Everything You Need To Know About IoT in Social Housing

The history of the Internet of Things in social housing is not a particularly long one. Its rise can primarily be attributed to the significant advances that have been made in low power, high-efficiency consumer electronics. The rise of the Alexa’s and Siri’s of the world have ushered in a period of technological innovation usually reserved for the world of Star Trek. Activating lights, opening doors, and changing the temperature of our homes with nothing but a voice command. The consumer market has certainly been exploding with spending on IoT products at $749 billion last year. But the evolution of IoT products in the social housing sector has taken a slightly different direction.

The IoT revolution for social housing has focused on improving the day-to-day lives of residents through the clever use of technology – rather than simply attempting to make everything ‘smart’. Remote sensors detecting issues with properties, motion sensors detecting residents who might be in danger and technology that can help improve the quality of life of those that are the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst the social housing sector might be a little behind the consumer world in terms of the number of devices deployed, it is certainly not ignoring the innovation. With large rollouts starting to happen, the Internet of Things is not going anywhere.

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History

For such a large industry, social housing is often accused of being slow on the uptake of new technology. This can be true, but with IoT that hasn’t entirely been the case. Technically, the first IoT device ever created was a smart toaster created by John Romkey, but it wouldn’t be until the early 2010’s that the ‘rise of IoT’ would truly occur. In 2013/2014, the first IoT devices began shipping with sensors built-in. Thermostats, lights and a host of other technologies began using these sensors to understand their environment and begin to deliver the experience we all now associate with IoT.

It wouldn’t be long before the sector would begin to take notice – with the first article in Inside Housing talking about the Internet of Things being published at the end of 2014. Right from the beginning, the sector has understood the potential value that IoT technology can bring to our businesses and processes. That article even mentions the concept of smart boilers “which could alert a provider if it has an unexpected rise in carbon monoxide emissions”. As with many new technologies in social housing though, it took some time to start getting significant traction. Matt Leach, Chief Executive of HACT, said in 2015 that “the ‘internet of things’ has been notable by its absence in social housing over the past few years”.

In late 2015 and early 2016, however, the earliest trials of IoT technology were beginning to appear in social housing homes across the country. Switchee’s first trial was taking place around this time – installing very early versions of our current thermostat in properties with concerns about condensation, damp and mould. These trials often focused particularly on proving that the technology was reliable enough to be installed in social housing stock. One of the primary concerns with installing new technology is the longevity of the devices and their stability over the long-expected periods of ownership. With boiler lifecycles sitting primarily at 10 years, for example, thermostats needed to be functional for that entire period to make the investment worthwhile.

As with every early adoption of technology – there were plenty of learnings. Early pilots often started with numerous pieces of technology only to conclude that 1 or 2 of the pieces warranted further rollouts. As 2017 came to a close, the concerns over the stability of IoT devices began to abate and interest in the technologies widened. However, despite there being  significant interest in the technology, there was still a lack of concrete strategies pertaining to their rollout. A survey conducted at the beginning of 2018 found that 6% of housing providers had an IoT strategy in place, with a further 25% considering it. This still meant that 69% had no strategy at all that revolved around the deployment of IoT.

By 2019, however, IoT was becoming a mainstream part of the technology landscape in the social housing sector. Housing providers across the country began to look seriously at the potential upsides of this technology – with larger and larger deployments beginning to take place. Raven Housing Trust, for example, began looking at smart technologies as a solution to a host of issues – addressing everything from smart heating to fire safety. With Nigel Newman, the director of strategy and growth at Raven, stating that “smart technology is proven – after all, we’ve been talking about the IoT for more than 10 years now.”

In 2020, the rise of Covid-19 made clear the benefits of virtual technologies.The inability for housing providers to access their properties physically generated a new and sudden urgency for technological alternatives to physical access. Concerns over increased rates of disrepair, issues with LGSR compliance, and a host of other issues brought on by increased home occupancy and poor economic conditions had many housing providers panicked. As a result, most looked to a combination of increased digital inclusion and improved technological solutions to help address the imbalance. Trials of even more smart technologies were carried out and portfolio-wide deployments began occurring on a large scale.

Now, looking back, it’s easy to see the inevitability of IoT in social housing. The technology presents an unrivalled opportunity to improve the quality of service delivered to residents whilst reducing the cost of doing so. With housing associations across the country starting to roll out smart technologies across their entire stock, it seems that Matt Leach’s concern over the lack of IoT products in the sector might have been unfounded.

Other Industries

IoT devices and technologies are being deployed across many different industries and sectors, changing the day-to-day efficiency of these industries and allowing for ever more complex supply chains.

Farming: In farming – the revolution from the Internet of Things has primarily been derived from increased efficiency (or so-called ‘smart farms’). Farming has taken to using IoT sensors to collect and analyse environmental and hardware metrics. This allows farmers to make more informed decisions about their businesses. It allows them to understand land efficiency, the spread of insects and diseases and even water usage. Smart farming allows farmers to utilise exact (and different) amounts of fertilizers and pesticides on their crops – even differentiating within the same field. It allows them to spot issues and fix them quickly – increasing yields and reducing waste. Although originally a slower uptaking industry, farming is quickly getting to the cutting edge of IoT technology with the market expected to reach $5.2 billion in 2021.

