When housing providers look to tackle issues with their housing stock, often they focus a tonne of effort on the big stuff. Their homes are too cold, so they install additional insulation in all of them. Their homes are getting mouldy - time for a new ventilation system. This approach has worked in the past - but one thing it sure isn’t is cost-effective. Taking a blanket approach to properties can have wide-reaching consequences and not just for the budget. With the amount of data that Switchee has gathered over the years, we’re in the very unique position of being able to analyse micro-trends on a macro scale. So when a client approached us looking to understand a potential fuel poverty risk - digging deep down into the data has shown just how much of a change minor differences can make to fuel poverty outcomes.
Why should we be concerned with Fuel Poverty?
With an estimated 2.53 million UK residents unable to afford basic necessities such as ‘light, power, and heat’, it is no surprise that fuel poverty has become a major concern within the Social Housing sphere. COVID hasn’t helped this situation - with an additional 600,000 people now facing fuel poverty as a consequence of the virus. For vulnerable residents, this inability to adequately heat their home can come with some serious health risks. The NEA found that children living in cold homes were twice as likely to develop conditions such as asthma and bronchitis compared to children living in warm homes, this risk is increased further when damp and mould are also present.
Physical wellbeing is not the only thing that suffers as a result of fuel poverty, mental and emotional wellbeing can be seriously affected too. A study conducted by NATCEN found that 28% of young people living in cold homes manifested multiple mental health risks, as opposed to 4% for those living in warm homes. The evidence overwhelmingly points to good energy service being required for health, with insufficient access to energy services constituting a significant risk. It’s not just the big things that have a direct effect on fuel poverty though. Fuel poverty is not something that can be fixed with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, housing needs to stop looking to address a single issue across its entire stock and focus more on individual residents.
So how does North VS South come into this?
When looking at fuel poverty it’s extremely easy to assume purely economic factors are to blame, but inconsistency in the quality of housing is a major contributor to rising fuel poverty rates. The more extreme examples of this - modern builds vs 1920’s properties might seem to be obvious - but there are far more subtle differences that can have huge impacts. To investigate this we worked with a Sunderland-based housing provider who have a number of Switchee installations in a range of identical tower blocks, with an even divide of north and south-facing apartments. So we conducted an experiment to measure the average heat firing time, internal temperature, and the absolute humidity in the north-facing and south-facing apartments.
Below is what the data revealed to us:
The results were far more dramatic than we expected. Our research showed that south-facing homes required a full thirty-four minutes less heating per day and achieved a suprising 0.56C more heat when compared to their north-facing equivalent. This, of course, is the prevailing wisdom with south-facing homes having more direct access to sunlight. The overall cost of this disparity, however, does raise some definite concerns. Over the course of a year - we found that north-facing homes required approximately 210 hours of extra heating in order to reach the same adequate temperatures. With the most common types of property using a gas heating system then this extra time would cost north-facing apartments an average of £190 extra per year in comparison to their south-facing compatriots. We also discovered that those same north-facing homes had a higher absolute humidity making them far more susceptible to mould and damp which can double down on the negative health impacts the residents might be suffering from fuel poverty.
We talk about the postcode lottery, but perhaps social residents are also victims of the orientation lottery.
How does this data have a real impact?
The UK National Office of Statistics noted that smaller homes tend to rely upon electricity for heating and have less cavity insulation making them particularly vulnerable to high electricity prices. By focussing on updating the insulation in north-facing homes, for example, landlords can help their residents conserve heat, protecting them against low temperatures in the winter months and excess warmth in the summer. Research carried out by GreenMatch found that poorly insulated walls lose around 30-40% of household heat while the roof is responsible for approximately 25% of heat loss.
Data like this isn’t just about identifying trends though - as insulating all north-facing properties puts housing providers right back where they started. Instead, housing needs to begin to look at their portfolio as a series of individual problems that will increase and decrease over time. Different residents will find heating a property more or less difficult - so focusing entirely on overall building standards will not ultimately reduce the rates of fuel poverty. Data, like the kind that Switchee gathers, should be used to make sure every resident is safe and comfortable in their home. In one building that might mean installing additional insulation on north-facing properties and in another that might mean installing a different type of heating system. Each property is different, every resident is unique, and the solution to fuel poverty is to look at them all as such.