Pioneering research into sensor technology could help identify households at increased risk of mould

A new approach to monitoring conditions inside homes could enable landlords and property managers to make swift interventions in households at risk of mould and fuel poverty.

The University of Exeter’s Smartline project worked with more than 300 social housing residents from Coastline Housing in Cornwall over a six year period. The team installed sensors in homes to collect data on air temperature, relative humidity, and air quality

Mould modelling devised within the project and using sensor data could support national efforts to identify households at increased risk of developing mould.

Mould and damp are a very real challenge for some residents, but also for housing associations, councils, and health professionals. The long-term cost and health impacts for the housing sector, the NHS and most importantly for individuals are high, as highlighted in tragic cases recently reported in the media.

However, identifying homes at risk of mould can be difficult because the causes are often invisible and the effects on health are often only identified retrospectively.

There is a link between low household temperatures, humidity and mould growth. By monitoring data from the sensors and presenting it via a dashboard Smartline researchers were able to work with Coastline Housing in identifying households kept at consistently low temperatures, indicative of fuel poverty and at increased risk of developing mould. In these cases, Coastline were able to make proactive referrals to their income support team to help tenants maximise their income or access emergency support.

The team were also able to identify and repair low-level maintenance issues which customers had not reported. Investigations prompted by one set of unusual sensor readings allowed Coastline to identify that the loft insulation in the home had been removed. Coastline replaced the insulation, making the home cheaper to heat for the customer.

In addition to the sensors, Smartline researchers carried out regular questionnaires. Surveying tenants gave researchers a better understanding of the wellbeing implications of fuel poverty and has led to the development of a holistic approach to supporting tenants’ health and wellbeing. Property managers were able to intervene where heating patterns were irregular and recommend support packages involving teams across the organisation and local partners.

Mark England, Head of Innovation, Sustainability and  Procurement at Coastline Housing, said: “Being able to understand the conditions within homes is really valuable to us – people don’t always reach out when they are struggling, and being able to intervene early on can make a big difference”.

“Reacting to the data provided by these sensors is so important and will be a key part of rolling out this pilot project on a wider scale. By combining the data with human intervention and working with other agencies, we can help prevent problems becoming crises and target support where it’s most needed.”

Across the UK there are various companies developing technologies similar to that used in Smartline which will be offered to landlords. Some landlords are also trialling these new technologies to help improve their services for customers.

Emma Bland, Professor in Practice in Environment, Health and Wellbeing at the University of Exeter, said: “With the cost of living crisis, people are turning down their heating. This has a real impact on quality of life and risks people’s health. So, there’s significant potential to link up sensor data with health data and prioritise the most vulnerable households for support, but organisations will need to be prepared to act on this.

“Some of the households that need our support most are the least technologically savvy, so this is just part of the picture that will enable us to help. If this project is rolled out more widely, we’ll need to think about how we reach those who are hardest to support. The last thing we want to do is introduce technology that inadvertently creates more barriers.”

Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Cornwall Council, Smartline is a collaborative research and innovation project led by the University of Exeter in partnership with Coastline Housing, Cornwall Council, South West Academic Health Science Network (SWAHSN) and Volunteer Cornwall.  The project concluded in March this year.