In the evolving world of IoT applications, no company has considered more about the needs of people residing in the social housing sector than London-based Switchee. After an intensive two-year development programme, Switchee has rolled out what is widely known as the first smart thermostat for affordable housing, that can save both landlords and residents money.
As a ‘clean tech start-up’, and only two years old, Switchee has raised more than £1.5m in combined seed and grant funding. 2017 is seeing the results of their smart and disruptive technology come to fruition. The organisation was recently awarded the 2017 Impax Ashden Award for Energy Innovation, a major industry award that champions sustainability and the betterment of people’s lives.
It now works with 12 major housing associations along with a number of leading Local Authorities, proactively fighting fuel poverty in 1000’s of homes all over the country and supporting social landlords with asset-critical remote KPIs.
Switchee differs from consumer smart thermostats, such as Hive and Nest, in three key ways: It utilises GSM connectivity and so does not require Wi-Fi; it is designed as ‘Fit and Forget’ – even without resident engagement, Switchee learns occupancy and transmits data to the landlord; and it features a Landlord Dashboard where data is gathered to provide landlords with remote insights into property performance.
Behind Switchee’s technology is a cellular-connected smart controller that features a range of key sensors including temperature, air pressure, humidity and motion. By negating the need for available Wi-Fi connectivity, Switchee has immediately created a compelling technology for the affordable housing sector, where Wi-Fi penetration is notoriously low, as the thermostat is always connected via 2G/3G with no reliance on the homeowner’s wireless network. This immediately makes the thermostat more reliable with a ‘fit and forget’ approach where residents who don’t choose to interact with the technology have zero effect on the thermostat’s function and purpose.
Core to the Switchee thermostat is its ability to deliver heating and environmental monitoring in real-time. For residents, Switchee’s main role is to reduce heating bills. This is achieved through the building-up of a resident’s thermal profile – learning their heating patterns, highlighting and optimising heating systems, and utilising these data sets to encourage the resident to rethink their heating strategies. To date fuel savings are typically up to 15%. But Switchee takes the data learning further. For vulnerable residents, the thermostat can report on potential fuel poverty or overheating through abnormally low or elevated temperature. Humidity readings can help determine risk of mould growth, helping the landlord intervene before the issue becomes problematic. By analysing each of the sensor-reported data, landlords can work with all residents to create a healthier environment, with a reduction of mould, fungal infections and a better approach to cost-effective heating schedules.
Switchee’s ability to remotely report on boiler condition, performance and activity has created a unique tool for landlords to look after their properties, without the need for costly inspections or the challenges sometimes faced in gaining access to a home. Data is reported via Switchee’s intuitive dashboard, and models the real-time condition of each property, enabling landlords to have full visibility of heating performance across all of their housing stock. This data allows landlords to perform planned and reactive maintenance tasks in a proactive way, which can help detect and prevent mould growth, suggest building improvements, and understand the best time to schedule maintenance based on occupancy patterns. For asset managers, this unrivalled provision of data creates a unique insight from which damage and potential void due to a building’s condition can be prevented.
Importance of communication
Communication is critical in Switchee’s operation. Without the reliance of Wi-Fi, adopting the right approach in terms of cellular connectivity has been a key factor in ensuring ‘always connected’ and resilient performance for each Switchee thermostat. During early-stage testing, Switchee’s development team utilised consumer-based Pay as you go (PAYG) SIMs. But for roll-out, a more considered and focused approach was necessary – based upon several criteria including signal strength, secure connectivity, flexibility in network usage and cost. Working closely with Wireless Logic Group – Europe’s leading IoT/M2M Managed Services Provider for multi-bearer connectivity, a solution that met all of Switchee’s objectives was proposed, tested and ultimately commissioned. Instead of selecting one or more national Mobile Network Operators, Wireless Logic’s approach was to utilise a single non-steered roaming SIM, enabling each installed thermostat to switch to the strongest network based upon location. Whilst roaming can suggest high data costs, Switchee’s operational objective has been to reduce data usage on a per SIM basis, with evolving tweaks that are bringing monthly data levels to low Mb per asset. And with the use of SMS AT Commands, this further reduces data used.
To achieve the most cost-effective connectivity, Wireless Logic implemented a programme using the Dutch-based KPN Network, with SIMs now deployed across thousands of homes throughout the UK. Each SIM will select its own network on signal strength, with integral resilience knowing that if a network goes down, the roaming SIM will select the next best connection.
Security of data is ensured via private APN and VPN infrastructure utilising Wireless Logic’s NetPro solution. As an overlay to the mobile network eco-system, NetPro is delivered to Switchee on an OPEX-basis, with minimal expenditure to implement the solution. NetPro critically enables Switchee to monitor usage and performance in real-time, giving a complete window of SIM activity via Wireless Logic’s SIMPro control platform. The tailored tariffs have been designed to aggregate usage across the entire SIM estate, giving Switchee a balanced and precise solution without ‘bill shock’. SIMPro alerts on any ‘rogue’ SIMs that reach agreed thresholds, from which actions can be made to immediately address unusual usage patterns. With Switchee’s improved data performance via firmware upgrades, Wireless Logic can set new lower and revised tariffs for each new deployment.
Safe and resilient connectivity
For Wireless Logic, Business Development Manager Justin Godfrey-Cass comments: “Supporting a new, disruptive and innovative IoT application like Switchee is great for us on many levels. We are able to demonstrate how flexibility is key in developing connected solutions that evolve as the technology evolves. Core to the Switchee offering is to reduce fixed costs. Whilst deployments are increasing day on day, we are working closely with the Switchee tech teams to constantly review usage and drive down Total Cost of Ownership. In an economic climate where every penny literally counts, we are delighted to support Switchee in its goal to reduce consumer heating bills, whilst looking after a growing pool of property assets on behalf of their social landlords. As our own connectivity platforms and solutions develop, we will ensure that Switchee’s communication needs remain on budget, secure and fit for purpose.”
The successful deployment and ongoing performance of the Switchee is totally dependent upon our ability to communicate securely, with resilience and in a cost-effective way. The connectivity journey with counsel from Wireless Logic has taken us on a big learning curve to achieve the best solution. The roaming solution gives us the optimal provisioning strategy with a ‘one SIM fits all’ that reduces our commissioning time and provides stability in our connectivity. We are pleased with the end-to-end solution that Wireless Logic have developed – Integrating secure infrastructure as part of the total package together with a competitive roaming solution enables us to focus on other key areas of our service delivery, firm in the knowledge that safe and resilient connectivity is in place, regardless of location. As our growth gathers pace, we look forward to developing further solutions with the Wireless Logic team.