We live in an increasingly connected world, and we have never had more information to make decisions and reduce risk than any other period in human history. But with these new abilities to know everything about everyone all of the time, there is an increasing need to protect personal information and guest privacy. Getting the balance right between mitigating risk to a property and protecting owner assets with protecting the rights to privacy of a guest is a fine balance for a property manager to make.
Property managers really can’t just put up a camera to spy on guests to make sure they are behaving. Instead, to ensure risk is reduced, we need to look at alternative ways to monitor in real time what is going on at a property without sacrificing privacy through audio, video or other recording methods.
Although there are some wonderful home security and automation technologies out there already, home security companies like ADT are designed for a home and not for a vacation rental property, so they are not the answer.
With home security, for example, a motion alert when you aren’t home notifies the alarm company that someone is there when no one should be. But that same motion sensor isn’t going to tell you how many people are in the property, and it likely will give you too many false positive readings from guests. Having guests interact with a home security system also might not be the best idea, as you are likely to get a lot of accidental triggers of the alarm.
A far better security alternative for a vacation rental property is a smart lock. Data from a smart lock can be used to see who exactly (with a margin for error) is coming and going into a property as each guest can be given a different code, as can maintenance and cleaning staff.
With certain systems, you can even tell if the door is being locked and unlocked from the inside or from the outside to get a sense of whether people are coming or going. Using that data, along with noise data, is a decent indicator that lots of people are entering a property. Basically 20 opens and closes in an hour, alongside high noise data, might indicate that a party is starting (although it also could indicate that your guests are bringing in lots of bags and then listening to music really loud).
Consider CO2 Sensors
So if smart locks and noise monitoring are not the complete answer for a property manager to know if the property is being used by the number of guests for which it is intended, an even better way to monitor the number of people in an occupied space is with a CO2 sensor.
Building engineers have been using CO2 sensors for 20 years, and one example of how these are used is in corporate buildings to tell if a meeting room is over-occupied. If it is, they can bring in more outdoor air so that people don’t grow sleepy (you’ve probably experienced a meeting where a CO2 sensor wasn’t present and noticed how the meeting became more and more of a snore fest, not because of the content but because of the lack of oxygen). All people breathe out CO2 at a constant rate, so it rises in a predictable and reliable manner, allowing occupancy in a space to be accurately monitored.
With CO2 monitoring, the missing piece of information can close the loop on that party that you don’t want your guests having. With lock, noise and CO2 data (with far greater certainty) you can alert a local manager to nip that party in the bud before property is damaged or neighbors are annoyed, by reminding the guests of the house rules. (You could also call for an invitation...).
With CO2 monitoring, no one’s privacy is compromised because it uses anonymous data, as does opening and closing of the door and noise data (since noise data is measured in decibels without recording audio). These three anonymous points of data by themselves have limited value, but when taken together create a very powerful risk mitigation and insurance claim tool.
The wonderful thing about CO2 and other air quality data is that it is also great for reducing all kinds of other risks. Most of us think that only people with allergies are concerned with monitoring air quality, but with smoke advisories from wildfires and other environmental factors air quality can become a real challenge. A CO2 sensor will pick up a replacement of oxygen from smoke (whether it be wood, cigarette or marijuana), but a VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) sensor will help you determine the type of smoke in the air.
For property managers, using smart home tech for monitoring simple things like humidity and temperature also can help reduce risk to a property as low temperatures (if a guest turns everything off) could freeze pipes and cause subsequent flood damage. An indoor hot tub party without adequate ventilation can create a serious mold problem.
Not to be confused with CO2, carbon monoxide (CO) and smoke detection also are critical factors for a property manager to handle. While your property may have these sensors, it's unlikely that anyone but the guest will hear them go off since they are usually local audio alarms. While Airbnb and others “highly recommend” they be installed, these critical risk mitigation tools are surprisingly not mandatory.
Using connected versions of monitors like Nest Protect will give real-time CO (which is more likely to kill someone than smoke) and smoke data. A sensor also will tell you in real time whether the batteries are full and therefore mitigating the risk that you’ll miss a battery change alert because it is making its low battery noise but a guest doesn’t hear or report it.
The real challenge with all these disparate point solutions is that professionals managing 10 to 1,000 properties at scale require multiple accounts and multiple apps. These apps also have been designed and intended only for a single user (a homeowner) so it's not easy to customize alerts. You won’t, for example, be able to send an alert to the guest and the 24/7 emergency manager, through the Nest Protect app (if there is a carbon monoxide leak) without a great deal of workaround and manual entry.
That’s why there has been a movement toward portfolio management level systems, with custom alerting that can be tied to your PMS and has built in team management. Not all systems are designed and structured in the same way. Many are focused on bringing home security functionality to a fleet of homes, but very few are designed specifically with short-term stay in mind – although the Operto dashboard is one.
When choosing either point solutions or a unified software platform, it’s important to keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish for your vacation rental business. Monitor and track too little and you are opening yourself up to risk. Monitor and track too much and your team is likely to get overloaded. Getting your monitoring right is as fine a balancing act as balancing guest privacy and property protection.
Michael is the co-founder and CEO of Operto Guest Technologies, a property automation system that provides intelligent control of smart home/IOT devices at scale. Operto improves guest experience and operational efficiency for hotels, vacation rentals and serviced apartments. Prior to founding Operto in 2016, Michael had more than two decades of experience in architecture, building design, and construction and has a passion for energy efficiency, sustainability, and intelligent systems that are designed to improve our overall quality of life. www.operto.com.