In February 2023, the Housing Ombudsman released a one-year follow-up to its ‘Spotlight on damp & mould – It’s not lifestyle’ report. It highlighted that 35 per cent of RSLs sampled now have a specific damp and mould policy, 12 per cent are in the process of implementing one, and 19 per cent are self-assessing against the Housing Ombudsman’s recommendations.
The report also highlighted a number of areas of good practice including:
- Using humidity and temperature sensors;
- Root-cause analysis modelling and consideration of wider factors beyond just residents’ behaviour;
- Dedicated dashboards and a specialist damp and mould team.
Humidity and temperature sensors
Humidity and temperature sensors are a staple way of tackling damp and mould. For years, housing providers have used ‘data loggers’, sending them off for analysis to gain some basic understanding of the problem.
Modern versions of these sensors are mostly internet-connected and have exceptionally long battery life (over 10 years in our case). This is a more cost-effective approach due to fewer visits, the data is much richer and easier to store, it’s faster, and the analysis is automated. Furthermore, like Aico-HomeLink, many companies provide additional analytics and insight such as mould risk, thermal efficiency and fuel poverty.
The Housing Ombudsman highlighted the use of these sensors as best practice because they make a housing provider’s reactive strategy much more effective. For example, dozens of our customers are rolling out these sensors across their general-needs properties (often during EICRs or voids programmes) so that any early signs of problems are flagged and dealt with before properties fall into disrepair and residents’ health is affected.
Root-cause analysis modelling
The Housing Ombudsman specifically points out the importance of doing some form of root-cause analysis modelling. This is crucial because every damp and mould case is different, and just giving residents advice and cleaning the mould will often not solve the problem. The underlying problems could be caused by many factors, ranging from inadequate ventilation through to penetrating damp or leaks. There are two important factors to consider when using connected sensors for root-cause analysis – multi-room positioning and more advanced algorithms.
Anyone who has seen data across different rooms in a property will know how valuable it is to have multiple sensors to identify the underlying cause of a problem. Temperatures and humidities vary throughout a property. For example, bathrooms and kitchens have frequent high humidity loads, some bedrooms can remain colder, a bedroom’s humidity often sustains higher humidity levels at night and leaks are more common in bathrooms and kitchens.
Furthermore, mould doesn’t always form in the room where the humidity is higher, and it can often move throughout the property and settle somewhere else; if you want to fix the mould in the cold, unused living room, it might be because there’s a ventilation problem in the adjacent kitchen that needs sorting out.
HomeLink recently released the world’s first root-cause mould algorithm that breaks down the cause of the mould into six factors. This algorithm not only pinpoints the location of the root cause but what could be the problem within that location. For example:
- Base wall humidity: sustained unusually high levels of humidity, with a probable cause of penetrating/rising damp or a leak.
- Thermal inefficiency: high heat-loss from this room suggests that the room is poorly insulated. The surface temperature of the wall is therefore likely to be much lower than the air temperature, leading to an increased risk of condensation. Energy-efficiency measures or repairs could help in this case.
- Under-utilised heating: low temperatures throughout the property suggest the heating is set very low or not used. This causes higher relative humidity and a higher risk of condensation. The solutions could be repairs, advice to the resident (incl. potential fuel-poverty support) or carrying out energy-efficiency measures.
- Ventilation inefficiency: looking at the diagram above<still refers to aico1>, this is probably the main factor in the kitchen. A lot of humidity is created from cooking and, more importantly than this, other harmful pollutants (notably PM2.5). This metric indicates that ventilation is being used but for some reason it’s not effective. Often this is because the ventilation is either too small and not specified correctly for the room or it needs cleaning. In this instance, I happen to know that it needed cleaning (because it was my house…).
Dedicated dashboards and specialist damp & mould team
Something we’re seeing more and more is the creation of dedicated damp and mould teams; these teams are often small, comprising one or two people, depending on the size of the housing provider and its objectives.
Alongside analysing root-cause data, these damp and mould teams can assess the impact of any interventions. For example, in the case of my own ventilation system that needed cleaning, I can track this intervention and be alerted regarding its success or failure. If this solves the problem then the case is closed and we carry the learnings forward; if it doesn’t work then we start looking at other factors. This methodical approach is not only the best way to solve the problem but it also creates a history of activity for damp and mould cases, providing a compliance history for this property.
Aside from providing a dashboard to teams, we are seeing more housing providers integrate with their existing systems to extract further value. As a company, we have an open integration philosophy and have many tools available, from APIs and webhooks to MQTT message brokers; whether you want to trigger an event, send some data somewhere or store all your data from all your sensors, you can do so easily.
The reason connected sensors are being recommended as best practice by the Housing Ombudsman is because it’s a proven technology. We now have nearly 250,000 devices connected in UK social housing and expect to hit over one million devices by the end of 2024.
However, this still represents a significant technological shift for many housing providers and with that comes a requirement for organisational and cultural change, but it will result in much better health and wellbeing outcomes for residents.
Chris Jones is the chief executive officer (HomeLink) at Aico.