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  • Zach Cook

Is there a right type of smart thermostat and what does that mean for your housing association?

Choosing a thermostat for your social housing association is not a decision to be taken lightly, and not something that would prove itself without a few trials, insights and a fair bit of analytical scrutiny.

The question then is, is there a right one that ticks all the boxes and does it have to be a smart one?

In short, yes. And several social housing associations are already in conversations with us to find out more. The right smart thermostat would be the perfect blend of automation, ease of use and cost-effectivity. This would mean greater energy efficiency for your tenants at lower costs. With smarter control on all relevant aspects for landlords or managers of the social housing associations, ready to roll out at scale.

Is this possible? Yes, we can affirm that. But, we might be getting ahead of ourselves here if the challenges within existing models of thermostats are not explained. And why these thermostat models might not be really up to the task when managing energy efficiency and costs for your social housing association.

The real concern of fuel poverty

Fuel poverty is beyond just energy inefficiency. It’s about how it affects your tenants’ living conditions in your social housing associations. And more importantly, how it impacts their finances. In April 2020, the Dept. of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Annual Fuel Poverty report revealed that although, there is a decrease in proportion of fuel poor households since 2017, we are still way off mark to hit the target that all households should be band C or above by 2030. We have no doubt that you keep abreast on all the latest R & D in the boiler world. You might even have started the transition from dumb thermostats to smart ones for your social housing association. Or might be on the cusp of deciding which model might be right for you.

The problem with existing market-ready thermostats

But as it stands, there are no smart thermostats that are compatible with all boilers. Different manufacturers require different smart thermostats. Let’s face it, managing large estates of disparate boiler stock is a headache in itself, let alone adding complexity of different smart thermostats for different boilers. With costs and continuity on top of every landlord’s head, ‘Call For Heat’ option on thermostats has been a popular choice in most social housing associations. But the issue isn't installing them per say. Although, this means carrying additional stock and getting the engineers familiar with multiple devices. The challenges also lie in training the tenants and the helpdesk on multiple devices.

The cold hard truth is that ultimately it costs the tenants considerably more in energy and reduces the life of the boiler.  A simple analogy is while travelling from A to B whose car is most efficient and will last the longest? The persons that stays a steady 30 MPH or the person that accelerates to 60 MPH then brakes, accelerates to 60 MPH again then brakes, and so on. We all know the answer. Well, that is what the Call For Heat thermostat is doing to your boiler stock. The initial saving outweighs the overall life cycle of the boiler.

But what about Boiler Plus compliance?

The challenge becomes increasingly difficult when you consider that the Call For Heat thermostat probably means the boiler isn't Boiler plus compliant. The new standards as outlined by Dept. of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy in 2018 requires all domestic boiler installations to be Boiler Plus compliant. The objective of Boiler Plus is to get all boilers to greater than 92% efficient. The guidelines set out required all boilers to have time and temperature controls AND at least one of the following:

1) Weather compensation

2) Load compensation (boiler modulation)

3) Flue Gas heat recovery

4) Smart controls.

Weather compensation is where the boiler can adjust the temperature of the central heating set point according to the outside temperature. This can be done by external sensors or having a connected device that can control the boiler. Load compensations is where the boiler gas valve is modulated to adjust the flow temperature to meet and not exceed the required temperature. A Call For Heat thermostat will not be capable of modulating a gas valve, any pseudo modulation will be turning the boiler on and off, but this will reduce the life of the boiler. Flue Gas Recovery system is a device built into modern boilers where the exhaust gases are used to pre-heat domestic hot water. Smart controls are smart thermostats that connect to the bus of the boiler and introduce modulation as well as the timed heating control. Most are bus dependant. Bus dependant would mean multiple versions of costly smart thermostats that the team will need to understand, learn and train on, which as reiterated earlier is not an smart solution.

The business case for a new smart thermostat

The right kind of thermostat would not just be a data generating device. Rather, it would be about leveraging that information for improving boiler efficiency. And this is where IoT (Internet of things) has effectively perfected the art of seamless compatibility across boilers, predictive repairs with a clear cost saving on maintenance bills and a far superior service to tenants. Not to oversimply things, but we find it worth to re-state the definition from our M.D, Bernard Cook’s previous article published in Housing Technology magazine, ‘Housing Technology: What can IoT do for me’? that, ‘IoT refers to a network of connected, internet enabled devices that facilitate the collection of data for subsequent analysis and sharing’. A smart thermostat built to connect home ecosystems in the UK social housing market is not a utopian idea. It is possible to design a future energy efficiency improvement system based on a real understanding of the thermal characteristic of housing stock. Just to let you in on what’s brewing in our cauldron at Vericon, our engineers have done our research. And we have only found one device that ticks all of the boxes and is market-ready to roll out at scale. But that is separate conversation for a different day, but one that can happen quite soon if you are ready.

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