What is smarter asset management and what does it mean for housing providers? The world is now a very different place for social housing. Recent events such as welfare reform and rent reductions mean that housing providers are under increasing pressure to radically remodel service delivery in order to reduce operational costs. In order to meet the current challenges housing providers need to work ‘smarter’ and use their resources far more effectively.
Smarter asset management is the ability to connect assets to the internet so that data can be received and/or transmitted. This allows real-time telemetry data to be accessible so that the condition or operating health of a device can be detected and, more importantly, people can be despatched to deal with an impending issue rather than having to respond reactively when something breaks down.
Traditionally, the sector has been slow to adopt new technology and some existing legacy system suppliers are not regarded by their housing customers as being particularly innovative. Current pressures mean that the sector needs to leapfrog a decade of technology and embrace innovative solutions such as the internet of things (IoT). IoT is a very broad term used to describe anything that can be connected to the internet. The term ‘smart’ has been banded around for a good few years, particularly in homes with smart TVs that connect to the internet so you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want.
So how and where can IoT solutions play a role in providing smarter asset management and better ways of doing things in the sector? Social housing by its very nature has a huge amount of properties and assets among its portfolio. The way in which these assets are currently managed is generally broken down into ‘planned’ or ‘responsive’ maintenance. Planned maintenance is managed by creating schedules of periodic visits to ‘check’ or ‘service’ something to make sure it is operationally fit for purpose; this is certainly the case for boilers and annual safety inspections. Responsive maintenance is generally when a tenant reports something is not working as expected and they need this issue resolving in a timely manner. This is certainly the case when it comes to boilers due to the loss of heating and/or hot water within the property.
IoT or smart sensor technology has the capability to allow us to change the way we provide maintenance, but how? If we can somehow make devices ‘smart’, i.e. connect them to the internet, we can then get data from them and potentially talk to them to provide them with instructions and/or diagnose that something isn’t working correctly. Why is this beneficial? If we know something is about to have a problem, we can despatch resources efficiently to provide the necessary repairs before the unit fails. This not only means that we can proactively send people to a geographical location to fix several devices which saves time and fuel, it also simultaneously improves customer service. Another example is if we deploy a smart temperature sensor, we can get it to periodically report the ambient temperature of that room or property. The moment a room becomes too cold or too hot, we can do something about it. Not that interesting on its own, but if this sensor joins several other smart sensors and devices, all of a sudden we could have a ‘smart’ home or property. This could enable tenants to gain greater control over their energy expenditure while having a positive impact on the environment.
Let’s think about central heating boilers for a moment. Other than an annual safety inspection, the only time we visit them is to repair them when they break down. Imagine if we could somehow predict that they were not operating properly and then schedule a visit before they broke down. To do this, they would need to be ‘smart’ to allow us to get information from them. If this was achievable, we could then schedule to attend several boilers in the same area to fix them before they broke at a time that was convenient for both the tenant and the housing provider. The savings in operational efficiency would be potentially huge. In addition, a tenant would be more satisfied if a visit was needed to prevent their boiler breaking down instead of them getting back home to find they had no hot water or heating.
Over the course of the next few years, most new devices such as boilers will be ‘smart’ as standard, and we will install them in all new-build homes. The trouble, of course, is that we already have thousands of assets in the field that need to run the course of their natural lives before we retire and replace them. The focus therefore needs to be on how we can easily ‘retro-fit’ things that will enable non-smart devices to become connected and smart.
You may have already heard of or spoken to several companies that are lining up products to provide such solutions, but one company that has already made IoT a reality is 365 Agile. Back in November 2015, we launched our very own Smart Heating Controller which can be retro-fitted to any boiler in less than five minutes. This not only allows the tenant to control their heating and hot water from their smartphone, but also automatically alerts the tenant and the housing provider when it detects that the boiler is not operating optimally. This will also deliver such benefits such as a reduced energy bills because it will be possible to control individual heating zones; i.e. don’t heat the upstairs rooms during the day and don’t heat the downstairs rooms during the night.
Housing providers have a responsibility to support some of the most vulnerable members of society. We read very sad cases of elderly people dying due to cold weather-related issues. Surely as a modern society in 2016, we cannot stand by and allow this to continue. If we deployed smart technology, we could easily monitor if someone has their heating on, it’s working properly and their home is insulated to a satisfactory level. The cost of doing this is tiny and the technology can be easily and quickly deployed so that tenants can not only save energy but also heat their homes effectively.
Finally, I hope this article has helped in some way to enlighten you to the endless possibilities that IoT will deliver and the benefits of ‘smart’ technology.
Jonathan Holyhead is the managing director of 365 Agile.