting ambient building temperatures is set by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers).

ASHRAE founded in 1894, is a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment. The Society and its members focus on building systems, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, refrigeration and sustainability within the industry. Through research, standards writing, publishing and continuing education, ASHRAE shapes tomorrow’s built environment today. ASHRAE was formed as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers by the merger in 1959 of American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHAE) founded in 1894 and The American Society of Refrigerating Engineers (ASRE) founded in 1904.

And, according to Wikipedia,

ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55 (Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy) is a standard that provides minimum requirements for acceptable thermal indoor environments. It establishes the ranges of indoor environmental conditions that are acceptable to achieve thermal comfort for occupants. It was first published in 1966, and since 2004 has been updated periodically by an ASHRAE technical committee composed of industry experts. The most recent version of the standard was published in 2013.

According to the new study, the standard overestimates the "female metabolic rate by up to 35%" which "may cause buildings to be intrinsically non-energy-efficient in providing comfort to females." The study suggests using actual metabolic rates to set the standard, and provides information on how to approach this. "Ultimately, an accurate representation of thermal demand of all occupants leads to actual energy consumption predictions and real energy savings of buildings that are designed and operated by the buildings service community."

So, let's turn the air conditioners up. Meaning down. Depending on what you mean when you say that.


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In a 30-year career in the HVAC controls industry, I found that the temperature in most office buildings is frequently out of control, rather than being controlled at an inefficient set point.

Often, building cooling systems are operated in "on-off" mode due to failed control systems, the AC running either full blast or not at all, with full blast being the default. The energy wasted in this regime is large, of course, not to mention the discomfort of lower-metabolism occupants. Building owners who won't do the maintenance pay for that carelessness in many ways.

Even when there are functioning thermostatic controls, there is war between the warm- and cold-natured occupants over who sets the temperature. Pity the building engineer caught in the middle of those conflicts! The difference between comfortable and uncomfortable is barely 2 deg. F for most people in sedentary occupations, with people all over the scale as to where their comfort spot is.

The least aggravation comes in buildings where management sets the cooling at a middling figure like 74 F and occupants are told, "That's it: live with it." There will be grumbling from people who like it chilly, but they will get used to it, especially if you can get them to admit they would not be willing to pay to keep their own homes as cold as they want it at work in the summertime.

Damn the sexist Freon patriarchy! But.... the large majority of women I know work in the ice and snow, mud and quicksand, rain and broiling heat, and they don't complain even half as much as the men working with them. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers needs to visit the rez and maybe go and talk to some cowgirls here.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 03 Aug 2015 #permalink

To expand on Adams point, not only is one temperature fits all a problem, but in places like where I work, the vents are far more powerful in some offices than in others. So the person two doors down who turns up the heat, may be legitimately cold, because his office doesn't get much of the heat, whereas my office gets a double dose. Clearly individual thermostats would be a vast improvement.

Also heat/cold tolerance is strongly mediated by fashion. In many offices men have to wear a suit and tie, and that means they are more prone to overheating. The fashion sense of our culture has little sense of energy efficiency. At home it reverses, as I can tolerate a few extra degrees by removing my shirt, but my wife would consider it improper to do the same. So cultural norms which can be sexist themselves have an effect.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 03 Aug 2015 #permalink

I'm a guy, but even I keep a sweater at the office year round. Some days it is just freezing in here, and I usually show up with a glow from riding the bike.

Related to your point, buildings and houses use to be built with air and vapor porous materials. No one cared too much about air changes because energy was cheap. My 1949 house had no insulation but was heated with coal, which probably blasted out so much heat as to keep the shrubs near the house warm. With the 1970s energy shocks we started adding more insulation and weatherstripping to save energy. Some people inadvertently installed vapor barriers in the wrong places, which in some cases led to moisture damage, mold and mildew. I think most people are more careful about vapor retarders now, but the International Energy Conservation Code now follows ASHRAE and calls for continuous air barriers in most climate zones. Commercial and institutional buildings without operable windows are totally reliant on mechanical systems for fresh air, just as the many windowless rooms are for light. How habitable will these buildings be if we go through brownouts, or just suffer the sort of benign neglect mentioned above?

the temperature in most office buildings is frequently out of control, rather than being controlled at an inefficient set point

I have often said, only half in jest, that in many office buildings the climate control system has two settings: too hot and too cold.

I often find air conditioning set to what any sensible person ought to consider ridiculous levels. For instance, one hotel in Tennessee where I stayed when I was visiting in October had the air conditioning on and thermostats set to 60 degrees F--and housekeeping staff were evidently instructed to return the setting to that level during the day (I would raise my thermostat setting in the evening, leave it there in the morning, and come back to find it changed back to the lower setting). Where I live (New Hampshire), October is the beginning of heating season, and it is against the law here for a landlord to set the thermostat in a residential rental unit below 65 degrees F--a tenant can legally withhold rent under such circumstances.

I live without AC at home--under 20th century climate, I'd only need it a few nights a year. That's true of most houses here: if your house in New Hampshire has central air, it was probably built after 1985 (a few houses have been retrofit, but you can only do that if your heating system is forced hot air, which most houses around here aren't), and even many newer houses don't have it.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

It used to be standard for commercial buildings to always run air conditioning at maximum and use the furnace to regulate temperature. Where my dad worked in the sixties the air conditioning was designed to run at 20 degrees F cooler than outdoors.
It may still be common, in which case the building saves money by being icy.

By Paul Toftness (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

On a related matter, every girl I've ever gone out with has had a much higher preference for shower temperature than I have. I noticed this especially with mixer style lever taps, where the temperature is set separately to turning the water on/off. I've had showers after a partner has had hers, and had to jump out of the cubical after the water heats rapidly to the point where I can't bear to stand under the stream.

I once called out to a partner to ask her if she really showered at that temperature or if the lever had been bumped. She stuck her hand in and said that is was lovely, whilst looking at me in surprise as I flared lobster red all over from the (perceived) extreme heat of the water on my own skin.

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 05 Aug 2015 #permalink

I read another article about this study which raised an interesting point -- the problem isn't just the sexist patriarchy, but also the pernicious desire to appear affluent, especially in traditionally hot parts of the country like Arizona. There are many ways for a business to show off how successful it is (which is important for attracting both clients and investors). Instituting a dress code, tasteful water features outside your office, well-nourished potted plants in the lobby, new carpeting, fashionable furnishings, and so forth. Air conditioning is another. By setting the temperature just a little lower, you show off that you can afford to do that. If it's hot in your office, it may seem like you're trying to save a few bucks.

The irony, of course, is that you're losing productivity (research shows office workers are more effective when they're a little hotter than they want, than when they're equally colder than they want, so one really should err on the higher side) so your'e actually creating a situation where your business is quantitatively worse in order to make it appear better.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 16 Aug 2015 #permalink

"Despite the extremely cold climate in which they lived, early Yahgan wore little to no clothing"


every time someone parrots about hard-wired aspects of gender differences, etc, remember that human-controlled social behavioural ranges are immense

By John Salmond (not verified) on 20 Aug 2015 #permalink