Faux thermostats turn up the heat on the corporate world

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February 3, 2003 // UPDATED 4:35 pm - April 27, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

But Downtowners turn a cold shoulder to Thermo-gate

You can't make this stuff up. On Jan. 15, the Wall Street Journal's Jared Sandberg reported on a situation with the potential to heat up into a bone fide corporate scandal. According to Sandberg's article, a lot of office thermostats are completely fake.

The article claims it's all a plot by HVAC technicians fed up with people complaining about uneven temperature in their offices.

When the Wall Street Journal speaks, other news media listen. By 9 a.m. on the 15th you couldn't turn on a radio or television station without hearing an announcer state with great authority that the Wall Street Journal was reporting that 90 percent of all thermostats in corporate offices are actually faux thermostats.

The thing is, if you read the article closely, that 90 percent claim is just that -- a claim, something one lone HVAC technician in some small town in Illinois had to say. Of course, the reporter also wrote that others say [fake thermostats are] below 2 percent." But the "others" seem to have gotten lost in this game of telephone.

At 90 percent faux, we've got the potential for thermo-gate -- months and months of congressional hearings full of hot air where HVAC technicians, property managers and temperature-challenged employees are all hauled in to testify.

At 2 percent faux, we've got bupkes. (Unless there's some policy, somewhere, claiming zero tolerance for ersatz thermostats.)

In the climatically controlled Downtown skyway, where every day is warm and sunny under fluorescent skies, the majority of people I interviewed weren't getting their undies in a bundle over phony baloney thermostats. Sure, they weren't huge fans of their workplace's heating/cooling systems, but they didn't seem eager to cry foul play. "One side of the building is always colder than the other," said one latt drinker. "Sometimes it gets hot, sometimes it gets cold," said another coffee patron, adding, "When it gets cold, I put on a sweatshirt." Another skyway coffee drinker assured me that the thermostat in his office definitely worked. But he did note that the temperature in his office fluctuated daily between 72 and 80 degrees.

Given that the temperature was hovering around zero outside, that sounded quite lovely.

But what about in the summer? The gentlemen told me his office does get too cold, admitting "the temperature control in the office isn't very good."

As it happens, I ran into a gentleman who works in property management. He assured me that he had never in his entire career actually seen a fake thermostat. But he had heard that some building engineers do install them.

"Some building engineers will do that because people futz with the thermostats so often they will screw up a building's system. Which is," he explained, "the reason why many offices have locked thermostats."

The property management guy assured me that I really want an office where only the building engineer can adjust the temperature because "they are going to know what to do to get the most even temperature for the building."

In Minneapolis, at least, it doesn't look like the faux thermostats caper is gaining the traction that last year's faux accounting scandals enjoyed. Still, nagging questions remain. On the surface, that 90 percent claim by one Illinois technician seems totally outrageous. But, on the other hand, he could just as easily be a whistle blower extraordinaire -- the Coleen Rowley of the heating and cooling industry.

Regardless, if the industry did begin to feel some heat, maybe the climate controls in office buildings would begin to improve. Now there's a concept.

If you have a good workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com. You can remain confidential, as can your company.