With a combination of Internet of Things (IoT) devices long-range wireless networks, the Mid-Wales Housing Association is reducing costs and delivering a better service for tenants

Coined back in 1999, the term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) was initially linked to the use of RFID technology, but it is now proving its worth across a wide range of disciplines. We’ve already looked at the versatility of IoT in several use-cases across Wales, including farming, pollution monitoring, city infrastructure and railway safety. Now, the technology is being applied to social housing.

An innovative IoT project is being pioneered by the Mid-Wales Housing Association, which operates from an office in Newtown, Powys. The association provides affordable rental accommodation for families, single people, the elderly, as well as those who need occasional or full-time care. But with around 1,800 properties across Powys and Ceredigion, keeping track of issues with appliances and caring for tenants is both time- and manpower-intensive.

“The old way of doing things is reactive,” explains Ernie Capener, Community Housing Team Leader at the Mid-Wales Housing Association. “When a problem pops up, someone gets sent out to solve it. That’s how it works in the majority of housing associations and councils across the country.”

IoT helps to paint a picture of activity

“You can obviously do a little bit of guesswork to identify where problems might be in advance,” says Capener, “trying to head off anti-social behaviour and protecting the elderly by sending round wardens. But we have a large number of properties, and a small number of people to deal with them. We also have a huge area to cover - we go down as far as Cardigan and up as far as Shrewsbury. So, if someone rings me up today and says there’s a problem in Cardigan, that’s a two-hour drive for me.”

So, Capener and his team have turned to technology to help ease their problems. “Myself and Dean Marsh from our IT department did a vulnerable person's setup for my colleague’s nan – just a test, a low-cost way of having sensors around the property to see if she goes to the toilet, detects whether she has taken her meds, that sort of thing. We use this sensor technology to paint a picture of what’s happening in the property and to that person.”

The Mid-Wales Housing Association project works on a somewhat larger scale, where a single, low-cost hub device can support thousands of battery-powered ‘things’ over a large distance. These ‘things’ can be anything – door/window sensors, audio sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, even devices that measure the flow of water or electrical current. The sensors gather data and use Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) technology to ping that data to The Things Network - a global open network dedicated to supporting IoT solutions.

A wireless network that’s 12 miles wide

LoRaWAN technology is ideally suited to a project like this. Unlike Wi-Fi, which can transmit large amounts of data over a high-speed, short range wireless network, LoRaWAN can only send small amounts of data at a slow speed, but over a wireless network with a considerably longer range. “Here in Newtown,” says Capener, “we’ve got one gateway that can support up to 65,000 sensors and serves a 12-mile radius.” 

With another gateway in Welshpool, the Mid-Wales Housing Association has been able to deploy sensors in a selection of homes to track temperature and humidity. The idea, says Capener, is to use low-cost, battery-powered sensors to remotely monitor key equipment or parts automatically. “You don’t need to send a person to check on things,” he adds. “The hardware you’re monitoring will alert you when it’s failing.”

This opens up the potential for a more predictive approach to housing maintenance. “We want to be able to recognise when something has a problem, like a boiler,“ Capener suggests. “A lot of boilers have diagnostics on them. Mitsubishi has diagnostics on its air source heat pumps, for example. But they typically only talk to Wi-Fi networks. So, if you’re in rural areas like ours, and you’ve got no Wi-Fi coverage, then a LoRaWAN solution is ideal.”

Exploring the potential of IoT in Wales

The association’s long term aim is to have sensors on boilers, smoke alarms, plus carbon monoxide and water leak detectors. Not only will these reduce the cost of repairs by preventing problems from escalating, but they will also eliminate the need for regular visits to diagnose potential faults. “Our elderly and vulnerable tenants will also benefit from the peace of mind that their home is being regularly monitored and their smoke alarms are working correctly,” says Capener.

The technology also has serious implications for assisted living, from things like health monitoring and remote telemedicine, to simple quality-of-life improvements, such as voice-operated devices and smart plugs which run off rules set by caregivers.

The Mid-Wales Housing Association is still exploring the potential of IoT technology in social housing, but Ernie Capener is already convinced that it can prove useful for all types of businesses, and right across Wales.

Helping to deliver a better service

Of course, with more access to data, the next challenge is making sense of it. “If you’re going to use sensor data to build a picture – for example to tell you if a boiler is failing or tell you that a vulnerable person needs checking because they haven’t opened their medicine cupboard that day – you need somebody to analyse the data. Or you need to build algorithms to do it automatically.

“We have dashboards that people can look at, but we’re finding that our customer service team is faced with a blizzard of information. What we’re trying to do next is introduce algorithms that analyse the data and simply tell the end user: ‘you need to check this person or this property today’. Or ‘this property is fine today’.”

Integrating IoT technology into homes isn’t a new idea. But this goes well beyond the so-called ‘smart home’. With battery-powered sensors sending data over a LoRaWAN network, remote monitoring can be more widely adopted, leading to significant cost-savings and efficiencies for Mid-Wales Housing Association and increased safety for the people who live in its properties.

“You can tell the tenant that their heating is going wrong before they know,” says Capener. “For example, if the flow of water through the heating system is slowing down, if your pump isn’t performing as efficiently as it usually does... These things are indicators that you’ve got a problem and you can step in before it gets expensive, ultimately delivering a better service for the tenant.”

Discover more about how the Mid-Wales Housing Association uses IoT here.

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