Retail: Perhaps one of the most well-known areas of growth for IoT has been in the retail space. This ranges from the evolution of the so-called ‘smart shelf’ to robot employees to in-store layout optimisation. Amazon’s most famous example of IoT is its autonomous warehouse robot fleet. Their network of warehouses across the world covers an astonishing 180 million square feet globally. This makes moving and packaging products extremely difficult – and to help with that they have turned to connected robots. With over 200,000 of these robots across the world – they present a huge increase in efficiency for Amazon’s logistics network. They can carry 750 pounds of products and move around the warehouse at a surprising speed. They even acquired Kiva Robots who creates the robots for them in 2012.

Automotive: The automotive industry has jumped feet first into the IoT space with massive investments into various parts of the industry. Connected vehicles are selling at higher and higher rates – with sales in 2019 hitting 28.5 million. The data that cars are gathering could be even more valuable, however, as predictions put its market at $750 billion by 2030 at least if McKinsey is to be believed. IoT’s industrial applications are even more exciting though – with advances in fleet management (utilising low-power IoT sensors to track vehicles and their condition) and predictive maintenance (data on a car’s performance is gathered, analysed and parts that are likely to fail soon are flagged for replacement).

Current Technology

When we talk about IoT in social housing, we are talking about a host of products that utilise the principles and protocols of the Internet of Things to deliver smart or connected functionality. There are several different IoT products currently in deployment in social housing – but below are some of the most common.

Smart Locks

Smart locks have been in trials in social housing since the early days of IoT deployment. A smart lock allows a resident to enter their property without the requirement of a traditional key – but it also allows them to grant access to third parties without the need for them to be there. Instead of a key, a resident is granted a key fob or uses an app on their smartphone to unlock the door. The resident can then generate ‘virtual keys’ which can then be granted temporarily or permanently to other parties – including their housing provider and/or their maintenance team. These virtual keys are encrypted and generally allow the resident to set expiry dates as well as log entry and exits with those keys. This ensures that the resident has complete control over entry without the need to be physically present for routine maintenance or LGSR checks for example. Unfortunately Smart Locks are still in a trial phase, with pushback from residents and concern about battery life preventing many Housing Providers from moving forward with this technology. Most housing providers require a much higher level of confidence in the reliability of technology than consumers – mainly due to the long expected life cycles of their technology and their concern with value for money.

Smart Smoke Alarms

Smart smoke detectors work in the same ways as a traditional smoke detector but with the added benefit of remote communication and notification. This allows a smoke alarm to remotely alert a resident to a potential fire in their property – as well as allow them to quickly notify the fire brigade if needed. These notifications can also be sent to the housing provider to ensure that vulnerable residents are not trapped inside. They can also be used to alert other properties within a building block before their properties are physically in contact with smoke. With the Grenfell tragedy having hit the industry hard – smart smoke alarms have made plenty of strides in social housing penetration. In the wake of the Grenfell Tragedy, smart smoke alarms have proved a great way to ensure proper compliance with fire safety regulations and have enabled Housing Providers to keep a record of compliance procedures in the event of an incident.

Smart Lighting

Smart lighting is similarly just a traditional light (whether LED light bulb or LED light strip) connected up through the Internet of Things to a smartphone. This allows a resident to remotely turn on and off lights in a property. This is useful for two reasons – the first is that those with mobility issues can be given much greater control over the lighting in their home without the need for more expensive accessibility technology. It also allows residents to set up schedules and other automations that can reduce their energy bills by ensuring lights turn off automatically when they are not in the property. Smart lighting in communal areas, WHG was able to save 1 million kilowatt-hours in just three years. Smart lighting has been used in social housing for some years, but with the prevalence of cheap consumer smart lighting, it has not generally been a priority of most housing providers in the last couple of years.

Smart Thermostats

Smart thermostats are in many ways similar to traditional thermostats. They continue to turn the heating on and off at the command of the resident. They add a few big improvements to the traditional technology, however, when connected. The first is of course that they can be remotely controlled – whether that is inside the home or when away from the home. This helps to reduce energy consumption where the heating schedule set differs from the resident’s day-to-day schedule. Many smart thermostats can also understand a heating system and optimise it. This allows them to reduce unnecessary heating hours, for example when a resident needs a property warm for when they get up. This might only take a few minutes for the boiler to achieve but the resident will likely set their schedule to start an hour beforehand. Finally, they can also deliver statistics and information about a properties performance to the housing provider for them to diagnose problems remotely, or understand which properties might need additional retrofit installations to improve their energy efficiency. Smart thermostats have made significant headway in social housing (hopefully helped by our great product – Switchee) and they are likely the most prevalent piece of IoT technology in social housing.

Smart Sensors

Working in tandem with technologies like smart thermostats, sensors utilising the internet of things can help to diagnose issues and regulate the residents’ environment. Smart sensors allow residents and landlords to monitor the condition of a property for issues. This can then be used to understand and rectify the situation before permanent damage to either the property or the resident’s health can be done. Smart sensors have become increasingly common in social housing due to the prevalence of mould.

