If you're at work right now, you're probably too cold. Or too hot. If you have a working thermostat nearby, there's a good chance that it's the thing you disagree about most with the person sitting next to you.
It seems like an intractable problem, because people inherently prefer different temperatures. A 2015 study found that women get cold much more quickly than men. (It also pointed out that most offices still use a decades-old formula for setting temperature that's based on the average man, which is why men are a little more likely to be comfortable.)
A new solution takes a different approach: By heating and cooling an office chair, it's possible for everyone to adjust their own temperature without affecting anyone else. "It's all about heating your body, not the room," says Peter Rumsey, CEO of Hyperchair.
The Hyperchair, developed by researchers at the Center for Built Environment at UC Berkeley, uses heating tape woven into the fabric of the chair to warm someone up the way a heated car seat does. If someone's too hot, strategically placed fans wick body heat away. You can adjust the temperature by pushing a button on the side or through a smartphone app.
By giving everyone individual climate control, it's possible to turn down the building's heat or air conditioning and save energy. "When we're talking to big corporate users, they can relax the temperature set point a little bit, and even a small amount of relaxing the temperature gives you big energy savings," Rumsey says. "If you relax it a couple of degrees, what you're going to find is a 5% to 10% energy savings on the heating and cooling system."
The chairs are equipped with Wi-Fi and temperature sensors, and will be able to communicate with the building. "There might be a surge in electric prices on a hot afternoon, and so it sends the signal, 'Hey, let's use the chairs more today because we're going to turn down the air-conditioning unit,'" he says.
In some climates, or in seasons such as spring and fall, offices could potentially turn off the thermostat completely. And because energy consumption in buildings accounts for around 30% of global carbon emissions, that shift could help lower the world's carbon footprint.
It's somewhat like Comfy, another new solution for personalized climate control, though it's easier to integrate with buildings; you just have to carry the chairs inside.
The chairs, which the startup is currently only selling to large companies, are expensive, ranging from around $1,000-$1,500 each depending on the size of an order. But companies can make that back by saving money on utility bills. And the financial benefit of increased productivity might be even bigger. When people are too cold, for example, studies have shown they make more mistakes, they're more distracted, and they get less done.
"The salaries in buildings are usually 100 times higher than the energy consumption in buildings," Rumsey says. "So if we can get one person, or one person's worth of additional productivity and less distraction, that's equal to or ultimately going to be more than the energy savings."
Rumsey, who has spent his career designing traditional heating and cooling systems for buildings, says that people being too hot or too cold is the number one complaint in offices. "I've met people who say I'm going to quit because I'm so uncomfortable in this building," he says. "So all the investment in training that person is lost."
After a year focused on getting the chair ready for market, the startup is beginning to sell sets of chairs to offices such as the Rocky Mountain Institute's new Innovation Center. Eventually, it will be available for individual orders and not just for large companies. "This year is our first year of starting to sell the chair in earnest," says Rumsey.
Of course, it doesn't work in every situation. "For people who want to stand up all day, obviously, a heated, cooled chair is not going to help them," he says. "But for the folks who are sitting down, this kind of thing is the fastest way to personalize temperature control."