Successful trials of 'CharIoT', a unique new system that simultaneously records temperature, humidity and energy use in the home, have opened the way for low-income households to save money while reducing risks to their health.
Researchers from Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton, alongside the University of Nottingham and the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), developed Chariot with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Harnessing Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the system generates easy-to-use data that can help local authorities, housing associations, energy suppliers, health authorities and others to target and tailor the energy advice they give to vulnerable people.
As well as revealing under-heated or over-heated parts of a home, Chariot enables energy advisors to pinpoint where and why damp or mould may pose a problem. They can then suggest, for example, ways of using heaters more efficiently and cost-effectively, blocking draughts and eliminating dampness through better ventilation.
Each Chariot kit includes three small wireless sensors that regularly record the temperature and humidity in the rooms they are placed in, and wireless devices that monitor gas and electricity consumption. Data is forwarded to and stored securely in the ‘cloud’ and later analysed via tablet or computer using a simple-to-use web-based interface.
Chariot has now been trialled in over 20 low-income homes. A user guide helps energy advisors to make the most of the graphs and tables that the system generates and to provide tips geared to individual households’ needs – including measures as simple as fitting thicker curtains or loft insulation, or improving air circulation. Of potential value to all households and not just low-income ones, Chariot is now being promoted to potential user organisations across the UK and the team is exploring ways of adding further functionality.
Cold or damp can exacerbate medical conditions ranging from colds, flu, arthritis and asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), circulatory diseases and mental illness. In total, nearly 1 million people in the UK suffer from COPD, for example, while cardio-vascular disease causes 42,000 premature deaths a year. People in the coldest houses can be most at risk.
Researchers from the University of Southampton’s Agents, Interaction, and Complexity research group in ECS developed the sensor boards, algorithms, and user interfaces that were deployed during the project. The challenge was to ensure the kit was cheap enough to deploy at scale, and that the data visualisation employed was legible to a non-expert.
Dr Enrico Costanza, who led the research while at Southampton, says: “Chariot is the only system of its kind that collects data on temperature, humidity and energy use (and therefore CO2 emissions) all at the same time. It makes it easy for advisors to understand what’s going on energy-wise in a house, to make the householder aware of what the problems are and ultimately to get their buy-in to make the necessary beneficial changes.”
The work in the Chariot Project is now being taken forward as the ‘Chariot Agile’ project in an attempt to further mature the technology. Dr Sarvapali Ramchurn, who now leads the work at the University of Southampton says: “The Chariot kit will be both more affordable and more usable than most solutions out there. We will be putting state-of-the-art analytics engines in the hands of energy advisors so that they can provide the best recommendations to help the fuel poor save money and live more comfortably.”
Dr Nick Banks of the CSE says: “It’s not just a question of cutting energy use and greenhouse emissions. By giving energy advisors a tool that allows them to inform themselves and then sit down with a householder and talk through problems and solutions, it offers a very practical route to making wiser energy choices and therefore improving quality of life and enhancing health among vulnerable and low-income groups, who often suffer serious health impacts due to cold and damp homes.”
The 18-month CharIoT project began in October 2014 and ended in March 2016, receiving a total of just over £277,000 in EPSRC funding. The 6-month CharIoT Agile project began in October 2016 and will end in March 2017. It is funded by EPSRC from the Impact Acceleration fund.