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Overcoming the UK’s Social Housing Emergency Lighting Challenge

René Joppi, managing director of global lighting manufacturer Mackwell, explains how smart technology can resolve challenges associated with testing retrofitted emergency lighting in the United Kingdom’s ageing public housing stock.

New buildings are constructed with the most up-to-date technologies in mind, but many structures – especially older ones – are prone to be left behind when it comes to innovation, impacting the ability for teams to manage the safety of a building. Social housing is a victim of this lack of innovation.

According to official government statistics, social housing provided homes for 4.4 million people across the UK in 2021, yet the nation only saw an approximate 25,000 net increase of these homes over the course of the year – a marginal rise of 0.63%. A significant amount of social housing stock exists within the UK. However, these are older buildings, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a push to construct new ones.

With a limited volume of new social housing being constructed in the United Kingdom, and so many people relying on pre-existing, older buildings for their tenancy, estate management teams are missing out on the benefits of new technologies. While smarter buildings introduce the potential for better operational technology that improves management capabilities, more importantly, technology can play a pivotal role in the safety of a building.

Sub-Optimal Safety Within Social Housing

Social housing is often made up of either large towers that require rigorous fire safety tests, or lots of smaller blocks that are managed across one estate. In both instances, they require a robust fire safety strategy. This includes having the appropriate systems installed to achieve a safe and compliant building, and also having a regular testing regime established that ensures that the life-safety systems are working as required. For emergency lighting, for example, this means monthly and yearly tests. In many cases, these tests are not done at all or done manually which can pose a significant challenge for maintenance teams who have a lot of ground to cover when undertaking manual tests. Not only is manual testing heavily time-consuming, but it is open to human error and negligence, which can cause inaccuracies. It can also result in faulty systems that pose a threat to health and safety of the inhabitants of the social housing structures.

Ultimately, there is a large amount of existing building stock that doesn’t adequately live up to the fire safety risk assessment. A legal requirement in the UK for areas of premises where staff and members of the public have access to – the fire safety risk assessment dictates that any such location must undergo ongoing maintenance and regular testing of emergency lighting. However, with recommended monthly function testing and yearly duration testing, social housing often falls short in audits.

An emergency lighting audit considers the following questions:
● Does a building have emergency lighting?
● Is emergency lighting old and not managed?
● Is emergency lighting designed incorrectly?
● Does emergency lighting offer the correct levels of up-to-date illuminance when activated?
● Is emergency lighting regularly tested?
● If tested manually, are tests actually conducted?
● Is there a logbook that can validate these tests?

As mentioned, social housing often struggles with these requirements, but retrofitted technology can provide the solution for these issues in existing buildings.

Addressing the Social Housing Issue

Social housing estates can be large and disparate with many buildings, but many of these are also smaller buildings, each with a small number of luminaires. This makes each visit more expensive for an engineer on a ‘per building’ or ‘per fitting’ basis, whether the visit is to conduct the tests or return to fix issues.

Automated emergency testing is now commonly specified in new builds, usually using the Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) protocol, either standalone or as part of the lighting control system. This is not convenient for existing social housing due to the cost and disruption associated with installing control wiring into existing building infrastructure. However, wireless systems have recently been introduced into the market that facilitates the automation of emergency testing, which now makes this easier and more technically viable for existing buildings.

For estates, which may comprise a mix of large towers or multiple smaller blocks, it is desirable for estates managers and maintenance teams to understand the compliance status of their whole estate, which creates a need for wired and wireless test systems to report to a common portal which can be viewed remotely via a cloud interface.

Automating Testing in Social Housing

A retrofittable system with cloud reporting can be an extremely efficient way of ensuring compliance at a low cost by targeted maintenance based on real-time data. Cost savings are not just limited to the testing itself. Tests and results need to be documented in the fire safety logbook. The reporting of the results to an online cloud system allows this to be achieved automatically, with interfaces possible to asset management systems. The online systems can be further developed and upgraded over time to allow reporting of other parameters, such as air quality, noise pollution and dampness.

Turning to Technology

New-build infrastructure, developed with the latest smart technologies is making the world a more efficient place. However, concerns remain around the safety of older buildings that cannot go unaddressed.

Technology is playing a pivotal role in the development of new builds, but it is just as important to deploy the latest innovations in existing structures. With retrofitted emergency lighting testing systems, building estates – and in particular, social housing – can become much safer and easier to manage through the cloud. This is all managed on one single interface – a single pane of glass, viewable on-demand across a range of devices. Furthermore, this technology can be deployed and integrated at a comparatively small cost to alternative solutions that would have required the installation of control wiring into the existing building infrastructure.

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Rene Joppi

René Joppi is the managing director of Mackwell, a leading provider of technology solutions for the global lighting industry with ties to many major international companies in over 40 markets. René joined the Mackwell team in January 2015. Responsible for the Middle East region for the first 18 months with Mackwell, René led the region to significant growth over this period. Having been in the lighting industry since 2008 René has a wealth of knowledge especially around lighting controls and emergency lighting. Initially from an engineering background, Rene’s first roles was around software engineering and project commissioning before he moved into product management and sales management. René has worked for major global lighting brands in different areas around the world including Austria, Switzerland, Dubai and the UK.

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