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Smart-Home Technology: Is Your Staff Confused or Confident?

innovation maintenance technicians
July 2018

Is technology making maintenance technicians feel innovative, stressed or simply indifferent?

While the rental housing industry continues to experiment with and explore smart-home devices—such as locks, thermostats, lighting and window coverings—some onsite staff have been keeping an arm’s length from the technology.

The C-Suite and their investors continue to debate return on investment, resident demand and product selection for smart-home technology. But one thing is for sure: When it stops working, the maintenance team will get the call.

Paul Rhodes, CAMT, National Safety and Maintenance Instructor, NAA Education Institute, says there’s no denying that many in the industry are abuzz about smart-home technology.

“But at this stage, smart-home technology is mostly found in select markets in the country,” Rhodes says. “Everywhere else, it’s just a gimmick. Residents might have a desire for it, but it’s not something they expect or insist on having in their apartments, from what I can tell. I’ve not seen many owners who say that they can charge an extra $10 a month to the rent by providing it.”

Rhodes recently attended RealPage’s Energy Conference in Dallas. He says that one developer consultant defined it this way: “In order for smart-home technology to really stick, it must have a purpose. If it’s something that is going to turn your lights on and off, the resident might sit on their couch and play with that for 10 minutes, but then they’ll forget about it.”

RealPage owns apartments near the conference site, and it installed smart-home technology in each. The company used these apartments to lodge the conference attendees so they could experience it first-hand.

“Yes, it was cool,” Rhodes says. “But having seen all that it does and how it works—in my opinion, none of this is going to affect the basic roles and responsibilities of a maintenance technician.”

Rhodes, who travels the country instructing maintenance technicians, says, “There are many places I go where they don’t even know about smart-home devices. In these cases, the technicians are at the level where they are still learning about mobile or tablet devices.”

Rhodes says that more and more, maintenance technicians could be asked to install smart-home devices or systems—in other words, put wire to power. And they might have to plug in the interface. But after that, the resident is likely the one who will care for the devices.

Cable Box Flashbacks

“If it’s not working, it’s probably best that the resident calls the manufacturer about it—not the maintenance team,” Rhodes says. “But instead, they will call the maintenance team. You can count on that because that’s what they do.

“It’s important for the property manager to explain during move-in who is responsible for these devices. But what we’ll see is probably the same thing that happened years ago with cable or satellite dishes. The maintenance staff sets up the cable box, but if there’s a problem with reception, that’s something the cable company needs to fix.”

Rhodes says HVAC systems that are tied to smart-home technology could be an exception.

“Whether it’s a smart thermostat or not, we as maintenance techs need to make sure the condenser, the refrigerant line and the coils, for example, are working,” Rhodes says. “But as far as the techy device that controls the temperature, that’s on the resident.”

Raymond van Beveren, Senior Vice President, Construction and Facilities Services, Pinnacle, says his company is providing “very little” training for smart-home technology.

“Our training focuses on customer service and processes,” he says. “We are hiring technology savvy technicians—ones who are most comfortable with technology to the point that they’d know where to look to learn more about smart devices, if necessary.”

Established, veteran maintenance technicians, van Beveren says, “Those who are comfortable with what you’d call traditional maintenance duties, probably wouldn’t be working in our A assets — and those are the assets that would have the smart-home devices.”

He says he has not received many requests from maintenance technicians about smart-tech training. At the same time, van Beveren said during Apartmentalize that if a community is struggling to hire maintenance staff, to attract younger candidates, it’s best to emphasize what technology they’ll be using. That can make the position more attractive.

“Generally speaking, I see that the education offered for smart-home technology has not caught up with the innovation,” van Beveren says. “It’s improving, but more on a slowly-but-surely pace.”

Currently, manufacturers install and maintain the devices or the systems that they run on for Pinnacle’s communities, van Beveren says.

He adds that product selection—and any training that goes with it—is more challenging for fee-management companies such as Pinnacle.

“Not all of our owners have bought into smart technology,” he says. “And if they have, they aren’t all using the same product. That adds to the learning curve. And for repositioned properties, these products are used piecemeal.”

Arizona-based Regional Maintenance Director Jud McKillop, Pinnacle, says, “The only smart devices we have installed are thermostats and our residents’ feedback has been positive. The product is well supported and installs easily, so the techs are not anxious about installing them or servicing them.”

Cost-Free Pilot Program

Dallas-based Strategic Property Investment (SPI) introduced a smart-home technology platform in March through a cost-free pilot basis at two of its apartment homes. The system was installed and has been maintained by the product’s company.

“The product representative came onsite to do a demo and training,” Carl Dean, Asset Manager, SPI, says. “He brought with him handouts and trained the staff in-person once the system was installed. The entire onsite team participated and they found that the system was pretty easy to use and understand even though it is their first experience with a system like this.”

Dean says SPI is comfortable with its decision because “the fact that Blackstone purchased the company and has had success with spotting these trends early on gave us a good feel. Aside from that, the ease of use and that its system is compatible with Amazon Echo was helpful.”

Mill Creek Residential CIO Jeff Kok says part of his company’s smart-home strategy is to empower the residents and create sustainable operations.

“Smart-home technology is still largely focused on consumerization and single-family residents while less focused on an owner/operator management model, making it a challenge,” Kok says.

“This creates complexity for true efficiencies and automation because there might still be manual processes involved (e.g. move-ins and move-outs).

“Currently, our smart devices in our communities such as thermostats require our service teams to manually reset them on resident move-out.

“Our service techs are provided written instructions on how to hard reset such devices. As we continue the roll-out of smart devices, a critical part of our strategy is to have the right support system in place for residents that empowers the resident to directly get support through a third party. We will educate and train our staff on the correct support models and part of our manifesto is the philosophy of a ‘fix it or find someone who can.’ We will always provide the best experience to our residents. Simplicity is key to adoption and support.