July 2006

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Are Your Customers Comfortable? How Do You Know?
How Do You Know?

Bill GnerreBill Gnerre,
CEO and Cofounder

Kevin FullerKevin Fuller,
Executive Vice President

Interval Data Systems, Inc.

Facilities organizations commonly have a mission statement that includes something along the lines of, “provide a comfortable, healthy, and safe environment.” Each of these is important, but here we’re going to focus on comfort.

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If comfortable space is a major goal, doesn’t it stand to reason that facilities departments would measure it? Executives might even compensate staff with bonuses tied to maintaining certain comfort criteria. So what is the mechanism that most facilities personnel rely on for measuring comfort? The telephone. It goes something like this:

“Hey Joe, not many complaint calls today.”

“You’re right Bob, things are working great. Everyone’s comfortable and happy.”

Is this really the approach you want to use for measuring how well you’re meeting your obligation to provide a comfortable environment for your customers?

What is Comfortable?
Comfort is subjective. So what does it mean to provide comfortable space? The dictionary defines it with phrases such as, “providing or experiencing physical well-being or relief.” Not much use. Fortunately, ASHRAE has provided some guidelines.

The table in Figure 1, based on the ASHRAE Comfort Zones (ASHRAE Fundamentals Handbook: Physiological Principles, Comfort, and Health), provides basic guidelines for temperature and relative humidity ranges for summer and winter.

Figure 1: Basic ASHRAE comfort guidelines for general-purpose space.
Figure 1: Basic ASHRAE comfort guidelines for general-purpose space.

What this is saying is that if you can keep the temperature and humidity levels within the appropriate seasonal ranges, the space is “comfortable.” Actually, within these guidelines, 80% of the occupants are comfortable. Clearly, ranges of as much as 9°F are not equally comfortable given its subjectivity. There is also the type of space to consider. Optimal comfort for offices, classrooms, laboratories, kitchens, and athletic facilities are different.

Customer Service and Comfort
Facilities directors face the challenge of providing comfort despite all of these variables. With a historical record of comfort, facilities personnel have what they need to provide the level of customer service that is expected of them.

What do customers expect of facilities for comfort? If left to the customers, it will be the subjective rating of “comfortable.” But running a facilities organization is running a business. While you always want to please your customers, and you certainly should be accountable to them for the service you deliver, at the same time you can define and manage expectations. Whether formal or not, you have some form of service level agreement with your customers, and the better defined it is, the better you can manage it.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Herein lays the challenge. How do you deal with the engineering/operational issues of delivering comfort and the business issues of providing customer service, measuring service quality, and maintaining accountability? In last month’s article, “Stop Trying to Solve Business Problems with a Control System,” we addressed the need for a business-oriented information system that is separate from the building control systems. Defining comfort parameters, measuring performance related to goals, and delivering exceptional customer service are all possible when information technology is properly applied to solving facilities business problems.

Let’s discuss a couple of the customer service issues we’ve identified: having a record of space comfort to measure how well you’re meeting promised service levels; and having the ability to communicate effectively and build credibility with customers.

The Comfort Index
These two issues can be addressed with the concept of a comfort index. The idea is quite simple—combine temperature and humidity values into a single value that can be easily understood by engineers and non-engineers.

Before we go any further about the comfort index, let’s address prerequisites. Data. As with any other IT business application, the foundation is operational data. Your facilities business system should have a historical record of every room (or zone) temperature, humidity, and whether the building is operating in occupied or unoccupied mode. Data timestamps will allow you to determine what season (summer or winter) it is. A connection to your space planning system will enable you do make adjustments for different types of space (e.g., classroom versus locker room).

Since comfort is subjective, there are no precise engineering formulas to calculate it. It’s not an exact value that requires several digits of precision. Because of this, a simple look-up table, which translates temperature and humidity into a value on a 1:10 scale, works well.

The look-up table below (Figure 2) takes the basic ASHRAE guidelines and fills in some data between them and outside of them. You can see the blue section in the center aligns to the summer guidelines shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2: Relative humidity and temperature look-up table.
Figure 2: Relative humidity and temperature look-up table.

Now the process of determining the comfort index at any point in time is simple. For any occupied time you scan down to find the humidity, and scan across to find the temperature. This gives you the position in the table that maps to specified conditions. The table position is used in a translation table (Figure 3) to determine the comfort index.

