Impax Ashden Award for Energy Innovation
Insulating floors is costly and disruptive, and when insulating a home, the floors are often overlooked despite letting in cold draughts.
Q-Bot has the answer. It uses a robot to apply a layer of insulation beneath suspended floors. There’s no need to pull up carpets or create disruption because Q-Bot’s robots can gain access through the exterior wall or a small hole in the floor and use on-board sensors to create dynamic 3D maps to guide installation and identify hazards.
Q-Bot is working with Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), for whom an easy, low-cost installation is essential. Q-Bot trains RSLs to use the technology to insulate their properties. Households benefit, with heat loss through the floor reduced by an average of 80%, draughts reduced by 30% and fuel bills reduced by £150 a year on average. Private households will benefit too once RSLs start to offer the service more widely in each region.
Floor insulation gets left out of retrofit because it’s difficult to do, so it’s exciting to see something as innovative as this making it happen. We need policymakers to recognise its potential to save households money and contribute to the clean growth strategy.
Ashden judging panel
Millions of homes in the UK have ‘suspended floors’ – a ground floor built from wood with a ventilated gap underneath – and up to 25% of their heat loss can be through the floor. But most insulation measures focus on walls and lofts, because insulating suspended floors is disruptive and expensive. This is now changing, as Q-Bot has developed a robot which can fit into the void beneath a suspended floor, first to carry out a survey and then to spray insulation onto the underside of the floor, keeping heat in the property and draughts out; this cuts energy use and CO2 emissions, saving households money while making their homes more comfortable to live in. An estimated 8 million UK homes could benefit from Q-Bot’s technology, resulting in significant savings and creating many jobs.
Insulating the ground floor of a home using Q-Bot’s technology can cut the heat loss through the floor by 80% and reduce draughts by 30% on average, typically saving the household £150 a year and cutting annual CO2 emissions by 700kg. Another significant impact is on temperature stratification, reducing the difference between the temperature at floor level and at head height, improving comfort for the household. Q-Bot had insulated 265 homes by April 2018, benefitting about 800 people, and the rate of installations has been accelerating quickly, with a target of 1,000 completed by early 2019.
I am much warmer, and I'm saving £20 per month on bills. I love Q-Bot, it has made a massive difference.
Q-Bot is also helping revolutionise the construction industry, bringing in new technology that is creating skilled jobs and attracting young people to work in the sector. Rather than robots replacing people, in this case they have helped create 27 jobs at Q-Bot, and more in its network of delivery partners.
Suspended floors can be a significant cause of heat loss in homes, potentially as much as through an uninsulated loft or wall. This is not simply because of the limited insulation value of wooden floorboards, but because of the gaps between boards and at the edges of the floor. The void beneath the floor is cold, as ventilation bricks are installed to avoid problems with damp, meaning draughts fed by cold air from outdoors can come up through the floor.
The problem of heat loss through suspended floors has been known of for many years, but the traditional methods of dealing with it are difficult to implement, so most suspended floors are currently not insulated. If the void beneath the floor is sufficiently large, it is possible for a person to enter it and install rigid insulation boards between the joists supporting the floor, but this is an unpleasant and difficult job, and in many cases the void is not large enough. The alternative is to completely empty each room, lift the carpet and floorboards, and install rigid insulation boards from above, before restoring the floor and the furniture – the level of disruption caused means this is not usually practical while people are living in a house.
In both cases, fitting rigid insulation boards between joists inevitably leaves small gaps, so while the insulation has been improved, there will still be draughts, resulting in heat loss and cold feet. It also leaves the bottom of the joists uninsulated, which can result in rot if condensation forms on them.
The first step in the Q-Bot process is to identify which properties may be suitable for underfloor insulation. There is no register of such properties, and while the age and location can give an indication of suitability, a site visit must be carried out to confirm there is actually a suspended floor and no immediately obvious structural defects. The next step is to insert a Q-Bot robot into the underfloor void to carry out a survey – sometimes a few bricks can be removed from an external wall to insert it, but it is usually easier to cut a small hatch into the floor and lower the robot through it. The robot trails power and data cables behind it, allowing it to be controlled remotely and a video feed returned to the operator.
The survey carried out by the robot includes a video record of the void and a measurement of the height of the floor above the void, made using a laser rangefinder. If any problems are found, such as damaged floorboards or damp, the property owner needs to address them before the insulation process starts.
Installation of the insulation is then carried out by the robot, but this time pulling hoses behind it as well as a power and data cable. The hoses feed two chemicals to the robot, which are combined in a nozzle that sprays them onto the underside of the floorboards – the chemicals react together to make an expanding foam insulation that sets hard in under a minute. Volatile organic gases are given off during this process, so a fan is set up to suck air out from the void to prevent gases entering the house – after the insulation has set, no further gases are given off. The insulation has been thoroughly safety tested and is guaranteed not to cause damp problems or present a fire risk – the Q-Bot process has gained BBA approval, giving customers confidence that it is reliable and effective.
Throughout the insulation process the robot is remotely guided by a trained operator, and a video record is created for future reference. After completing the insulation, another survey with a laser rangefinder is carried out by the robot – by comparing the height of the insulation to the original height of the floorboards, the thickness of the insulation can be calculated and displayed graphically to the operator. Any patches that are not thick enough are then sprayed with further insulation before the robot leaves the void.
Impax Ashden Award for Energy Innovation
The video and other data gathered when Q-Bot surveys a property is very useful to the owner, identifying any structural problems and providing information on the location of utility services for future reference. For social landlords, getting a better understanding of their housing stock is important for planning maintenance, and Q-Bot provides software to help them keep track of their stock and the information gathered during the surveys. Meanwhile, the household benefits directly from Q-Bot’s work, as up to 80% less heat is lost through an insulated floor and draughts are eliminated, cutting bills and CO2 emissions while making the home more comfortable.
The construction industry also stands to benefit from Q-Bot’s work by creating attractive highly skilled jobs, increasing productivity, reducing waste, and improving safety and accountability. Q-Bot is creating new jobs that appeal to school-leavers and graduates, whether in the design and maintenance of robots or in the installation process itself.
The floors Q-Bot insulated are no longer cold to the touch, it's amazing. I don't need my hoody on inside the house anymore!
Q-Bot’s focus is on developing technology, so while it has several installation teams it does not plan to create a national or international network of installers. The majority of homes that could be insulated by Q-Bot are privately owned, but the company’s approach is to work with Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) as delivery partners, training their own workforces to use Q-Bot technology. The partner RSLs can then not only insulate their own housing stock, but also offer the Q-Bot insulation service to other RSLs in their area and the much larger owner occupier and private rented sectors. In early 2018 Q-Bot signed up Your Homes Newcastle as its first RSL delivery partner, and expects more to follow later in the year.
Q-Bot has plans to expand rapidly over the next few years, making use of a growing network of delivery partners to extend its reach. At the same time, development of the technology itself will continue, reducing costs and enabling entry into new markets. Of the estimated 12 million homes in the UK with suspended floors, Q-Bot estimates 8 million would be suitable for insulation using its robot, and there is a similar potential in France, with smaller numbers in other European countries. If all suitable homes in the UK were insulated, the resulting CO2 saving could be over 5 million tonnes a year!