Bulk or personalised heating services?

Too many ‘service concepts’ are based on the same bulk offering, no matter the customer. But doesn’t genuine service ultimately mean giving the customer the service product that he or she, in particular, really needs right at that moment? One of the logical justifications for bulk services lies in their rational and, from the viewpoint of service production, cost-effective nature. Or that, since genuine individual needs simply cannot be identified during the provision of bulk services, they cannot be fulfilled anyway.

A concrete example of bulk services is the production of heat for the end users of various premises. Heating for buildings is traditionally produced by adjusting heating and cooling systems to provide an ‘appropriate’ level of heat; for example, a temperature of 21.5˚C. After this, the end-users of the premises are told that if the ‘suitable’ temperature level happens to be unsuitable, they can select a more suitable one using individual controls in each room. However, surveys of real estate managers reveal that complaints are made about excessively high temperatures in over 90 per cent of buildings, but that complaints about excessively low temperatures are made in the same percentage of cases, according to the same surveys. Why?

I would explain this by suggesting that there was no means of identifying individual heating needs and thereby using personalised services to guarantee satisfied customers. In studies conducted at VTT over the last two years, I have found individual physiques to be the key factor in explaining personal heating needs. Of course, there is no right or wrong physique – we are all certainly individual in this respect. For example, there is one difference between the sexes that is of statistical significance: on average, men have 5 to 15kg more muscle mass than women. In light of this, I have one, eternal question for people who live in heterosexual relationships: if their clothing and activity levels are similar, which one will feel the chill more easily in the same temperature – the man or the woman? Stated in dry, engineering terms, muscle typically produces 1 to 4W of heat per kg of muscle, when fat tissue, our ‘fuel tank’, produces only 0.004W per kg of fat.

How, then, might the personalised heating services of the future work in technical terms? Three steps are needed:

  1. The heated/cooled space and its users need to be monitored
  2. A temperature setting should be made based on the actual need derived from the monitoring data
  3. The right temperature can be created for the space in question, using building automation and an HVAC system

So what should the user of the room do to ensure that this personalised service concept works in practice? Nothing more than entering the room and enjoying the comfortable temperature.

Of course, I am aware that many questions on such a service remain open and unresolved. First, at least two critical, privacy protection issues come to mind: how can confidentiality be guaranteed with respect to data on the physique of the person concerned, and how can we ensure that information on their movements while on the premises is not misused? The second practical challenge is technical: how can existing buildings be equipped with sensors and adjusted on a case-by-case basis? And then there is the problem of open-plan offices and meeting rooms: based on whom should the temperature be set when there are as many preferences in the room as there are people? On the other hand, the basic setting could be chosen on some grounds or other: the lowest setting for the season when in energy-saving mode; or the average of the preferences of those present – or the setting preferred by the most experienced or oldest person present. In any case, it would be better than the current situation, where everyone adapts to whatever the bulk service offers at the time.

I have been championing the testing of a personalised room heating service of this kind in suitable premises in VTT. I think there is considerable potential in the idea. Above all, it could increase the satisfaction of office users with the quality of their indoor environment – which would do no harm in terms of comfort and thereby productivity. In addition, this service concept would take the use, or lack of use, of the facilities into account – energy efficiency would improve if there was no need to heat or cool empty facilities. At the same time, we could even promote the commercialisation of high-tech via VTT.

Pekka Tuomaala, Principal Scientist

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