We were all encouraged to reduce pounds after Christmas – not from overeating, but on overheating our homes. Among the measures suggested by the admirable ‘Cut your energy costs day’ earlier this month was tweaking thermostat settings, which some people are evidently embracing too enthusiastically.
Clean-energy company and heat pump installer Aira found that 64% of us have pledged to lower our heating during the first month of the year, with 7% deciding to turn it off completely, mainly due to fears around high energy prices. Not a great idea, as you end up with condensation and mould, but Aira has obviously flagged it up to extol the virtues of heat pumps.
It’s working to an extent. Accreditation body MCS reports that heat pump installations climbed to a record high in 2023 of almost 40,000, up 25% on the previous year, bringing the total number installed to more than 200,000 – still way short of the government target of 600,000 a year by 2028. Perhaps one way to improve take-up would be to split wholesale electricity prices away from gas prices – leading to a reduction in electricity prices, to make running heat pumps substantially cheaper than a gas boiler, therefore unlocking heat pump – and PV installation – investment.
I’m all for boosting the numbers but worry that consumers going down the grant-funded installation route (through the Boiler Upgrade Scheme) are very likely missing out on the expertise needed to dedicate to fitting and fine-tuning, particularly if these pumps are installed under a time pressure. If a pump’s system isn’t properly balanced, homeowners could be left with a new product that isn’t efficient and costs more, because the grant won’t pay for any necessary related work. Plus, while retrofit assessors are being paid up to £60,000 a year in the private sector and get jobs based on grants for retrofit work, the taxpayer is ultimately paying for this by subsidising their wages and courses.
Doing things properly takes time and patience. As part of our bespoke domestic retrofit energy assessment, we regularly send sensors out to customers to measure thermal performance and carry out air leakage tests alongside a physical survey of the dwelling. Much more accurate than simply basing recommendations on an EPC, the data provides an insight on the baseline energy performance, inefficiencies, and opportunities for improvements to establish the correct size of heat pump needed and whether they’ll need to carry out work to improve thermal performance. The comprehensive process takes a few weeks, but that’s too long for many – especially those in the grant funded market which is all about how much CO2 is saved by the measures as well as moving the EPC rating up the ladder – and instead rely only on assumed EPC data.
In the same way that consumers might believe their green improvements have been fitted correctly and are the most efficient they can possibly be, they reasonably expect that an energy assessment and resulting decent EPC means they have nothing to worry about. That’s not always the case. EPCs were designed for the government to collect data and they used the market as a mechanism to do that, but these certificates are now seen as a consumer product, used to help people qualify for funding green improvements. However, their reliance on assumed data means EPCs simply don’t fully reflect the true picture. Their narrow focus means a manufacturing company wouldn’t take a forge or smelting works into account, for example, when working out its EPC rating, so the building might get a decent B while doing the environment no favours. Assessments on commercial buildings are typically around compliance with EPC regulations, while many larger firms focus on meeting stakeholder expectations of a net zero journey, which although worthy, still doesn’t always provide a complete picture of a building’s impact on the environment.
While we wait for the government’s ongoing consultation to report back, perhaps it’s time to think about updating EPCs so that our sector can start conducting widespread, accurate assessments to document carbon emissions from both domestic and commercial buildings. There are so many different types of metrics and certification tools around, such as the NABERS rating for offices, but even if some of them currently measure carbon emissions, what are companies (landlords and occupiers) doing to actually reduce them?
After 15 years of tick box assessments, I reckon it’s time for a change. We should be discussing how to develop a definitive tool – something that provides more comprehensive, accurate data, and measures a building’s carbon emissions against global temperature rises. With the latest alarming news that 2023 was the warmest on record, it would mean we wouldn’t need an annual reminder from a ‘cut your energy costs’ day, because we’d be reducing energy use all year round.