Many couples fight about it at home. No, it’s not money, sex, or parenting but the lowly thermostat. Heated arguments often ensue about how warm or cool to keep a room. New research suggests why women may lose out—at least at the office.
Gender bias may affect the heating and cooling in office buildings, and it’s no Mars vs. Venus misunderstanding. Temperatures are often based on a decades-old standard that considers the metabolic rate of men, according to a study Monday in Nature Climate Change.
This bias isn’t just about equity or comfort. It has real-world climate implications, because it could waste a lot of energy that emits heat-trapping greenhouse gases. After all, buildings account for nearly a third of carbon emissions, and their energy use is largely determined by occupant behavior.
“It (bias) has huge consequences. You’re totally misrepresenting women,” says study co-author Boris Kingma, a biophysicist at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands. He says women generally have a lower metabolic rate than men because of their body composition so they prefer warmer rooms and need less air conditioning.
Yet most office buildings set temperatures based on a formula, developed in the 1960s, that looks at several factors including the resting metabolic rate of a 154-pound (70-kilogram) 40-year-old man. Kingma says this model may overestimate a woman’s metabolic rate by up to 35 percent.
To boost energy efficiency, he came up with another approach, based on his sealed-chamber testing of 16 young female office workers. He proposes a biophysical model that considers not only metabolic rate but also tissue insulation, which can vary by age, gender, and body type.
“These findings could be significant" for revising standards, Joost van Hoof of the Netherlands’ Fontys University of Applied Sciences writes in an accompanying article. He says the energy savings of optimally calibrating a building’s temperatures will increase as global warming prompts more indoor cooling.
Yet he says Kingma's sample size is small so a large-scale study may be needed to persuade real-estate developers and building engineers to change their practices and come up with better solutions.
“There is something we can do,” Kingma says. In smart homes, he expects future devices such as watches could accurately measure an occupant’s metabolic rate and thermostats could automatically adjust indoor temperatures.
But what about an office building with hundreds of workers? Enter the ventilated chair. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a battery-operated mesh chair that contains three fans and two heating elements. Occupants can adjust the chair’s temperature, creating the ultimate in micro-climatization.
“It’s even better than having a thermostat at every workstation, if that were possible,” Edward Arens, the project’s co-principal investigator, said in announcing the “personal comfort system.” In January, his team published a study on the chair, which has energy-saving sensors that turn off the built-in heating and cooling when it’s not occupied.
Such smart chairs and smart homes, though, won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, couples will probably keep squabbling over temperature.
“I totally agree with my wife. That’s one solution,” Kingma says with a laugh. In truth, when he gets home, he notices she’s often turned up the temperature. He adds: “I turn it down again.”