A pilot project by Octavia Housing is helping landlords re-think how they deliver heat and tackle fuel poverty in thousands of social housing properties across the UK supplied by low carbon district heating systems, by allowing them to monitor system performance and energy use in real-time.
The London-based housing association, which owns and manages 4,000 homes, has teamed up with green energy specialist Guru Systems for the project, which will use the company’s pioneering smart metering system to monitor how efficiently the district heating system is working at the flagship Elizabeth House development in the heart of Wembley.
The Guru system allows landlords to check that their district heating networks are operating efficiently and that they are charging the right tariff to customers, which reduces their financial risk.
In most cases landlords will set tariffs based on the expected performance of the system – not on real world data that shows how well the network is actually working. This means that if initial assumptions are inaccurate, or there is a sudden dip in efficiency through a fault in the network, the landlord could lose money every time a tenant turns on the heating.
The Guru system uses wireless technology to monitor key information on how the network is performing – from the central plant right through to each individual’s home – meaning landlords can quickly identify any issues in the network long before costs mount up.
By delivering real-time information on energy usage and payments, the Guru system also allows registered providers to identify and focus resources on vulnerable residents who are in fuel poverty and in immediate need of support.
Other monitoring systems can take weeks or even months to feedback data on energy usage – meaning that tenants can be left suffering in silence for long periods before housing or finance teams are able to step and provide support.
Eamon Somers, Consultant Development Manager from Octavia, said: “District heating has a significant role to play in the future of social housing and we are delighted to be part of this pilot, which is set to help us provide better services to our tenants, while ensuring that we are operating effectively as a business.
“Many of our tenants are at risk from fuel poverty, and we dedicate a lot of resources to support them. Having real-time information on how our tenants use their heating systems is very valuable. It will mean we can support those most at risk and target support to help more quickly.
“Energy and heating has also become an invisible cost for landlords as they take on the role of heat suppliers.
“The Guru System is helping us to understand how we can make our district heating systems more efficient and become a better supplier of energy to our tenants.”
District heating networks heat neighbourhoods or residential blocks from a central plant, often using low carbon technologies such as biomass or combined heat and power systems, rather than installing a boiler in every home.
The UK has seen a sharp rise in these networks in recent years. The schemes were initially rolled out in the 1960s and 70s during the build of high-rise flats, however rising gas prices and the search for more sustainable energy sources over the past decade have seen the networks become increasingly popular.
A report by the Department of Energy and Climate Change shows that there are now around 2,000 networks serving approximately 210,000 dwellings and 1700 commercial and public buildings across the UK.
The potential for low carbon energy has been especially attractive to social housing providers who use networks as the most cost effective means of complying with low carbon regulations.
This has seen registered providers take on the role of heat provider to customers on the network.
Guru Systems’ managing director Casey Cole, explained: “Landlords increasingly rely on district heating as a means of providing low cost, low carbon heat to tenants.
“The networks are designed to be very efficient and tariffs are often set conservatively low by registered providers who are fearful of inadvertently making a profit. This is good for the tenants, but leaves very little margin for error within the network.
“Because landlords have been unable to accurately measure how efficient these systems are once they become operational, they often don’t realise that there is a problem until it is too late.
“If the heating networks are not accurately measured and there are inefficiencies, every time someone turns on their heating the landlord could be losing money. We have seen cases where landlords end up covering massive costs, simply because they don’t have the data they need to identify faults on the network. In one recent case, a landlord lost £65,000 in the first year on a 100 home scheme.”
“It’s a big financial risk for the landlord, and Guru helps eliminate that risk.”
At the Elizabeth House scheme, each of the 115 flats in the tower block is fitted with a Guru ‘Hub’, which in turn is connected to the heat meter in the dwelling, and measures usage in individual homes.
The Hub’s colour touch screen provides real-time consumption information to the tenant – allowing them to take control of their energy consumption, giving up-to-the-minute information on usage, cost and carbon emissions.
The Hub also works as a pre-pay device and smart meter, meaning that tenants will no longer have to use cards that are topped up at local shops.
Instead they can top-up via phone, internet, SMS or direct debit.
Every Hub in the building is connected via a wireless ‘mesh’ network to measure heating usage across the block as well as performance of central plant.
This information is then sent via the internet to the landlord’s metering and billing provider, Insite Energy, who gets a real-time view of system efficiency.
This information can also be used to help identify residents who are in need of support.
Charmaine Francis, resident liaison officer at Octavia, said the technology has helped Octavia to think about how improved support can be given to those experiencing fuel poverty.
“Since using the Guru system at Elizabeth house, we can see very clearly who is using their heating well and who is struggling. We can then offer advice or signpost tenants to other agencies for support.
“Being able to access up to the minute information has proved really useful. Having the information once a week, or even longer than that, means that by the time you identify an issue it could be too late and a family could have been living without heating for a significant amount of time.”