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Overuse of air-conditioning system in Hong Kong: harms and possible solutions

The Hong Kong government always recommends an indoor temperature at 25.5C, in order to strike a balance between the impact of air-conditioning system on environment and personal comfort. However, what is the real situation? According to the 2011 record of Green Sense, an environmental organization in Hong Kong, it received 37 low temperature reports from June to August, complaining about the exceptionally low indoor temperature, most around 19 to 22 degrees. And this year the complaints are even concerned with university buildings; for instance, Hong

Kong University was reported to have an indoor temperature as low as only 18 degrees ( , 2012). Actually even without any data, the strange phenomenon that a large number of people wear long-sleeved cardigans while using air-conditioned rooms in such a hot summer time demonstrates that the air-conditioning system is now severely overused. Therefore, this essay aims to analyze the harms and reasons and then try to propose some possible solutions: first, to arouse public awareness about the seriousness of this issue; and second, to improve the design of the air-conditioning system.

The overuse of air-conditioning system does harm to us in the following aspects: personal discomfort, energy consumption and environmental impacts. For personal discomfort, everyone knows that it is not easy to adjust to the big gap between temperatures of often more than ten degrees when a person goes indoors. Serious


thermal discomfort may even lead to the Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), with symptoms including fatigue, drowsiness, dry throat, eye irritation and so on. And according to research, more than half respondents suffered at least one of these symptoms twice a week (Chen & Chang, 2012). As for energy consumption, the electricity depleted by air conditioners in 2010 accounted for 29% of yearly consumption, still the biggest part of annual electricity depletion, though slightly

better than 35% in 2000 (Electrical & Mechanical Services Department [EMSD], 2012). In terms of the impacts on environment, air conditioners deteriorate global warming both by the release of refrigerants and by the emission of carbon-dioxide related to the energy consumed. Moreover, release or leakage of refrigerants containing chlorine, bromine, or other halogens accelerates ozone depletion (Calm, 2002). And chillers of air conditioners are not really producing coolness but actually discharging the indoor heat to the external environment, thus increasing the outdoor air temperature and heating Hong Kong up.

Before we propose some feasible solutions to the overuse problem, it is better to have a deeper understanding of why Hong Kong people are used to setting such a low temperature. In the first place, a great number of people believe that the air-conditioning system can contribute to the purification of air. However, according to research comparing air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned markets, the operation of air-conditioning system does not significantly reduce the levels of air pollutants (Guo, Lee, & Chan, 2004) and on the contrary, even elevates bacteria concentrations.


Another reason is that, a commercial society and developed district as Hong Kong is, office employees and government officials are always required to dress formally at work. And then it seems a low temperature is inevitable. However, these years a campaign of dressing casually is launched by the Japanese government to save energy (Hosaka, 2011). So maybe it is also the time to consider loosening the tight tie of our commercial dressing rules since we are still under such an austere environmental situation. And government officials can set a good example for the public by emulating the casually-dressed Japanese officials.

Apart from the dressing style of elite class and white-collar bourgeois, the most fundamental method to tackle the problem is without doubt raising public awareness over this issue. The Hong Kong government has already introduced a mandatory

Energy Efficiency Labelling Scheme (EELS) through the Energy Efficiency (Labelling of Products) Ordinance, to distinguish air-conditioners of different energy-saving levels, and thus further facilitating the public in choosing energy efficient appliances (GovHK, 2012). And environmental organizations are making further contributions. For example, Green Sense holds an annual activity Hong Kong No Air Con Night, and this year over seventy thousand households and university students pledged to switch off their air-conditioning systems on September 27th, from 7 pm to 7 am (Green Sense, 2012). We can see the improvement of public environmental awareness through the data of declined air-conditioning using in the past ten years, while further efforts are needed (EMSD, 2012). For example,


organizing regularly held lectures is feasible to remove public misunderstandings. Moreover, China will earmark 14 billion RMB to subsidize the purchases of energy saving products, of which the air-conditioner is included (Mu, 2012). Taiwan also promised early this year each purchase of air-conditioners with Energy Efficiency Standard class 1 or 2 would be granted a subsidy of NT$2000 (about HK$530) (Hong Kong Trade Development Council [HKTDC], 2012). Hong Kong policy makers can also consider implementing similar plans to encourage a public habit of energy-saving. After all, it is already a habit for Hong Kong people to keep a low indoor temperature, and we need to solve this problem fundamentally through the public ways.

Another way is to improve the design of air-conditioning system according to relevant thermal research to make it more sensitive to the environmental changes, so that it conditions the indoor temperature at a reasonable degree, consumes less energy, releases less carbon dioxide, and brings more comfort to users. For example, Mui and Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University conducted research and experiments (2003) to reveal the approximate connection between adaptive comfort temperature (ACT) and outdoor temperature. The regressed equation is ,

where Tn is the adaptive comfort temperature and To is the outdoor temperature. And they estimated that implementing this model could reduce energy consumption of about 7% (Mui & Chan, 2003). Also Wong and Mui (2009) analyzed the related factors in air-conditioned offices in Hong Kong: indoor temperature, humidity and air


velocity, and established a model to balance energy consumption and thermal comfort to improve productivity. A number of research and experiments such as those two above aim to establish a model for better use of air-conditioning system that can be applied to the subtropical and humid climate of Hong Kong. We can improve the design of the air-conditioning system so that it automatically changes the temperature according to thermal models, and it would be better for us users as well as the environment.

As we can see through the research data and our own observation, the extremely low indoor temperature in Hong Kong is not necessary, and even does harm to our environment as well as every individual. Now it is high time we strived to improve the situation of air-conditioner overuse. We can approach this target basically by two methods: one is to arouse the public environmental awareness, and the other is to improve the design of air-conditioners. The technical solution is significant and also inevitable along with the rapid development of science and technology, while the public environmental awareness is the more fundamental factor to rectify the poor habit of setting a low temperature since it is a public issue and joint efforts are desperately needed to combat this problem ultimately.


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