IoT Smart Technology to Better Manage Housing Stock

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interrelated devices with the ability to transfer data over a network. This technology has been implemented successfully over a variety of industries and has in recent times been making more headway in the housing sector. The applications for this technology are varied with IoT sensor technologies being utilised in areas such as:

  • Asset management
  • Healthcare
  • Energy Management
  • Traffic Management
  • Logistics and Transportation
  • Smart Building Management

Since the advent of smart devices, the market and appetite for this tech has rapidly grown with products pertaining to the concept of the “smart home”.  The general public are becoming more comfortable with the idea of smart products from smart heating controls and radiator valves right through to smart lighting and security systems. There are also smart devices that are tailored towards landlords to help them in managing their building stock.

The focus of this blog will be on technologies that landlords can utilise to better manage their building stock, in particular environmental sensors.

Environmental Sensors

Some local authorities and housing associations have trialled the use of environmental sensors to monitor the internal environmental conditions of their properties. Environmental sensors are now widely available as independent devices or sensors which are combined other things like the Switchee smart thermostat or the AIREX airbrick.

The design spec for independent devices for use in social housing is usually that they must be small, discrete and unobtrusive with no pilot lights or active light and no greater surface than a standard wall light switch. Sensors should be provided with suitable fixings to be securely fixed to walls/ceilings, will be battery powered and tamper-proof.

This brings on the question of which conditions are worth monitoring. Temperature, humidity and Co2 levels seem to be very popular and can provide very useful data about the buildings. Other things like window and door sensors to tell if high rise communal doors or windows are being left wedged open could assist in security and energy efficiency of blocks.

Sensors can check for the electricity status within a property or monitor the fire and carbon dioxide alarms, this information can be sent in real time to a nominated carer for example who could respond to assist vulnerable tenants and thus helping them live independently for longer. In a Safehouse Technology Ltd case study it was found that there were reports of a repeating pattern of power outages in one home flagged up that the resident had developed (un-diagnosed) early stage dementia.

Light, noise and air pressure are also conditions that can be monitored which could for example highlight break-ins to commercial stock through movement and light sensing.

Environmental sensors have the potential to proactively predict and monitor problems associated with damp before they arise, wood rot and severe mould growth being prime examples. They could allow for reduced numbers of property visits and better equip front line staff to highlight vulnerable tenants who may be struggling with fuel poverty. The sensors generally feed into software which will provide reports and analysis of any environmental data collected including recommendations on a per property basis. This is usually done on an easy to understand traffic light style of report.

Local Authority Trials

The Highland Council awarded a three-year contract to Dundee-based IoT Scotland partner M2M Cloud to roll out their Neptune water-monitoring sensor technology to over one hundred buildings across their estate.  The sensors will be used to remotely gather data from the council’s water systems, providing an effective way to monitor and control legionella risk. Water systems with the right environmental conditions, such as temperatures between 20 – 45, can potentially develop harmful bacteria, such as legionella.  To negate this risk, sensors are attached to the surface of water pipes to record temperature readings every 10 seconds.

Renfrewshire council have recently tendered a £1.3 million contract for environmental sensors which they believe will assist them in preventing issues associated with damp. Their in-house team will arrange separately for installation of sensors within the domestic properties due to access issues. The data will be sent back using the councils own LoRaWAN network.

Connectivity

Connectivity of the various smart devices has been an evolving matter with WiFi and phone networks playing a dominant role. However, Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) radio communication technologies are on the rise and are being established. LPWAN overcomes some of the issues that landlords have faced with WiFi connectivity in tenants’ homes or the expense and signal issues of using phone networks.

LPWAN is a wireless telecommunication wide area network that allows effective long-range communications at a low bit rate between sensors and application servers, using very little power. It provides long-range communication up to 10–40 km in rural zones and 1–5 km in urban zones. it is also highly energy efficient (i.e. 10+ years of battery lifetime) and inexpensive compared to other connectivity types.

LoRa, Sigfox, and NB-IoT are the three leading LPWAN technologies, It seems in Scotland Lora is the primary tech. The differences between these different LPWAN technologies is beyond the scope of this blog but you can read up on it in the research paper which I will list at the end of this blog.

Some local authorities are leading the way on LPWAN technology and it may be the case that smaller associations could piggy back on to these networks to connect smart devices in the future. This could offset some costs for local authorities whilst being a cost saving to housing associations.

I have discussed connectivity of some of these smart devices in my earlier blog and some of the issues that arise around connectivity are as follows:

  • signal issues with cellular networks
  • excessive device energy use needed when using cellular
  • high price of using cellular network
  • issues around reliance on tenants WiFi
  • low-power wide-area networks not fully established

To give some examples of IoT coverage, Boston Networks claims that, over 30% of businesses, six local authorities and almost 1.4 million people will have access to affordable and reliable IoT connectivity across Scotland with a near 100% coverage in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Safehouse Technology Ltd deployed a low cost LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) across the Liverpool City Region, giving around 80% coverage in the highest density areas.

So with this in mind, it may not be too long before the whole of the UK is able to utilise the IoT technologies.

Conclusion

Every housing association and local authority will need to make up their own mind as to whether these smart technologies will work for them. There is certainly the potential to provide a host of advantages to those managing the maintenance and repair of high-rise blocks with the provision of real time information which can increase the safety and living standards for the tenants who reside with these blocks.

From tackling fuel poverty to the better maintenance of buildings the benefits are clear and new advantages are popping up all of the time.

Further reading

Research paper: A comparative study of LPWAN technologies for large-scale IoT deployment

Websites: IoTScotland, Safehouse Technology Ltd, Boston Networks, iOpt Limited, switchee, AIREX, Lascar

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