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A Guide To: Air-Conditioning in the Office

Getting the best possible performance out of your employees can be a fraught task at the best of times, but in the summer months, when the heat begins to rise up into the high 20's and 30's, it can be especially difficult to goad your sweaty, uncomfortable workers into putting in an effort. With this year's summer set to be one of the country’s hottest on record; it might be about time you started considering installing an air conditioning system in your office.  In this guide, we'll be examining both the positive and negative effects of taking that leap.

Office Temperature Standards

Now the very idea of air conditioning in the UK is one many might scoff at, but a comfortable employee is a happy employee, and a happy employee is a productive employee. Keeping your office at an optimum temperature (around 16 degrees Celsius is recommended by the HSE, or 13 degrees if the work is particularly physical) will keep your workers focused and alert, and many air-conditioners can even be used to keep your office warm in the winter months too!

There are technically no statutory limits in the Workplace Regulations (which were last updated in 1992) as far as a maximum or minimum temperature in an office is concerned, in fact the only technical regulation states that the temperature inside a workplace should be 'reasonable', which of course depends very much on the environment. However, the HSE does state a list of guidelines which should be followed for the health and safety benefit of you and your employees.

Guidelines listed by the HSE referring to temperature in the workplace include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Where the temperature will be uncomfortably high, all reasonable steps should be taken in order to offer employees a comfortable working environment.
  • Where comfortable temperatures (estimated at between 13 and 16 degrees Celsius) cannot be achieved, 'local cooling' (fans and increased ventilation) should be supplied by the office.
  • In situations where workers are exposed to temperatures that lead to severe discomfort, suitable clothing and rest facilities should be provided.
  • In certain situations it might prove necessary for employees to wear 'Personal Protective Equipment' (PPE) to keep them comfortable.
  • In situations that necessitate exposure to an uncomfortable temperature, work must be permitted to occur at a slower rate, staff should be rotated out of the environment regularly and work in the environment should be scheduled to occur at the coolest times of day. The necessity of the situation should also be revisited periodically.

It's important that these guidelines are followed, as uncomfortable temperatures at work are likely to lead to not only poor employee morale and poor productivity, but serious errors and accidents. Many studies have been undertaken in the years since the HSE standards were last revised, with many experts believing our best work is done at around 25 degrees Celsius. With a decent air conditioning system in place, you could experiment with different comfortable temperatures, and conclude which produce the best results.

What Does Air-Conditioning Actually Do?

Of course to understand why your office might need air-conditioning, it's important to at least have a basic understanding of how air-conditioning works. What is meant by 'conditioned' air is that it has literally been altered to be clean, odour-free and set to a comfortable temperature. The process of 'conditioning' your air works via means of a 'vapour-compression refrigeration cycle', which is catalysed by a chemical refrigerant stored in small tubes (hot coils and cold coils) inside the unit.

The job of an air-conditioner is to transfer heat from one end of the unit to the other, and then release it. First, the unit compresses the chemical into a pressurised gas that gets pumped into the cooling coil, as the chemical (in most cases 'Freon') travels through this coil, heat is extracted through a fan. Once it's cooled down, the gas is liquefied and flows into an expansion valve, which in turn, lowers the pressure of the re-liquefied chemical before it gets pumped into the heating coil known colloquially as the 'evaporator'. Here, the chemical is once again turned into a gas by pulling heat from the air, and as this gas absorbs the heat, only cold air is left and it's this 'conditioned' air that's circulated into the office.

In essence the whole process is essentially an effective way of transferring heat from inside the office to outside the office.

Air-Conditioning Positives

  • Comfortable employees are happy employees are productive employees.
  • If the windows don't need to be open to allow cool air into the office, there will be less noisy distractions from the outside world for employees to contend with.
  • In most cases air-conditioning can actually improve health, as the air it circulates will be free of dust and dirt particles, smoke and bacteria.
  • The lack of humidity and the closed windows also mean there will be less insects and potential allergens in the office, which will be particularly beneficial for hay-fever sufferers.

Air-Conditioning Negatives

  • It can aggravate certain respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. It can also lead (in some cases) to employees suffering from dry skin and could potentially lead to a lower tolerance to heat, which can lead to a greater risk of heat stroke.
  • Central air conditioning can be very effective in spreading disease. Perhaps the most famous case is the outbreak of Legionnaires disease at a hospital in Memphis in 1980, in which 44 people caught the disease because of a strain of legionella pneumophila was found in the water the conditioner was using.
  • Can be expensive to run, especially in the spring when you could technically probably do without.
  • It is hardly environmentally friendly and consumes a lot of energy that could be more effectively used elsewhere.

The Ideal Air-Conditioning Set Up

To finish, and give you a genuine idea of what perfect office-based air-conditioning should look like, we've included 10 top tips that (if followed to the letter) will leave you with what we believe could be the perfect set up.

  • Limit the time the air-conditioning is switched on. It probably doesn't need to be on all day and night and only turning it on when absolutely necessary could save you a small fortune in power bills.
  • Maintenance is key to any complicated system and air-conditioning units are no different. Make sure that your units are checked at least once a month.
  • Don't overwork the system by leaving windows and doors open. If you have open windows in a space you're trying to cool, the system will actually be using extra power to attempt to cool the air outside!
  • Set optimum temperatures for your office; around 18 degrees Celsius in the winter and 25 during the summer.
  • Install locking covers on all the thermostats to prevent staff from changing the temperature on a whim.
  • In winter start the morning temperature pick-up with the outside air-dampeners closed and in summer, start the pre-cooling with the dampeners open. Always complete each process at least an hour before the office opens.
  • Consider installing insulation in the ceiling and the walls, this can cut your cooling and heating costs by as much as 40% so could be a worthy investment.
  • Install a relay switch on the air-conditioning in areas where the doors open to the outside regularly.
  • Reduce the air conditioning in areas where employees generally don't spend a lot of time such as storage rooms and stairwells.
  • Automate your system with an energy efficient programmable thermostat, which will be able to tell whether or not employees will benefit from the air-conditioning and thus use it a little more wisely.

Found this helpful? Download the Juice Electrical Supplies guide to Office Air Conditioning.

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