Switchee – 2017 Impax Ashden Award Winners for Energy Innovation
Effective use of domestic heating controls can minimise energy use, saving money and CO2, and smart thermostats make it easier for households to optimise their heating. However, they are often not suitable for social housing, as they usually require wifi to work effectively, and not all tenants have this.
Switchee has developed a smart thermostat which works without wifi or mobile phone apps, and automatically adjusts a household’s heating with minimal interaction from residents. Energy use can be cut by up to 15%, and data fed back to housing associations and local authorities helps them to monitor the state of their housing stock and deliver better outcomes for their tenants.
“Switchee provides social housing providers with an innovative tool to monitor and maintain their housing stock, whilst ensuring the comfort of their tenants and reduced energy bills. This is sophisticated integration of the very latest technology, all wrapped up in one simple package – a smart thermostat”, Ashden Awards judging panel.
Social landlords have a responsibility to maintain their housing stock, to reduce CO2 emissions and to help tenants that are struggling to afford to heat their homes to a comfortable temperature. To enable them to do this, they need data to show them which homes need structural improvements, which are not being heated sufficiently and which are at risk of mould forming – but gathering this data through home visits is prohibitively expensive.
Meanwhile, some tenants are in fuel poverty, and would benefit from improvements to their home heating controls, but mainstream smart thermostats are unsuitable as they require wifi to be present, and 4.1 million adults in UK social housing are not online
Switchee’s smart thermostat is specifically designed to work in social housing, and to tackle the fuel poverty that is more common there, and is currently being used by 12 housing associations and three local authorities. By saving households money through reducing their energy use for heating, and by saving social landlords money through providing accurate and detailed insights into their housing stock, Switchee creates a win-win scenario.
Households are already reporting noticeable bill savings, and landlords are investigating a range of options for improving their service to tenants – made possible by the data Switchee is supplying them. One housing association is using Switchee thermostats to monitor the quality of external wall insulation installations by verifying that they perform as expected compared to uninsulated homes, while Switchee’s largest installation with Peabody in Thamesmead is making using of the device’s ability to provide remote alerts about the risk of mould and condensation.
“Last winter’s bill was £600, this winter has only been £350 so far, so Switchee has saved me a lot of money that I can spend on my children”, Miss Truman, Switchee user
How the Switchee smart thermostat works
The Switchee smart thermostat includes a range of sensors to help it understand occupancy and thermal performance. It senses the presence of people through a light sensor (to detect lights being switched on and off), an air pressure sensor (to detect doors opening and closing) and a motion sensor, and also monitors temperature, humidity and whether the boiler is on or off.
The times at which people are present, combined with the target temperatures set by them, are used by the thermostat to learn when the heating should be on, and what temperature it should be targeting. If a person comes into the home unexpectedly, the thermostat will respond by turning the heating on if the temperature is too low, and it also adjusts its operation based on local weather data. The weather data is received over the mobile phone network, which avoids the need for a wifi connection, and also enables remote software updates and other necessary communication.
The process of the thermostat learning when to turn the heating on takes about three weeks, and the household does not need to use the thermostat at all if they don’t want to, although if the residents adjust the temperature the thermostat will take account of this in developing its heating timetable. Users interact with the thermostat using an easy-to-read touchscreen, which can display messages and changes colour to indicate if the current temperature could be too cold or too hot from a health point of view. By adjusting to occupancy patterns and local weather, the Switchee smart thermostat can reduce the amount of time the home is heated, thus saving energy, cutting CO2 emissions and reducing household bills.
How the social landlord beneifts
Switchee aggregates data from its thermostats and presents it to housing associations and local councils through a secure web-based dashboard, which shows at a glance what the state of their housing stock is according to a range of measures. Mould risk, calculated from indoor temperatures and humidity levels, is a key measure for social landlords, as if mould develops then costs will be incurred for cleaning and repair, so identifying properties at risk of mould forming is very useful.
Fuel poverty risk is also particularly important, as social landlords are committed to looking after their tenants – it is indicated by indoor temperatures regularly being below 18C when a home is occupied. The effectiveness of a home’s heating system can also be estimated, by measuring the time it takes to warm up when the boiler is switched on, allowing social landlords to identify homes where maintenance may be needed.
This can be taken a step further, by instructing the thermostat to ask the household for permission to perform a heating test in early autumn. By testing before the weather is cold, faulty heating systems can be identified and fixed before they are needed. Permission is sought from the household by displaying a message on the thermostat’s screen – this feature can also be used to send other information to tenants, for example to book times for maintenance visits.
Finally, the thermostat also measures the time taken for a home to cool down when the heating is switched off – homes that cool down more quickly are likely to have poor insulation, increasing the risk of both fuel poverty and mould formation. These alerts can help landlords better target retrofit budgets and upgrade homes that really need better insulation. All of the benefits to landlords are ultimately designed to help them deliver better outcomes for residents.
Switchee has significant scope for growth in the UK, where its existing customers manage more than 300,000 homes, and a total of five million homes are managed by housing associations and local councils. Beyond that, there is further potential for growth in other European countries with similar social housing markets, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands.
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