Nigel Ebdon, Market Development Manager at Secure Meters UK, reviews the findings of a company survey exploring the opportunity for smart sensors in the social housing landscape, and how this could help landlords, tenants, and installers.
Most of us don’t think about turning up the thermostat when we feel cold but, for one in 10 housing association tenants, it is a decision which could push them into poverty.
While fuel poverty – which is defined by the government as households driven below the poverty line by higher than average heating costs – has fallen slightly since 2010, it still affects 2.53 million households overall, with nearly 270,000 of those families in homes managed by housing associations.
Worse still, tenants with children or in poor health are more likely to be face heart-breaking choices between staying warm and cutting back on other essentials than the rest of the population.
It is troubling facts like these which are prompting a growing number of housing associations to roll out smart heating technology. A survey by Secure Meters this year revealed that 35% of social landlords are installing or trialling smart sensors in their homes. Even more are discussing investing in the technology, with just over half considering Internet of Things sensor solutions.
The factors influencing this shift in the social housing sector, where many installers work, are varied. But the survey indicates associations see the main benefits as helping vulnerable tenants cut their fuel bills. Although research into smart heating tech is in its infancy, some studies suggesting remote controls can reduce household energy usage by 65% and learning algorithms can making energy savings of 28%.
Installers will know that smart heating systems give tenants considerable control over their living environment, but they also learn occupants’ habits to improve energy efficiency. This is one of the best ways to address fuel poverty. Indeed, the government’s most recent Fuel Poverty Report in 2019 stresses increased efficiency reduces heating costs.
These sensors can also give social landlords the heads up about hard to heat homes or high levels of humidity, which can lead to mould growth and expensive repair bills. This may help protect landlords avoid legal action under the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, which has given tenants the right to take their landlord to court over poor conditions since last year.
Social landlords also believe smart heating systems could improve their repairs and maintenance programmes. It was the third most common benefit cited in the survey. Sensors allow maintenance teams to remotely monitor boilers, identifying heating systems at risk of failure.
This is what really distinguishes smart technology for social landlords. Whereas private consumers primarily want to save on energy bills, forward-thinking housing associations and councils are keen to use aggregated data collected from thousands of individual homes to better deploy resources and manage their housing stock.
These sensors have the potential to become the eyes and ears of an intelligent early warning system, collecting terabytes of invaluable information and alerting asset managers to problems before desperate tenants call in an emergency. This could, in turn, radically alter the routines of installers working for housing associations and create opportunities for those who want to gain a foothold in the sector.
However, not all associations have fully embraced the Internet of Things, which is seeing connected devices proliferate in our homes and across our cities. The survey shows 40% have yet to install any smart systems, even though 80% are currently considering one type of home sensor or another.
The main barrier for the more hesitant parts of the sector appears to be cost, with 40% of landlords pointing to the scale of capital investment required. The other reason is finding a futureproofed system that works in the long run, with just over 30% wanting to test new systems before fully committing.
This is understandable because traditionally thermostats have a low profile with landlords. Purchases were typically made by contractors or developers. Smart thermostats are more expensive so landlords want to be sure they will meet strategic goals.
However, the most far-sighted social landlords are busy putting in place the smart infrastructure that will in the years to come transform social housing. One senior association figure quoted in the report envisages a future self-repairing home where the house uses sensors to detect problems and orders work and parts.
We may not be there yet, but the journey could soon see a radically different approach to heating in improving the lives of tenants and streamlining maintenance programmes.
“The main barrier for the more hesitant parts of the sector appears to be cost, with 40% of landlords pointing to the scale of capital investment required”