Friday, December 12, 2008


Regardless of whether you work in a government building, a private institution, or a corporate office, all of these buildings will likely have one thing in common—a crummy HVAC system.

I am thinking about this as I sit in the library where I work. Several hours ago the Head of the Reference Department came striding around, looking at thermostats, asking if it was too hot. I went out of my office a few minutes ago to see the nighttime reference librarian wearing his coat.

In my previous job, I worked in a government building, one that was recently renovated and expanded. Before I was sucked into the black hole of administration, I was one of the union shop stewards. Almost daily I got complaints about the air quality—either it was too cold to work, or too hot to work. I spent more time filling out forms for OSHA and talking to facilities people about the HVAC system in the building. In my current job, I had to talk to our facilities staff about the HVAC for an archival grant application. Hence, I learned something about how these systems work. For the uncomfortable, here are a few things you should know:

1. Large HVAC systems have only two temperatures: f**king hot and f**king cold. There is no in-between.

2. HVAC systems are set up in “zones”, so that the temperature can be controlled in smaller areas. The main thing to remember is that the zones will never be the same temperature. So, if it is f**king hot in one zone, it will be f**king cold in the other.

3. Most people think they can raise or lower the temperature by messing with the thermostat. Most thermostats are “placebo” thermostats. They are only there to make you think you can do something about the temperature. They are not actually attached to anything that turns the heat on or off.

4. If you are too hot in the winter, or too cold in the summer, don’t EVER call facilities to complain. Facilities staff are not interested in your petty comfort concerns, and will punish you by turning off the heat in winter or the A/C in summer, and will ignore any pleas to turn it back on for weeks.

5. There is a myth that a new building means a new working HVAC system. In fact, everyone knows that the contract for the HVAC system will go to the lowest bidder in any new construction or renovation. Therefore, things like working temperature zones and humidity control are considered to be “luxuries” and struck from the installation requirements.

6. This doesn’t have to do with the HVAC per se—but it is a fact of Murphy’s law that a person who is always cold will inevitably share an office with a person who is always warm. Let the comfort wars begin.

So, bring a sweater, get a space heater or fan(if the fire marshal will let you), and try to ignore the fact that the HVAC vents are brimming with mold on account of the fact that they haven’t been cleaned in 40 years. And pray that Spring comes soon, when you might at least break even with the comfortable temperature outdoors.

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