The fight to tackling fuel poverty

Dane Ralston from iOpt Ltd looks at how the internet of things (IoT) can potentially help with fuel poverty and tenant well-being

Most people know the definition of fuel poverty. It’s been an issue since the 1970s and has taken centre stage in the last 12 to 18 months with the massive increase in fuel costs.  

What a lot of people don’t know is just how big the impact fuel poverty has on millions of people across the UK – it can have a huge effect physically, mentally and socially. Many lives get completely ruined along with homes and personal items damaged by the knock-on effects such as mould. 

Fuel poverty vs general poverty

Some people argue that fuel poverty is also general poverty, which to a certain extent is true. However, fuel poverty can also have a disproportionate effect on those worse off, especially in poorly insulated homes where tenants can have no impact on a property’s energy efficiency. Often we come across people in social homes paying significantly more than others in bigger private homes. The fact that prepayment metre users get charged more is just a further kick in the teeth. 

Energy prices have increased five times over in the last five years, which nobody could have predicted.

How can we tackle this situation?

Clearly we do not have all the answers but the use of sensors and the internet of things (IoT) can help in significant ways. 

The idea of using IoT networks to help manage and maintain assets has been around for decades – and in a variety of sectors from ATM machines through to aircraft engines and electricity networks. Housing is on the catch up and as a sector, housing probably has the potential to benefit the most from IoT. 

Key to understanding the range of benefits from IoT systems is that value can be delivered at both macro and micro levels. This means we can use technology to help individuals living in homes as well as housing providers, their teams and indeed even their funders and insurers.  

Firstly, how do we even know if a household is in fuel poverty, especially if, as we see regularly, people are not willing to come forward to say they are living in fuel poverty? At the most basic level we can remotely use temperature sensors to show that a home is constantly at a low temperature. An interaction with the tenant can be arranged and an intervention managed such as the provision of a fuel voucher. 

We see this all the time and not just through the winter. Any home sitting at sub 16oC generally is not a pleasant place to be and this can easily happen in a UK summer. It’s not unusual in a UK winter to see sub 6oC in many homes that are monitored. 

At a more in depth level, by installing sensors that track energy consumption, heating system performance and building comfort, homeowners and building managers can get a better understanding of how much energy is being used, when it is being used, what it is being used for and where it is being wasted. This information can then be used to identify ways to reduce energy consumption and save money on energy bills. 

At the next information level up, quite often a property is highly inefficient at retaining heat so the decision may be taken to carry out a retrofit on that property. When you carry out this work, there are several parties who want to know that the work has actually made a difference. Those that pay for it (or even insure it), those that benefit from it, and those that regulate it. By using sensors, we can quantitatively prove investment has been worth it on a specific property – or not.

At the macro level the biggest challenge is to reduce the cost to heat a home in the first place. When you see information such as that recently published by Birmingham City Council – that their current budget for retrofit leaves them with a £3.5bn shortfall to retrofit all their properties – you really understand the scale of the challenge. This is not an area where decisions can be made based on anecdotal evidence. We are led to believe this happens more often than not. IoT systems can give you direct evidence of where to spend your money, what to spend it on, and when.

A perfect example

Four tower blocks that all had the same work carried out – in theory – were monitored. However, the findings showed that one of the four tower blocks was showing a 10% higher humidity than the other three. It turns out the contractor had used a different type of insulation for this block, which may have been cheaper in the short term but in the long term was just storing up mould and damp issues. That cladding type was subsequently taken off the shopping list. The same project also allowed the local authority to evidence that spending an extra 5% of budget on ventilation would save them approximately five times their spend that a year in maintenance costs. 

These are just some very simple examples of how data can be used to tackle issues in a home or in a whole stock. While fuel poverty is clearly a very pressing issue, from a purely commercial point of view it’s very hard to justify the spend on IoT on this alone. However there are so many more use cases that stack up across a whole organisation including maintenance, tenant management, revenue protection through to informing C-suite strategies and reporting. 

We all want to help those in fuel poverty, and the solutions can have huge impacts beyond the initial use case. Sensors installed to identify fuel poverty can be used in a huge number of other ways. Energy efficiency measures installed to help reduce bills can generate jobs and also have a positive impact on climate change. It’s a win-win! 

Dane Ralston is director at iOpt Ltd