The Impact for Housing Providers

As with any new technology, the effects it has had on various housing providers vary. Some providers have jumped all in – and benefited enormously from it – while others have been taking a slow but steady approach. With IoT beginning to reach mainstream adoption, however, the true benefits are beginning to unveil themselves at scale. The impact of IoT in housing, therefore, can broadly be separated into three categories.

The impact on connectivity

IoT allows for a massive improvement in the connectivity of a home – both with its occupants and with the housing provider. For residents – the increase of IoT technology in their homes has allowed them to take advantage of granular, remote control of various aspects of their home environment. For some residents, this simply means saving a few extra pounds on their energy bills when they forgot to turn off their heating schedule when they left for a few days. For other residents, this means a complete change in their quality of life – allowing them to control their environments in a way that is both easy and convenient. Those struggling with disabilities might find they can now fully control their homes for the first time in their lives. This has been a huge shift in the way that home environments are controlled.

For housing providers, this means having access to the types of data they have needed for years. IoT has allowed them to make the right decisions, remotely. Whether that is understanding the root cause of condensation, damp and mould in a property or identifying properties that might be suffering from fuel poverty. This has allowed housing providers to shift their repairs and maintenance teams away from making reactive repairs and instead making proactive decisions about their entire portfolio. This has ensured that the most difficult properties in a portfolio are the ones that are dealt with first – creating a more comfortable environment for all of their residents.

The impact on digital inclusion

Digital inclusion has been an area in which many housing providers have struggled for some years. With IoT, the ability to put independently connected devices into properties has given rise to a different type of digital inclusion. Traditionally, improving digital inclusion meant installing a broadband connection into a property and training the resident on the basics of the internet. With modern IoT technology, the process can be much more simple. With a device that has an independent internet connection (mostly through the mobile phone network) – residents can have access to many of the benefits of an internet connection when it comes to dealing with their housing provider.

Their housing provider can use the connected screens in a property to send information, ask and receive information from a resident and even give them personalised reminders. Whilst this is not a complete substitute for a digitally savvy resident, digital inclusion is a long-term process. Giving a resident the ability to do some of the necessary digital tasks through a device that the housing provider maintains ensures that the resident can get some of the benefits without any of the risks associated with the open internet. A Switchee, for example, can only send and receive information that the housing provider wants to – and it cannot be used by malicious parties to steal information or intercept credit card information.

The impact of data

By far the biggest change for housing providers with the rise of the Internet of Things is the massive increase in reliable and useful data that they now have access to. Where before the condition of a property remained a mystery until a surveyor was sent round (at significant cost to the housing provider), the rise of IoT technology has allowed housing providers to understand not just single properties at any given time but their entire portfolio every day. This has given rise to several new and interesting maintenance and investment strategies.

In terms of maintenance, housing providers are now starting to look at their portfolio as a whole and prioritise properties not on the number of complaints but on the actual condition of the property. This means that residents who are either unable to complain about property conditions are now being far better served, and the overall quality of a stock is rising. This data gives housing providers the ability to not only judge which properties are in danger of mould but also understand what might be causing the issue. Utilising air pressure, humidity and temperature sensors gives an accurate understanding of the condition of a property and which of those three factors needs to be remedied to fix the cause of the problem. This is a revolutionary way of dealing with maintenance that is only possible because of smart power-efficient sensor technology.

Investment in their property stock has also benefited. This same sensor technology has allowed housing providers to prioritise the installation of various types of technology based on the actual performance of a property. Instead of installing new ventilation systems in every property in a housing block, this technology helps to identify which of the properties need increased ventilation and which do not. This reduces overall spending and helps to improve the quality of their housing stock as a whole.

The Future

As IoT technologies continue to develop and improve, there will be a significant uptick in benefits to both social housing providers and their tenants. As housebound technologies continue to adopt IoT into their construction (think boilers, radiators, gas meters etc) the prospect of a completely connected house becomes more and more realistic. These advancements will allow residents to have much more control over their properties and help them to improve the efficiency of key home functions. For landlords, this will allow them to understand their properties in a way they have never been able to before. This will allow landlords to judge the energy efficiency of individual products and to better understand the performance of household repairs along with much, much more.

Alongside this newfound connectivity will come an increasing reliance on automated notifications and scheduling. This means that potential problem areas will be flagged up before they can take root and without waiting for the tenant to submit a complaint. Automated systems will send notifications regarding minor and major issues to maintenance teams and communicate directly with the resident to ensure access. This form of scheduling may be done via a Smart-Screen, as in Switchee’s case, or with more traditional communication methods. This means issues are picked up on in the early stages, giving landlords time to schedule repairs around the resident’s day-to-day routine which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of missed appointments and improves resident satisfaction.

With all the data that these various IoT devices will be producing, true predictive analytics becomes possible. This will mean that device failures, such as boiler breakdowns, can be planned for, ensuring minimal downtime for the resident. We are fast approaching a world where housing providers can accurately identify failing devices, schedule a maintenance appointment at the residents’ convenience, and have the problem solved without affecting the residents’ health and wellbeing –  all thanks to the advances in IoT technology.

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