Open-plan aircon uncloaked article 03: How to manage safety and energy issues caused by personal heaters

by FM Media
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The safety and energy issues caused by personal heaters, and how this problem was overcome at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is shared by NICK JONES, manager of energy management at UNSW.

Sydney generally benefits from a temperate climate, though there are occasions when the temperature can dip quite low, or warm up unexpectedly. When this occurs, staff and students working or studying at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in the older, non-air-conditioned buildings or in open spaces tend to suffer, feeling too hot or too cold. Of the two extremes, it is feeling cold that generates the most complaints.
As a consequence, a proliferation of personal heaters of all shapes, sizes, types and ratings were appearing in buildings and workspaces, many of which had been brought into the office from home. This unregulated practice raised a number of safety and energy issues, including:

  • the condition of the heaters was unknown and unchecked, so there were questions over the electrical safety of both the heater units and their power cords; for example, heaters with exposed elements can present a serious fire and burn risk
  • many heater types can have high power ratings, which had the potential to overload office power circuits
  • heaters were being used in air-conditioned buildings – this practice was causing conflict within the system’s controls, whereby the air-conditioning was sensing the heat and calling on the chiller plant to cool the space, whereupon the occupant was turning up the heater to compensate, causing a vicious circle of energy waste and unstable conditions to develop, and
  • the unregulated use of personal heaters was counter to the university’s policy to reduce energy use and increase energy efficiency, and we found many were being left on 24/7.

To address these issues, UNSW established a regulation covering the use of personal heaters and a code of practice for their use. The UNSW Personal Heater Guidelines, a reference handbook, was developed for staff wanting to use a personal heater.
To communicate this new regulation, a section was added to the university’s energy webpage with information about the personal heater guidelines and a link to a softcopy of the handbook. Additionally, facilities management helpline staff were briefed, enabling them to provide information to staff who contacted them with queries regarding the use of personal heaters.
Initially, the energy unit carried a stock of approved heaters, which were freely issued to staff deemed eligible based on their location. It was later decided that this did not encourage staff to be energy efficient and the practice was stopped. Now, staff requiring a heater are advised that, if eligible, they have to purchase a heater via their local administrator, thereby introducing a factor of financial control to the use of heaters on the campus.
Overall, the scheme has been considered successful in managing the key issues of safety, appropriate use and energy efficiency.

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