UK housing gets smart with switches

Graham Martin, CEO and Chairman, EnOcean Alliance

At the beginning of September 2020, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick launched a £12 million boost for affordable homes, the highest single funding commitment to affordable housing in a decade. In an unprecedented move, housing associations looking to partner with Homes England will be required by the government in its bidding criteria to commit to using Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) for at least 25% of their pipeline1.

This is a major win for the modular homes market. Though slow to find their foundations, these buildings are finally losing their ‘prefab stigma’ and becoming a topic of interest amongst the big players in the British construction industry. The UK modular market is forecast to grow at 3-5% a year from 2017 to 2022. It is thought that in the UK, modular construction is likely to make the most impact in the residential sector, with potential applications including hotel rooms and student accommodation as well as affordable homes.

Energy harvesting switches, powered by their own environment and not requiring any wiring or auxiliary energy, can make a valuable contribution to this revolution in construction. Installed in modular homes, these products can reduce manufacturing costs, simplify electrical design, improve environmental friendliness and increase the home’s adaptability. In short, energy harvesting switches in modular homes offer a win for the manufacturer, a win for the vendor (or landlord) and a win for the homeowner (or tenant).

Let’s first examine the benefits for manufacturers of modular homes. Energy harvesting switches decrease the complexity of wiring design and reduce the materials needed, removing up to 750 feet of cables in a typical house. The wiring can then be installed by a factory operative rather than a trained electrician. The completed product will often be shipped as a ‘flat pack,’ so using wireless switches reduces the need for cable connections between the separate panels in the pack. Overall, the cost per installed switch can be typically 10% to 15% less than a traditional switch, which additionally requires intensive and inflexible installation work (cutting holes, installing conduit, back boxes etc.)

The flexibility of energy harvesting switches allows the layout of the modular home to be adapted to the needs and preferences of its new occupant without expensive rewiring and extra features like a ‘panic’ button or ‘central off’ can be added. The vendor can advertise the flexibility provided by the switches as a persuasive selling point. Furthermore, since the switches are wireless, they give the vendor the option to ‘upsell’ smart features creating a potential upgrade path to a fully functional smart home in easy stages. The switches can be configured with multi-sensors, such as the EnOcean STM 550, to respond to changes temperature, humidity, lighting, acceleration and magnetic contact. This is an attractive potential additional revenue stream for the vendor.

The flexibility is equally appealing to a home owner once they’ve taken up residence. Switches can be moved or added at will, suiting the home to their needs. Convenience features can also be added or, with some control hubs, the lighting can be paired with a consumer voice control solution without extra cost or installation.

In contrast to the German modular homes market which focusses on functionality and intelligent solutions, most UK modular homes will be affordable or social housing. Design and construction is therefore highly cost driven. With this in mind, energy harvesting switches are a great solution, giving manufacturing cost savings, flexibility and upgradeability. In short, energy harvesting switches are an essential technology that has an important role to play in the growing MMC market.

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