The heat pump industry is at a crossroads, says Nick Irlam, owner of heating engineering firm Irlam, who believes cheaper electricity, more investment and better training would revolutionise the sector.

Irlam was recently asked to fix 10 heat pumps on a housing estate that hadn’t been properly installed, which neatly illustrates one of the stumbling blocks preventing their widescale adoption. The government wants the industry to fit 600,000 a year – a figure that is currently impossible without the necessary infrastructure and skills base, despite the big energy companies looking for a bigger share of the sector. While there are 250,000 trained gas engineers in the UK, we only have about 3,000 heat pump installers, nowhere near the estimated 50,000 needed to meet the government target.

It’s vital that assessments are done properly, and the right model is chosen, as a heat pump is less forgiving than a gas boiler, with only a 10% margin for error compared to 80% with a boiler. Get it right and the heat pump performs automatically based on outdoor temperature, indoor heat usage, water usage and indoor temperature. Get it wrong and a too-small heat pump won’t heat the house, while if it’s too big, it will keep turning on and off. We get called in to rectify problems when homeowners are left disappointed by a poor experience, which can sometimes be down to the sales-driven promotional push by these bigger firms.

Before fitting a heat pump, Irlam’s clients fill out a questionnaire about their energy use, while we also look at an EPC and the type of house during the heat-loss assessment, and make recommendations about insulation. In some cases, a householder might simply choose to apply fabric changes instead of getting a heat pump. I recognise that installation is a bit of an upheaval, so will always explain what the disruption entails. There’s also not much choice about where to site the system, and I understand if some people don’t like how they look. I’m honest about the best position for each property or if they need a different model – not all companies are like that.

While anyone can pick up a new boiler at a plumber’s merchant and have it fitted the same day, a heat pump takes two days of admin and up to seven days to install. Realistically, it can be a month before you get it fitted which, if your boiler has broken down, might mean weeks without hot water or heating – a bit more pain in the short-term, but I would argue that it’s always worth it in the long-term.

Households shouldn’t look at the equipment as a return on investment, but a well installed system which should have a life span of over 20 years. Main housebuilders should still be promoting the technology as this can give the end user lower running costs which would allow potential buyers to borrow more to mortgage the property.

Like many SMEs, we need more qualified installers as well as more admin staff to help us better contribute to reaching that government target. Although the Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) incentivises people to make the switch, the bureaucracy involved probably adds £1,000 per install to the cost because of the administration and paperwork necessary to be MCS-compliant (Microgeneration Certification Scheme). It would take some significant government investment to support smaller installers who simply don’t have the resources of big energy firms, but I would argue that this would be worthwhile.

Another major stumbling block to a quicker roll-out is electricity prices. By accessing off-peak tariffs, you should be able to get electricity at 15p per kilowatt, so that by fitting a heat pump – particularly if you can produce your own electricity through Solar PV panels – you’re saving £2,000 a year and have usually paid for the investment in five years. However, while heat pumps are more efficient than boilers, electricity is currently about three times more expensive than gas, at 34p per kilowatt, which means that a heat pump costs three times as much to run. That’s enough to put plenty of people off.

If electricity was cheaper – and no longer tracked to gas prices – it would bridge that gap, and effect a seismic change in the sector, prompting many more households to make the switch – as long as there are enough qualified installers, of course. We also need an end to all the political backtracking on environmental targets and green funding, otherwise heat pump installers won’t have the confidence to invest and grow.

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