Environmental sensors have the potential to help to tackle fuel poverty in social housing and could save organisations millions of pounds on property management and repair bills. By looking at the environmental characteristics of a building, steps can be taken to solve repairs and assist tenants who may be struggling to sustain their tenancy.
They can alert landlords on the possibility of a property being abandoned. Some can even give data that can allow landlords to calculate mould risk, insulation performance, fuel poverty risk and boiler performance.
This technology is already being considered by some local authorities and housing associations for example Renfrewshire Council who have had a pilot scheme running since 2016. Their sensors in this case are recording temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide. These sensors can assist in managing fuel poverty, dampness issues and monitoring air quality.
The data from the sensors installed within the council’s pilot was being transferred over Wi-Fi, but was scheduled to move onto their Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN). The LPWAN technology is quite confusing as there are many different ways to implement it. For example, Sigfox use a radio network which connects devices to the cloud where users can access information online.
The potential market for environmental sensors within social housing is huge and in the coming years may see more of an uptake. I will discuss some of the potential set backs of using WiFi sensors as well as discussing my hands on trial of a Lascar WiFi unit.
The use of WiFi does present a problem in social housing as many tenants that are suffering from fuel poverty will simply not have access to WiFi and this therefore makes WiFi enabled loggers in these situations redundant. There are however ways and means of overcoming the WiFi issue as has been shown by Intergas boilers and the Switchee smart thermostat.
Intergas boilers have a remote management option which allows them to connect to each other using wireless radio frequency technology allowing many boilers to ‘talk’ to each other and feeding their data back via a gateway and internet connection. So you only need one modem/router rather than one for each property. If data loggers utilised this system that could solve the issue of some tenants not having access to WiFi.
The Switchee smart thermostat has a bunch of great data logging functions so it’s a very good direct comparision when we are discussing data loggers. It connects via 2G phone networks as well as WiFi so it does not have to rely on a tenant’s internet connection. This cellular network connection does come with a annual cost which would need to be set against potential savings. Other than the cost, the other downside of cellular connection is signal coverage which can be present in certain property build types.
The device itself has temperature, light, motion, humidity and air pressure sensors, which it uses to learn occupancy and a property’s thermal profile. Based on this data it can optimize the heating settings remotely to reduce energy bills. As it’s connected to the phone network a landlord could use push notifications to remind a tenant of an upcoming gas safety check which can be difficult if a tenant does not have access to a telephone.
AIREX is another smart ventilation control unit worth mentioning which replaces the buildings underfloor airbrick with the AIREX. The sensors on this automated air vent measure temperature, humidity and air quality and use smart algorithms to enable automatic air flow whilst also taking into account local weather conditions. It relys on WiFi connectivity which again will always present a problem in the social housing sector as the people who are suffering from fuel poverty will not usually have a stable WiFi connection.
I feel like AIREX sells itself short in its advertising by focusing only on saving householders money on their energy bills by sensible underfloor ventilation. They do mention on their site that a lack of ventilation can cause damp or condensation problems but they do not hit home the fact that this device could be used as a early warning system for underfloor leaks which could prevent thousands in reinstatement costs. They don’t mention that this system could be an early warning system that has the potential to prevent woodworm and rot.
I am not convinced that this system could save tenants much money on heating bills but I am convinced it could save landlords and insurance companies thousands in reinstatement costs.
Long term environmental sensors for use in social housing in my opinion should look as bland as possible when being used as a standalone device. They should blend in to the rest of the property and mimic the aesthetics of a smoke or CO detector with no buttons or screens to tempt the tampering of the device. This is the opposite from some specialist applications where you would want to be able to easily see the results on the device at a glance to monitor on site conditions.
The look of the Protimeter BLE sensor is the type of thing I would expect to see in the future for this type of work where the logger will remain in the property for years. The hope would be for a long lasting battery life or a wired device that can be slotted in amongst the other detectors in the property.
The alternative option would be to combine data logging into other devices like thermostats or possibly CO and smoke detectors.
Lascars WiFi Sensors
There are many good quality WiFi data loggers on the market one of which being Lascars EL-WiFi-TH.
For widespread use in social housing for the asset management side of environmental sensoring, Lascar would need to consider connectivity to bolster the WiFi functionality such as the Intergas, Switchee or LPWAN route. WiFi units are fine for situations like sheltered courts where the landlord might have their own stable WiFi connection but they struggle when it comes to general needs properties.
I have had a hands on with Lascars EL-WiFi-TH which is their WiFi-enabled temperature, humidity and dew point data logger. It comes with associated computer software and iOS /Android app to analyse the data. The software does take a little bit to wrap your head around and can feel a bit cumbersome at first.
The device does feel solid as expected from the Lascar brand and the mount on this device is one of the most robust from their range. This is in keeping with the ethos that the logger is intended to remain in place for a long period of time.
After completing a logging session, the data is very easy to analyse and reports are easy to create.
The iOS app is also more than competent in both its aesthetics and functionality. It’s hard to really test the software with only one device connected but from what I saw it was very easy to navigate and check in on the data. You can zoom into the graph to further analyse the data although you can’t export this data from the phone from what I could see.
The device can be battery operated or mains powered when used in conjunction with the USB mains power adapter which you can purchase separately. The readings are essentially unlimited as they will continue to upload to the cloud. There is no charge to connect one device to the cloud software however the more devices you need to connect there will be an increasing monthly subscription charge associated with this.
Are WiFi loggers Here to Stay?
WiFi loggers do still have their place… for now. Technology is however catching up fast and new solutions might just push their way on to the market leaving better options available for the social housing sector. Both iOpt assets and Switchee have changed their devices from ‘WiFi only’ to exploring different methods of connectivity. AirEx has so much interesting potential but falls flat by its reliance on WiFi.
Solutions like the Switchee smart thermostat who have tailored their business model around the social housing sector which will always look like a more attractive proposition to most social landlords than standard WiFi loggers.
Environmental sensors are one of the most exciting areas of technological advancement to come to the building maintenance realm so I will be keeping my eye out for any news and developments on this front.