Figure 3: Positional translation table to convert space condition to a comfort index.
Figure 3: Positional translation table to convert space condition to a comfort index.

You’ll notice a couple things about Figure 3. First, there is a range of values within the ASHRAE “80% box.” Also, there are some high comfort values, 8 and 9, outside of the inner box. Again, this is due to the subjectivity of what optimal comfort is. Feel free to disagree with the values assigned here and assign your own instead.

A Record of Space Comfort
Now that we have calculated a comfort index, let’s go back to those two customer service issues and our original questions. Are your customers comfortable? How do you know?

One very cool thing about database applications is that if you have the raw operational data, you can perform calculations and apply them back in time. What this means is that you can determine the comfort index for every space you have temperature, humidity, and occupancy data for as far back in time as you have the data. You’ll have a historical record of comfort and, as you keep collecting operational data and performing the comfort calculation, you’ll have up-to-date comfort readings.

Figure 4 shows a typical comfort index graph. You immediately see several things. Overall, the comfort index runs at about a nine. On April 8 – 9 there were some problems resulting in the index value dropping to six. Also, during the period from April 23 – 25 the system stayed in occupied mode, possibly resulting in some unnecessary operating expense.

Figure 4: Comfort index for one room for the month of April 2006.
Figure 4: Comfort index for one room for the month of April 2006.

In answer to our questions, yes, customers were very comfortable during the month. The comfort index averaged 8.9. Looking at it another way, over 95% of the occupied time had a comfort index of eight or higher. Now you have a measurement of comfort. You know how you’re performing against service level agreements and internal department goals. And it’s information that can be shared.

Communicating and Building Credibility with Customers
Our second customer service issue was the ability to communicate effectively. Throwing a lot of engineering-speak at customers is not effective communications. Neither is data they won’t understand. Figure 5 shows comfort information for the same room over the same one-week period. The graph on the left is raw operational data—supply air temperature, room temperature, humidity, and air flow. While an engineer may gain insights from this, it doesn’t communicate anything to the customer. In contrast, the chart on the right presents the same information as a comfort index. The customer understands it easily, and can see facilities did an excellent job as the index never dipped below eight all week.

Figure 5: Room comfort engineering data (left) and comfort index (right).
Figure 5: Room comfort engineering data (left) and comfort index (right).

Using information like this to communicate with customers isn’t limited to the monthly status scenario. Operational information can help communicate with customers in many ways. For example, let’s say there was a drop in the comfort index to a six. Look at the data to see if the drop was temperature or humidity related. Overlay that data onto the comfort chart. Now you can show why the drop occurred, how long comfort was sub-par, and what you did to correct it. Even if it wasn’t a perfect week, a thorough explanation shows that you’re on top of operations and builds credibility with the customer.

Comfort is one of the basic measurements of a well-run facility, but is rarely measured. Its subjective nature makes it hard to nail down, but that is exactly the reason that measuring it is very important. Customers don’t call your office to say, “Hey, I’m comfortable today. Thank you.”

Your building automation system may be responsible for delivering comfort (or lack thereof), but it requires a facilities business system to track and measure comfort to assure you’re meeting your obligations to your customers.

Finally, information in a format that customers can easily understand helps communicate with customers, enabling you to explain issues and their resolutions, show if space is within agreed parameters even if a complaint is logged, and show positive results and/or progress. You can reach a completely new level of service and credibility in your customers’ eyes.

About the Authors

Bill Gnerre is the CEO and cofounder of IDS. With over 20 years of information technology entrepreneurial experience, he has an exemplary record of bringing enterprise software applications to market and dealing with user adoption of new technology. In addition to facilities operations and enterprise energy management, his background includes experience with CAD/CAM, engineering document management, PDA data collection, and other customized enterprise applications. Bill provides leadership and strategy for IDS and works closely with clients to ensure their success. He can be reached at bill@intdatsys.com.

Kevin Fuller is responsible for marketing and product development for IDS. He brings over 20 years of technical and marketing experience in database, data warehouse, OLAP, and enterprise applications to his role as executive vice president. Kevin has a strong appreciation of how businesses use data to their advantage, and focuses on how to apply technology to solve real business problems. He can be reached at kevin@intdatsys.com.


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