The benefits of smart devices in social housing

  • From preventing water leaks to detecting intruders, Internet of Things devices could have wide-ranging benefits for social housing
  • But how do the advantages weigh up against both the costs and the potential risks – such as loss of privacy?
  • During a 10-week social housing pilot project, Zurich Municipal explored the pros and cons of a range of smart devices

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term that many people are now familiar with, but the potential benefits it could bring to the housing sector are only beginning to be understood.

IoT refers to internet-enabled “smart” devices that can connect with each other and share data, from wearable fitness gadgets to smart alarms that can remotely alert a householder in the event of a break-in.

In an effort to understand more about the potential benefits of the IoT for our customers, we embarked on a pilot programme in partnership with a housing association customer. We installed a range of smart devices in seven properties and developed dashboards to monitor the data they fed back.

How our social housing IoT pilot unfolded

Allison Whittington, Head of Housing, Zurich Municipal, explains: “Our intention at the outset was primarily to learn more about the use of connected devices, and find out how the IoT might benefit housing customers in terms of reduced premiums.

“We wanted to test our hypothesis that the use of connected devices would result in reduced premiums, and to see if the reduction would be enough to justify the investment in these devices.”

The devices chosen were primarily focused on water leak detection.

“Our reasoning was that, unlike with a fire or flood, there is no alarm to detect a drop of water through a ceiling,” says Allison. “We selected a range of water leak detection devices, and also fitted some damp and humidity detectors that allowed us to monitor the temperature in a property and others which detected, for example, if somebody had opened a window. In one unoccupied property we also installed a motion sensor.”

How IoT can bring maintenance benefits

Issues were identified in five of the seven properties, from a constantly running toilet flush that was wasting water, to a loose fitting on a washing machine that had caused a leak.

An unexpected finding was that, for housing associations, the biggest potential benefit of installing smart devices is likely to be a reduction in maintenance costs.

Allison says: “In another two of the properties in the pilot, our smart devices revealed the humidity was at a level that would create a perfect environment for damp and mould. This can be a source of many housing association repair claims, which are not insurable.

“The housing association involved in our pilot agreed there could be a significant cost saving if damp and mould-related repairs were reduced.”

Our pilot also highlighted how IoT devices can bring about unexpected benefits. For example, in one of the pilot properties, which was empty, motion sensors had been fitted to protect against theft or intrusion.

Allison says: “Renovation work was taking place at this property during the pilot period, and the motion sensor fed back data which showed that the workers were not always at the premises for the expected hours. As soon as they were told there were motion sensors at the property, they started turning up on time.”

Privacy and liability issues involving smart devices

All the tenants involved in our pilot had agreed beforehand that they were happy to take part, and unique identifiers were used to ensure we couldn’t identify any individuals – only the housing association had that information.

However, the privacy implications of installing IoT devices must be carefully considered.

Allison says: “Different devices bring different levels of privacy intrusion, but they can all reveal something about the habits of their users.

“In some of our pilot properties, we were able to see how much water was being used in any 10-minute period, which might reveal that a particular tenant has a shower at 9am every day, for example.

“As the IoT develops, organisations will have to think carefully about whether people are going to be happy to share different types of data, and clearly explain both the potential benefits and the privacy implications.

“There could also be liability implications to consider, for example if data was hacked or leaked, or if a floor sensor fed you data that suggested a vulnerable tenant may have slipped or fallen, and you failed to act quickly enough.”

What’s next for the Internet of Things?

A key finding of our pilot was that IoT devices can offer benefits for insurers, social housing customers and tenants alike – by making properties safer, more comfortable, less expensive to run and less likely to generate claims.

More work still needs to be done to further develop the business case for smart devices. We have already arranged additional pilot projects, and look forward to sharing our findings with you.