Sustainability has been a growing concern for many housing providers over the last few years. The Net Zero targets being set both by governments and organisations themselves are bringing into focus the dilemma that retrofitting housing creates. On the one hand, organisations have aggressive targets to hit, and on the other, they have budgets that are unlikely to be able to accommodate wide-scale full house retrofit projects.
Whilst technology is not the entire solution to the problem of energy efficiency in housing, it can certainly help. Some of these technologies are new to the market, and some have simply gained popularity because of the pressing need to improve the energy efficiency of properties without compromising on the comfort of the resident. The issue of resident affordability from a resident perspective is ever more important – where the average wage is not keeping pace with the increasing price of energy. With the UK teetering on the verge of a fuel poverty crisis – any sustainability measures implemented should always be considered in the context of the effect they will have on the health and wellbeing of the dwelling’s residents.
Technology #1 – Ground Source Heat Pumps
This particular technology is not new. It has existed for many years with its first application in the United States in 1945, with Europe following in the 1960s. It is, however, gaining some serious ground due to its huge sustainability implications. A ground source heat pump works by absorbing heat from the ground and transferring it to a building. For an average house, approximately 100 meters of pipework is installed in the ground surrounding the house in loops. Once buried, the pipes are covered over becoming invisible and causing no other issue for the residents. Water with antifreeze is then pumped through these pipes absorbing the heat from the ground. This liquid is then pumped into a compressor where the heat is transferred to the water inside the homes central heating system. This system is hugely sustainable, as it is a closed-loop requiring minimal maintenance. It isn’t completely carbon neutral – it does still generate some carbon emissions from the energy required to run the pump. Though this is significantly less than traditional heating systems and with the added benefit of no on-site emissions. Add in a local green energy supplier, however, and the system is a true net-zero technology. Ground source heat pumps are being deployed across the country by a variety of different social housing providers including Anchor Hanover, Flagship and Trent and Dove Housing. It is even being used in the Energy Superhub Oxford .
Technology #2 – Heat Recovery Ventilation (MVHR)
A heat recovery ventilation system works very similarly to a standard centralised ventilation system, except that the heat that is traditionally lost is transferred and pumped back into the property. A heat recovery ventilation system works by extracting warm and damp air from a home, drawing in air from outside and then passing both of these airflows through a heat exchanger. This takes up to 90% of the heat from the outgoing humid air and transfers it to the new, lower-humidity air coming from outside. This essentially prewarms the air entering the property. The heat exchanger units are usually located in the attic of properties with concealed ducting leading to vulnerable areas of a property. Air filtration is also commonly built into these systems reducing the wellbeing penalties for those with allergies and pollen sensitivities. These systems have been around for a while now – but are again gaining prominence due to the huge concern surrounding rising fuel poverty. The energy cost of running a heat recovery ventilation system is significantly less than the required energy to reheat a property to the appropriate temperature – benefitting the resident through reduced relative humidity without the energy cost.
Technology #3 – Smart Heating and automatic load shifting
Smart thermostats are another huge area of expansion for sustainability teams looking to improve the energy efficiency of their portfolios. Smart thermostats work by observing and learning a resident’s daily patterns and optimising the heating around them. In practice, this means turning the heating up and down at certain times of the day to improve the comfort levels of residents without wasting heating during periods where residents are not affected. This means that the heating is on at a comfortable level when they wake up but goes off when they go to work or go to sleep. This technology is possible because of the rise of low-power connectivity chips that allow internet of things devices to communicate without the traditionally high energy costs . Smart thermostats benefit sustainability goals because they optimise heating systems and improve energy efficiency for a relatively low capital cost.
They can also be utilised with another increasingly residential concept – energy load shifting. The basics of load shifting are that energy companies publish the rates for energy for the following day. Utilising a smart heating system, residents can benefit from utilising the bulk of their heating energy during off-peak hours. This has two big benefits – the first is that it reduces peak energy load on the national grid (improving the viability of generating electricity through renewable systems like solar) as well as saving residents money and reducing the risk of fuel poverty. Utilising a system like this allows a far greater proportion of a housing providers portfolio to be covered than more expensive sustainability options as they benefit from economies of scale.
Technologies are developing to ensure housing providers have options for improving energy efficiency and sustainability
These and a host of others are helping to ensure housing providers are given the tools they need to reach aggressive decarbonisation targets – without impacting their resident’s wellbeing or comfort level. After all, the most important thing for an affordable housing provider is to provide their residents with a home they feel comfortable and safe in.
 Alastair Thorpe is the Commercial Director at Switchee. Switchee makes maintaining your properties simple and straight forward with remote tools that allow you to check a property’s condition, analyse problems and schedule fixes all in one place.