Are smart heat control systems too hot to handle?

The ‘Internet of Things’ is the next big technology frontier for social landlords, says Nigel Ebdon of Secure Meters. The company has dipped its toe in the (warm) water to test the market with a smart thermostat

THE term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) was first credited nearly 20 years ago to American Kevin Ashton in a presentation to Procter & Gamble.

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost,” he said.

What’s true for consumer goods, in this case, is also true for property management.

Homes all require varying degrees of attention. By using sensors that remotely gather data, various interventions can be made to properties based on evidence rather than traditional scheduled or reactive behaviour.

Has a smoke alarm been tested? Is a property over or under heated? Is the boiler functioning correctly? Is an older or vulnerable tenant healthy?

The potential value of IoT in social housing lies in the duel landlord and tenant benefit. Tenants gain from greater control, improved customer service and a more responsive, better informed landlord, while landlords on the other hand can make better, evidenced-based decisions, improving service delivery and efficiency and better managing assets.

Although Secure Meters plans to eventually deliver a range of IoT solutions covering energy, tenant health, safety and welfare and asset management, we decided to start with our strengths and launch a smart thermostat product called Beanbag.

As with any new solution we were keen to better understand market expectation and need, so in early 2018 we commissioned a broad survey of UK social asset, sustainability and energy managers.

“These sorts of technologies are high on our agenda, and Great Places has embraced mobile and web-based solutions from the outset,” said Emma Richman, director of assets at Great Places Housing Group. “We see the Internet of Things and sensor heat technology as a logical next step.”

The biggest asset management benefit identified in the survey was the prevention of high humidity and potential mould growth in homes.

“Humidity and mould growth is a costly, perennial issue for asset managers, so if smart heat controls are recognised as tackling this problem right away then it will definitely grab our attention,” Richman added. “As a qualified surveyor I understand the problems that persistent high humidity can cause – with the resulting mould not only damaging homes but also causing potential health issues, particularly in adolescents.

“Great Places also has to contend with the North West’s wetter than average weather, and a large proportion of older properties where damp proof courses will eventually fail. New ventilation systems can be installed to improve property air circulation, but we can 100% see the value of sensor technology that can take readings and share that information with the landlord.”

The two main barriers to adoption identified are the upfront capital cost required to purchase, and confusion over available technologies.

“Contractors need to ensure that they work collaboratively with landlords, particularly in supporting tenants once systems have been installed. It’s how a tenant understands and interacts with heat controls that will make or break its long-term value,” Richman said.

“Tenants will always need some time to adapt to new systems, and it’s often the more vulnerable tenants who not only most need support, but have the most to gain from an improved home environment and reduced costs. We have to work with suppliers to get them engaged.”

However, Richman expressed surprise at possible confusion over differing technologies: “I don’t find the concept of sensor technology particularly hard to understand – in fact it’s quite simple.

“Many landlords, including Great Places, have been integrating technologies that improve service and business practices for a number of years – and smart heat controls and IoT sensors are just another logical step in that direction.

“I suppose there may be some confusion as to whether you go down the passive heat control (systems that learn tenant behaviour and control heating accordingly), or active heat control (tenants given full control via a smart phone app), path.

“They tackle the same problem in two different ways, but I can see passive controls eventually being the preferred option for landlords. They’re simpler to use for tenants and require less technical support.”

The market intelligence report can be found at yumpu.com. Just search for Smart Heat Technology.

NH

Nigel Ebdon is the market development manager at Secure Meters UK Ltd

This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine #2 (October 2018)

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