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Heat Stroke Risk: The UK is not a country of radiators and blankets

Housing Providers are warned to consider the risk of heat stroke to residents this summer

Sam Bunyan
Sam Bunyan

Jul 11, 2022

This time of the year is the time when I am thankful for the basement flat. That one time of the year when the cooler temperatures pay off. Although it startles me that it still seems to come to the surprise of some in this country, the country is overheating again. This is as we see temperature records across Europe and wider afield continue to be broken. Many of us have the privilege of writing these heat waves off as brief inconveniences. They are just weeks where our sleep was a little worse, we all did a little less and had to make sure those less able to look after themselves around us, including pets and family, are kept hydrated and sun protected. However, the truth is that the UK has long been experiencing loss of life due to this heat hitting our shores, and every year it's only getting worse.

The UK continues to be regarded more as a country of radiators and one maximising central heating, rather than one of air conditioning. The Mintel report in 2008 suggested that just 0.5% of homes and flats in the UK had air conditioning, this in contrast to countries like the USA having over 100 million homes with such products. Since then, the UK number has continued to grow year in, year out, but it’s still difficult to see how this trend is not outweighed by some other ongoing factors. Heat stroke risk has an extra bite to it in this country due to our lack of transparency on the homes most at risk of overheating, the social isolation of much of our elderly population, alongside our lack of cooling centers, swimming pools, and drinking fountains in many areas. Maybe the most complex factor to analyse as part of this is our understandable focus on building more modern insulated homes in the winter as part of the fight to combat the fuel poverty crisis. 

As climate change becomes ever more obvious and disruptive in our day-to-day lives, we as a country need to better understand the trends of homes that are most at risk of overheating and how we can reduce the risk to human life. If it was possible for anyone to doubt this risk, around 2000 people in the UK a year die because of warm and hot weather. This is mostly within the elderly population who can suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular problems.  A risk during moderately warm periods, not even close to the severe weekend just gone where the UK was hotter than Monaco.  Considering this threat in the warmer months of the year and that the national fuel poverty group NEA have stated an average of 9700 people die from illnesses related to cold homes in the winter, we have to act quickly to prevent these combined totals of lives lost to climate-related issues growing exponentially in the years to come. 

Here at Switchee, we’ve now dedicated ourselves to providing housing associations with the transparency needed to help those most at risk of overheating in their home. On our clients’ portal, we’ve now introduced a metric called Heat Stroke Risk. By identifying properties that are getting dangerously hot during peak summer periods, we enable our clients to plan remedial measures to ensure that residents can stay safe in the future as the weather gets more extreme. In the future it will also alert them via our portal when inside temperatures get dangerously high, allowing action to be taken immediately.

How is it an improvement on what we provided to our clients before? 

Previously, we provided clients with a view of which of their properties had the highest average temperature over a three-month period. Heat Stroke Risk differs in that it includes what the Switchee devices are recording for relative humidity in the home also. Relative humidity has a big impact on both perceived heat and health. When humidity is high the air can’t evaporate so well, your body can't sweat and cool as effectively; therefore the risk of heat stroke is increased. This enables us to calculate a heat index in degrees Celcius within our clients’ homes which is recommended by the US National Weather Service, their Canadian counterparts, and substantial scientific research. Such countries are worth the UK looking at owing to their greater experience of extreme temperatures. An example of this metric is that when the air temperature is 32°C with 70% relative humidity, the heat index / “feels like” temperature indicates how your body will deal with the heat) is 41 °C. By simply categorising our clients’ properties by their heat stroke risk on the metrics section of our portal, in addition to allowing them to hone in on which ones have had the highest heat index readings over the past 7 days, they can intervene and implement measures to reduce their residents’ risk of heat-related health issues. 

What actions can they take?

Tackling the heat stroke risk issues identified by this metric can include the improvement of shade or ventilation in the properties. Furthermore, teams can be on hand to provide advice to their residents - such as encouraging them to close their curtains at crucial parts of the day or to provide them with somewhere cool to go when they are dealing with these temperatures. As mentioned previously, Switchee will continue to hone the effectiveness of this feature by looking to expand how we notify our clients of these properties at risk. This is in order to be the catalyst to their proactive action towards helping their most vulnerable tenants. 

Closing thoughts 

As portrayed by the start of this piece,  we cannot avoid the fact that wide-sweeping investment in the technology that can protect our most vulnerable tenants from extreme temperatures is essential to the country’s climate change policy. The statistics around the related loss of life in Winter and Summer cannot be ignored as the UK ranks poorly amongst its European counterparts. This accentuates that authorities such as housing associations having transparency on those at risk is crucial to countering endangerment to life across the UK. Through the experience of acting on the transparency provided by the metric of Heat Stroke Risk, only widened knowledge of solutions can follow thereafter for us. Switchee, therefore, looks forward to continuing to improve this metric for helping housing associations look after their tenants in the future. 

  1. '10 ways the UK is ill-prepared for a heatwave’, Vanessa Barford, BBC News Magazine https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23341698
  2. Jonathon Taylor, Phil Symonds, Clare Heaviside, Zaid Chalabi, Mike Davies, Paul Wilkinson,’Projecting the impacts of housing on temperature-related mortality in London during typical future years’, Energy and Buildings, Volume 249,2021, 111233, ISSN 0378-7788, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enbuild.2021.111233. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037877882100517X)
  3. ‘Britain set to be hotter than Monaco this weekend before temperatures soar to 30C’, Maryam Zakir-Hussain, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/weather/uk-weather-forecast-weekend-hot-b2116818.html  
  4. ‘Thousands of people are dying from the cold, and fuel poverty is to blame’, Owen Jones, The Guardian 
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/27/dying-cold-europe-fuel-poverty-energy-spending

Sam Bunyan

Sam works at Switchee as a Product Manager. He coordinates multi-functional teams at Switchee towards developing smart-home devices used by residents in rented homes and the internal cloud platforms which enable our Operations team to support them.

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