Fuel poverty – being unable to afford to properly heat your home – is one of the plagues of our time. With one in every ten households in the UK affected, combatting fuel poverty is, says Ian Napier, Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder of Switchee, “core to our mission.” In essence what Switchee does is to reduce energy bills for social housing residents, while also providing large social landlords with insights into the homes they manage, so that they can make better maintenance and investment decisions. Napier says that “we provide welfare and asset management alerts so that social landlords can better look after their buildings and the communities they house. So housing associations and social landlords find us incredibly useful.”
There are roughly 25 million homes in the UK, five million of which are social housing. Those social homes are split between councils and housing associations, on an approximately 40/60 per cent ownership basis. Since the 1970s there’s been a continuing transfer of stock from councils to housing associations. Switchee’s housing association customers typically own between 10,000 and 100,000 homes.
Developing new homes, managing thousands of others of varying age, while supporting residents, is a complex and costly business. And it has become more challenging: in 2015 the government reduced the amount of rent English social landlords can charge – it will decrease by 1% a year until 2020 – while maintaining their obligation to meet housing and social value standards. Landlords need to invest but they also need to manage costs. They often need to do this with little or no knowledge of the conditions in the homes they own: they control billions of pounds worth of assets, but have little or no idea about what is going on inside them. Enter Switchee.
Switchee’s product is a business-to-business ‘smart’ thermostat, specifically designed for social landlords. Fundamentally it is designed to help landlords do two things – fight fuel poverty, and remotely understand welfare and building KPI’s (key performance indicators) such as mould, fuel poverty, poor heating system risk and so on. Crucially, Switchee works to the benefit of both landlord and occupier.
Napier explains: “Social landlords have a duty of care concerning the people who live in their properties. They have an obligation – both legal and moral – to make sure the homes people live in are decent. To keep properties functioning at their optimum they need on occasion to make big investment decisions. Sometimes they make these decisions without the necessary information.”
Switchee shines a light into this darkness. It gives housing management teams, sustainability officers, even developers, the information they need to make better repair and investment decisions. Ultimately this also creates better outcomes for occupiers. Switchee’s thermostat enables landlords to become pro-active when it comes to carrying out repairs and to just do a better job at managing their housing stock.
“Each thermostat has sensors built into it which monitor temperature, light, motion, humidity, air pressure. Job number one of that information is to create an occupancy profile for that property. Our idea,” says Napier, “is that once installed our device will have learned after three weeks when you are going to be at home. Switchee regulates the heating. We automatically create a heating programme based on the occupancy profile of the property, optimising the amount of gas or electricity used to heat the home. This effectively shaves up to 15% off your energy costs. It’s really that simple.”
Switchee’s uniqueness is that it does not depend on WiFi. WiFi penetration in social housing tends to be low, as low as 10% in some areas. Instead Switchee uses the mobile phone network, as well as WiFI. “We can be connected in any property so long as there’s a mobile phone signal” says Napier. That’s a critical advantage for Switchee over its competitors.
Another, more subtle advantage of Switchee, is that, unlike its competitors, its thermostat does not require any interaction by the residents for it to work. Some people find getting involved with a technological device interesting; others don’t. “It’s very important,” says Napier, “to have a product that can be passive. Switchee automatically regulates heating settings without an interaction from the resident. Of course residents can if they wish control their own heating – but the key thing is that it works effectively without them doing anything, if they choose not to. Our device has a very easy-to-use control for residents if they want to use it.”
Switchee also brings a new layer of insight to social landlords. By analysing the sensory information used to predict occupancy and optimised heating settings, Switchee provides alerts and KPI’s. Mould, for example, is a huge problem for many landlords. Switchee’s humidity and temperature sensors can alert landlords as to which properties are at risk of experiencing too much condensation and therefore at risk of mould growth. By acting on Switchee information, landlords can be pro-active about repairs – getting in early to fix a problem saves landlords money and ultimately creates a better outcome for residents. There a number of applications of Switchee insight, such remotely testing heating systems before the winter to make sure they are working; the team “is working with housing associations to develop solutions to benefit landlords and residents” Napier explains.
Switchee is coming to the end of its commercial pilot stage, with a few hundred units in the field over the past winter. Napier says that “residents love it, it’s very simple and easy to use and we are saving them money. For landlords, we don’t rely on engagement; we don’t rely on WiFi; and the third element – the remote alerts and insights – is where we see the real value for them. We show them fuel poverty indicators, mould alerts, it shows them how their housing stock is performing in terms of how fast it’s heating and cooling. We give them insights which enhance their ability to both manage homes and support residents.”
Switchee’s reasons for joining the Social Stock Exchange are, according to Napier, because it’s “a natural place for us to go. We are very interested in having conversations around the theme of social housing and where it’s headed, specifically on how the introduction of technology can help with the development of improved social housing.”
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