Developed through a unique industry-academic collaboration, this personal environmental control system just might revolutionize the workplace

Guy In Warm Office

Say what you will about politics and religion, but when it comes to inflaming passions on the job, few subjects are more controversial than who gets to control the office thermostat. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder survey, 20% of office employees have argued with coworkers about the temperature setting.[1]

And while the losers of those arguments may spend their days piling on sweaters or wiping beads of sweat from their brows, employers lose out as well. More than 70% in the same survey said a too-hot environment makes them less productive. To help solve that problem, environmental control specialists at Air Innovations have joined a unique partnership to develop personalized micro environments enabling each worker to control his or her own space.

Though personal space heaters have been around for years, the real challenge comes with the cooling option, says Mike Wetzel, P.E., President and CEO of Air Innovations. “People might think, how hard can that be? Just put an air conditioning unit at each desk. The problem is, traditional cooling systems create a lot of hot air.” Eliminating that exhaust would turn any large office into a tangled jungle of ductwork.

A cool partnership

Under a grant from the U.S, Department of Energy, Air Innovations, along with Syracuse and Cornell Universities, Carrier Corp. and Bush Technical, is building a novel system based on blocks of wax-like “phase change” material. Stored at each desk in units about the size of an old-style computer tower, the blocks melt slowly over the course of the day, generating cool air, without the heat exhaust, that employees may direct as needed over their personal workspace. At night, the blocks are re-frozen for use the next day.

Though the system may not be ready for mass production for a couple of years, it’s well beyond the “what-if?” phase, Wetzel says. “We have several working prototypes. We’re building another generation here very soon. You can actually see, touch, feel, and watch operate these unit now.”

Micro Environments

Savings ahead

Once installed in workplaces around the country, such units could represent big savings for companies, not just in productivity but energy savings as well. For example, companies could set their hugely expensive central HVAC systems as high as 79 degrees in the summer or 66 degrees in the winter knowing that individuals can adjust their own spaces up or down. “Put one of these in every desk in New York City, and think about a 15% to 22% percent cost return,” says Sam Brown, OEM Sales manager for Air Innovations.  “You’re talking hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars a year,” Brown adds. That’s not to mention the benefits to the planet from lower energy consumption.

Though Air Innovations engineers spend much of their time creating clean environments for machines that propel industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors, Wetzel and Brown say the company welcomes the opportunity to advance human comfort.

Air Innovations already creates specialty micro environments for “mission critical” workers such as air traffic controllers and 911 dispatchers. This new, prototypical cooling system takes those efforts to the next level, promising benefits to workers, employers, and the planet. Says Brown, “This is a home run.”

For more information on Air Innovations and micro environments, please see our white paper, or give us a call at 800-825-3268.