The internet of things (IoT) is on the cusp of going mainstream in the housing sector. The technology has caught up with the hype and the promise of the fourth industrial revolution bringing improvements to people’s lives is becoming a reality, and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon.
With increasingly ageing populations, climate change, health inequalities and anticipated rising deprivation levels in the wake of the coronavirus, it’s more important than ever for the housing sector to harness the power of smart technologies to better support their tenants.
Some housing providers have already moved to the next level in exploring the benefits of IoT. One such organisation is Wolverhampton Homes, who began an IoT pilot in partnership with Northgate Public Services and Homelync in January 2020.
Seeing the bigger picture
The aim of the project was to ascertain whether the use of IoT-enabled devices could help Wolverhampton Homes deliver social and financial value for residents. The pilot would also give the housing provider a more holistic view of the condition of its properties and how they were being used along with the ability to proactively manage properties to minimise reactive repairs.
Eamonn McGirr, head of business intelligence, Wolverhampton Homes, said, “Some of the stock in our portfolio is quite old and we wanted to find out how IoT could give us a ‘big picture view’ of the condition of our properties.
“For example, we knew that damp and mould were a problem in some properties but we suspected that in around 50 per cent of cases, the problems could be reduced by people doing things differently in their homes. We wanted to use IoT to help us see how a change in tenants’ behaviour might not only reduce their household costs but also have a positive impact on the condition of our stock.”
Six households volunteered to take part in the project and a range of devices were installed quickly and easily into the properties. These included temperature and humidity sensors, smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms and devices that monitor residents’ energy consumption.
A sensor hub was also installed in each home, which began collating data immediately from the individual devices and displayed it in an easy-to-read dashboard accessible to the team involved in the project.
The information would help to determine the thermal efficiency of properties, identify heat loss and monitor dew points. Energy consumption could be measured and compared with the usage of other similar properties too, making it easier for tenants to take steps to reduce their bills.
The technology enabled the air quality of a property to be monitored so that appropriate health and safety advice could be provided to tenants. The same data was also valuable for helping Wolverhampton Homes to understand how ventilation could affect the levels of damp and mould within individual properties.
A shared experience
Monthly meetings with the pilot residents provided an opportunity to share and discuss the findings of the data being collated from the IoT devices. For example, one participant recognised that keeping the bathroom ventilated when the shower was being used would help to prevent damp and mould within their property.
Another resident said, “It highlights where a little change can make a big difference. The data collected has come as a nice surprise, particularly because it shows I am efficiently managing my property with regard to energy consumption and humidity.”
A powerful message
Wolverhampton Homes serves many residents at the sharp end of poverty. McGirr said, “It can be a challenge to encourage tenants to ventilate their homes, especially when cooking or after a shower, to avoid humidity levels rising. Heating is expensive and when residents are on a tight budget, it does not always come naturally to open up a window because they’re worried about wasting heat.
“Sharing the temperature data from the IoT devices with our residents helped to show that it’s okay to open a window, reduce humidity and not suffer significant heat losses.”
The change of behaviour due to the pilot resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in electricity usage across all participants and air quality improved by 11 per cent due to better ventilation of properties.
McGirr said, “The data helped to highlight that not properly ventilating a property increases the likelihood of damp and mould, which damages properties and is a hazard to health. One thing we have taken away from this is the power of using shared experiences to tackle problems.”
Game changer for stock management
Wolverhampton Homes’ IoT trial demonstrates the art of the possible in housing management and the benefits the technology could bring for the sector.
McGirr said, “When you take a holistic view of all the information across a wider range of properties, it’s a game changer for stock management because you then have a broad collection of information to better plan refurbishment work.
“Knowing how a tenant is using the property and how that usage is affecting the condition, coupled with aspects such as the age and type of the property, help inform our maintenance decisions.”
There are other advantages too. Without IoT, the only way a housing provider would know that a fire alarm isn’t working is during a visit or when the alarm fails to work when needed. If IoT sensor data was captured then a compliance officer could pinpoint when an alarm was not working and schedule a maintenance visit to that property as well as other households in the area with similar devices.
Wolverhampton Homes is now considering a repeat of the pilot but on a larger scale to get a wider picture of the properties across its stock and plan targeted maintenance visits. Expanding the use of IoT will help the housing provider to encourage more tenants to change their behaviour to minimise their utility bills and reduce issues such as damp and mould.
The development of IoT in recent years means the technology can now deliver on the promises of a decade ago. Housing providers can now drill down into the data being captured from sensors to identify issues and work with residents to drive positive changes in the way properties are managed. It’s also possible to bring in key information such as deprivation data or live weather patterns to help predict emerging issues before they can have a negative impact on residents and their properties.
IoT has come a long way from the days of detecting when a boiler might fail. The housing sector is starting to embrace IoT technology and reap the benefits of providing better support for their tenants at the same time as helping them to run more energy-efficient, healthy homes.
Roger Birkinshaw is the housing director at Northgate Public Services.