HVAC from Hell
By Larry Mogelonsky , Owner of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited and the founder of LMA Communications Inc.
Over the past few months I have gained a newfound appreciation for how critical HVAC is to any property. Not to say that I wasn't before, but in an era of continual technological enhancements, we tend to underestimate the importance of delivering precise room temperatures and humidity levels so that our guests are never uncomfortable in this regard.
First, staying at a luxury hotel in Madrid, the suite was opulent and impressive. While the bedroom was exceptionally comfortable with Frette linens coupled with a fabulous mattress, sleep was not forthcoming as it was impossible to set the temperature below 30C. My only option to reduce the temperature was to open the window and suffer through the street noise blasting up from below. Because it was winter at the time, this fenestrate tactic worked until it was too cold and I had to get up once more to close the window.
With this hot-cold cycle repeating every night, it affected my sleep to the point where no other positive aspect about the host property could be properly appreciated. I'm sure you are all familiar with the grumpiness and general malaise that follows on the day after a sleepless night. It's a state of mind that has a natural tendency to think glass half full instead of the other way around, and as such there was nothing that the hotel could do to redeem itself in lieu of a perfectly functional HVAC system.
Next, a high-level resort property in the Caribbean was serviced by below-the-window air conditioning units. While the air distributed by the system was indeed cold, the sound level from the mechanical parts was akin to that of a jet engine. And just when you got used to a particular volume and rhythm, you were woken back up by the thermostat clicking on at an even higher decibel level. The workaround I devised was to super-cool the room during dinner, then shut off the system just before bed. Given the tropical climate, though, I received about four hours of sleep before the heat build up necessitated cranking the system up again.
The third case was a recent weekend in Phoenix where I was staying at an exceptional property. The guestroom was tastefully Southwestern in style while the temperature controls were ideal with a consistent setting of 21C. However, there was so little humidity that I was getting up every hour to drink more water. Clearly, I was not used to the desert-like environment, so my ad hoc solution was to run a hot shower for a few minutes with the bathroom door open. While this did the trick, it is hard to rationalize the need for this activity when the daily rate was well in excess of $750 per night.
In all of these cases, the expert work of designers, hoteliers and planners was almost for naught. Any hotel that does not deliver a good night's sleep to its guests is a failure!
HVAC systems aren't for rookies. Older buildings are particularly complex, as the control systems are almost entirely mechanical with dated and often broken or inefficient parts. Often air conditioning and heating are separate systems. Humidification is another touchy issue that is rarely addressed in many operations.
So, what can a hotelier do, save for a costly retrofit? First, speak to your engineering team and ensure that all systems are operating with maximum efficiency. Conduct maintenance as per manufacturer's recommended schedule. Replace any parts or systems that are past their best before date. Next, look at ways to reduce noise. Often with external units, there are sound deadening kits available that isolate vibration. Ask about multi-speed fans and compressors that have quieter start-ups.
In climates that are dry, examine the addition of supplemental humidification units, available as either built-in or portable, albeit the latter is slightly less elegant. If not in the room when the guest arrives, these units should be identified as available at the front desk at check-in or ready for the maintenance team to deploy by request.
Remember the mantra that a guest that does not get a good night's sleep will never be a repeat guest. So, above all, ask your customers how their sleep was. Get firsthand feedback and when a problem arises be sure to act swiftly to remedy the situation.