Homes that are too hot or too cold are no good and can affect the health and wellbeing of its occupants, particularly the elderly, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have developed Thermal Comfort at Home: A guide for older South Australians to assist those living at home.

The guide is based on scientific research from a project funded by the Australian Research Council to analyse the housing of people aged 65 and over in South Australia between 2018 and 2021.

The study was led by Professor Veronica Soebarto from the University of Adelaide’s School of Architecture and Built Environment.

“‘Thermal comfort’ is the contentment you feel by a combination of temperature, humidity and air movement in your environment. What you’re wearing and doing also matter.”

It involved the monitoring of 71 participants over nine months in three climate zones.

These included greater metropolitan Adelaide, with warm temperature; Whyalla, Port Pirie, Port Augusta, with a hot dry summer and cool winter; and Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu Peninsula, with mild temperature. 

“While the case studies involved older people in South Australia, the strategies could very easily be applied to housing in other parts of Australia with similar climates,” Ms Soebarto said in a statement. 

According to the guide, older Australians can achieve thermal comfort at home by considering their specific thermal comfort goals, needs and constraints, local climate and housing type and location.

“Cold conditions can fuel risk of hypothermia, strokes, cardiac conditions related to changes in blood pressure.”

Why thermal comfort matters

“‘Thermal comfort’ is the contentment you feel by a combination of temperature, humidity and air movement in your environment. What you’re wearing and doing also matter,” the guide said.

However, thermal comfort is about more than just how one feels and the wrong thermal comfort can result in illness and death, according to the guide.

“Cold conditions can fuel risk of hypothermia, strokes, cardiac conditions related to changes in blood pressure, and illnesses such as arthritis, influenza, pneumonia and asthma.

“Hot conditions can elevate risk of cardiovascular diseases, hyperthermia and heat stroke.”

Participants of the study reported 15 to 28 degrees Celsius to be the optimal indoor temperature, anything outside of this range and the influence of temperature on wellbeing became more pronounced.

“Some participants expressed feeling thermally comfortable at temperatures lower than 15 degrees Celsius or higher than 28 degrees Celsius.

“But when researchers asked about their wellbeing, without the participants knowing the temperature at the time, they actually perceived wellbeing to decline.

“This highlights the important relationship between indoor temperatures, thermal comfort and wellbeing.”

“Hot conditions can elevate risk of cardiovascular diseases, hyperthermia and heat stroke.”

Improving thermal comfort

The guide’s recommendations for the best rooms to use

To improve the thermal comfort of a home, the guide suggests that older Australians start by conducting an energy review of their home.

This will help them to identify where hot and cold spots are in a room, the direction of their windows and the amount of energy being used by appliances.

Following this, several changes can then be made around the house and to personal activities and equipment and technology.

According to the guide, using rooms that face north are best.

“North-facing windows allow the winter sun in and can be easily shaded from summer sun,” it said.

For a more proactive approach, older Australians can monitor their personal activities, such as keeping active in colder weather to maintain circulation and drinking plenty of water in hot weather.

When it comes to equipment and technology, there are options to improve just heating or cooling, with centralised options to distribute hot or cool air throughout the house or space heating or cooling for just one room.

To improve both heating and cooling, houses can consider reverse-cycle or heat pump air-conditioning, which will heat or cool a room quickly, according to the guide.

For their next project, the research team will look at the housing conditions of older people from low socioeconomic and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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