Choosing smart data and tech can help landlords achieve Better Social Housing Review goals

May 12, 2023

Tom Robins, Switchee's CEO, speaks to Inside Housing magazine about the drive behind the IoT revolution in the housing sector.

Data-collecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices are becoming an increasingly essential tool for landlords, benefitting the bottom line and ensuring continued compliance within a changing regulatory landscape. Landlords can use the dashboard information to help reduce energy used and to residents create a healthier living environment.

Inside Housing spoke to Tom Robins, chief executive of Switchee, to find out more.

What’s driving the ongoing IoT revolution in the housing sector?

It’s being driven by a change in the regulator’s expectations of social landlords. It is the landlord’s responsibility to understand what is going on inside people’s homes – the environmental conditions, quality of maintenance, the interaction between the fabric of the property and resident behaviour – to ensure homes are ‘safe and happy’ and in line with the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018. Considering the tragic events in Rochdale which saw the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak due to overexposure to mould, improved environmental conditions that were once nice-to-haves are now on the health and safety priority list.

Quality of service is on the agendas today for the government and the regulator. It’s driving a focus on the customer journey, on the quality of maintenance and repairs, on how well properties are performing and resident satisfaction. Five years ago, these things were important, but not perhaps from the regulator’s point of view. Now they are top of the agenda.

How can IoT technology help landlords meet these new expectations?

To understand what’s going on inside people’s homes, landlords can use a single IoT device to collect a number of different data points, such as temperature, pressure, humidity, light and motion within the property. This information is used primarily to help improve residents’ quality of life, but it’s also used by landlords to build a picture of needs across their portfolio. Insights derived include a building’s thermal performance, fuel poverty likelihood, or if there is a high risk of condensation, damp or mould.

When landlords are empowered and understand how properties work when inhabited, they are able to change their operations from reactive to proactive. While this can be a big hump for landlords, an organisation can use the data as an opportunity to learn where their biggest issues are; they will be able to deploy resources more efficiently, maintain healthier homes and lower operating costs.

What are the benefits for residents? Can this technology help tackle fuel poverty?

Understanding the environmental conditions of their home helps residents make better decisions. In turn, this can reduce people’s heating bills, which is something we are very passionate about, or it can be used to better understand how to reduce humidity in order to prevent condensation or damp.

Our technology has been independently benchmarked to deliver a 17% reduction in people’s energy costs. It does this through smart algorithms which understand when the resident needs to use heat, and constrains the heat used to that period of time. It also helps residents set specific schedules – which enables residents to use their heat source more effectively.

This technology can also facilitate stronger resident engagement and satisfaction. On our devices, for example, landlords and residents can communicate via a touchscreen. Someone who might typically struggle to report a problem over the telephone will instead get a proactive engagement from their landlord saying: we think you might have a problem, can you confirm? Can we fix it? It is a totally different way of operating – and it delivers, in effect, a concierge-level social housing experience that people aren’t used to.

What else is the data telling you?

The data is revealing some interesting behaviours – and once you see the data, you can relate to it personally. For example, as heating bills go up, people are turning their thermostats down. Over the past three months, our data shows that, on average, social tenants with an IoT device have turned their thermostat’s target temperature down by 2.5˚C. The second change is that people are choosing to heat their properties to a warmer temperature but for short periods of time. Instead of having their property heated at, for example, 16˚C for eight hours a day, people are choosing to heat their property to 18˚C or 19˚C for three or four hours of the day.

There’s a human element, too. We like radiant heat – walking past a radiator and feeling a sense of warmth. What this tells us is people are budgeting by heating their properties for a shorter period of time every day. There is a serious risk here. Residents start heat-cycling the property; this means the outside walls of the property don’t get warm because the heating is on for such a short period of time, leading to an increase in condensation, damp and mould.

Can this technology help inform better practice around construction, design and management?

Absolutely. We’re doing a lot of work around retrofit, and are involved in a high proportion of Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund work across the UK – and what it comes down to is understanding the true performance of a property. In my mind, the current Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is really a box-ticking exercise. Yes, it’s indicative – but when you start plotting the true performance data that we’re collecting against the EPC data, the correlation isn’t what anyone would like it to be. Going forward, and in our conversations with the government around retrofit, we believe that true property performance is going to be the future measure, and that retrofit measures will follow from that metric. However, this is not just in relation to changes to buildings’ fabric, but also around supporting resident behavioural changes.

Across the UK, our data analysis has shown that registered providers have made significant investment in material fabric changes to properties towards carbon net zero goals, such as installing heat pumps. However, in some cases, as the pumps are more expensive to run than gas, residents are not using them, and the end result has been colder and poorer residents. Real-time data from the property, I believe, is the step change needed to prevent further funding being wasted.

What data security and GDPR considerations do landlords need to take into account?

Landlords need to make it clear to residents why these devices are collecting this information; we operate in a GDPR-regulated environment, so that is critical.

It also needs to add value to the resident. So the data that’s collected needs to be the absolute minimum required to derive the insights required, while it also needs to deliver as much value as it possibly can.

Resident trust in these devices is critical. We are a personal data business, and if we don’t deliver value to residents, we don’t have a right to be in their homes.

This post was originally published by Inside Housing on 30th of January 2023

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