Griff Thomas, Managing Director at heat pump training provider, GTEC, and Murton & Co Director, Jonny Murton-Lavelle, answer some key questions about this increasingly popular technology.
What is a heat pump?
Griff: Heat pumps use technology similar to that found in a refrigerator or air conditioner, essentially in reverse. The heat pump extracts heat from a source – the air, ground or water – and warms water to then be used in a building for heating and hot water. An air source heat pump (ASHP) is the most common type for domestic properties.
Heat pumps are powered by electricity and are at least three times more efficient than a gas boiler. Some heat pumps can also be used for cooling, but these are not commonly found in UK homes.
Why has the UK been so slow to adopt the technology?
Jonny: The European Heat Pump Association reports that only 1.9 heat pumps were sold per 1,000 UK households last year compared with 69 in Finland and 59 in Norway, so we’ve certainly got a lot of catching up to do. Interest in heat pumps is rising, however, and we are getting calls from homeowners looking to improve the comfort of their home and reduce their energy bills, while some also want to reduce their carbon footprint. The dialogue is very different to those with a landlord, whose driver is primarily around compliance. Gas boilers won’t be installed in new builds from 2025, which will push the market along, with heat pumps likely to be the main replacement for fossil fuel central heating.
Unfortunately, some consumers form an opinion by talking to the man down the pub or reading negative stories in the national press. People are quick to find fault in ‘new’ things, so any bad experience makes the headlines. Regardless of whether consumers ultimately decide to fit a heat pump, the government and industry has a big education job to do to make sure homeowners have the right information on which to base that decision.
Griff: People don’t like change, but there are plenty of examples where we have adapted to new technology that now feels commonplace. Central heating wasn’t widespread initially, but quickly became the norm. A decade ago, you would have marvelled at a solar panel system on a roof, but now 1.2 million homes have them, and we don’t bat an eyelid. People talk about ‘pay back’ when referring to renewables, but you wouldn’t expect this with a gas boiler. The bottom line is that everyone will need to install an alternative to gas boilers in the coming years – there’s really no option.
As the price of electricity comes down, so will the cost of running a heat pump. The government is currently consulting on decoupling the price of electricity from gas, which will further accelerate the reduction in electricity costs. At the moment, the cost of running an ASHP is comparable or less than a gas boiler.
Would a heat pump be suitable for my house?
Griff: There is a lot of misinformation about heat pumps, particularly that they’re not suitable for some properties which simply isn’t true. Every property is suitable – I even know of someone who has installed a heat pump in an old church.
Jonny: It’s certainly true that heat pumps will work in a poorly insulated house. A larger heat pump will be needed to deliver the ambient temperature required, but then that’s no different to a traditional gas boiler which usually tends to be oversized. A well-insulated house will of course make a heat pump more cost-effective. This is true of any heating system; reducing heat loss will reduce heating demand. Heat loss also impacts the size of the heat pump, so better insulated houses with double or triple glazing may need a smaller (cheaper) system than an equivalent, poorly insulated property.
Should I call in an expert?
Jonny: Absolutely. You can’t access funding the Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) unless your heat pump system is Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) certified. An MCS certified installation company will work with you from the outset, to make sure the heat pump is specified, installed and commissioned correctly. Your home must have a proper EPC as part of this process conducted by a specialist energy assessor, which, along with accurate heat loss calculations, will help ensure you get the right heat pump for the property.
It is essential that these initial steps are completed correctly as a wrongly specified heat pump will not perform as it should. It’s not just the heat pump, either; the whole system has to be right, whether using radiators or underfloor heating. An experienced installer or energy assessor might also suggest ways to enhance efficiency, such as insulating your house to improve thermal performance. It’s important to research the installation company you choose as there are also plenty of instances where heat pumps and gas boilers haven’t been fitted correctly, leaving consumers cold and dissatisfied.
I’ve undertaken EPCs alongside GTEC, working as an expert witness for Trading Standards, helping a homeowner who had been mis-sold a heat pump and solar panels among other green improvements. The previous EPC assessment was erroneous and was perhaps manufactured to enable the mis-selling opportunity. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident, and the bad publicity doesn’t do the sector any favours.
Can I get funding to fit a heat pump?
Jonny: There are grants available in England and Wales through the Boiler Upgrade Scheme which give homeowners and private landlords £5,000 towards an air source heat pump and £6,000 towards a ground source heat pump. You need a valid EPC and the installation has to be undertaken in accordance with the MCS criteria. We would advocate that the installation should be compliant, irrespective of the funding source, however.
Griff: As big corporations start investing in heat pumps and heat pump technology, we’re seeing a change in attitudes and, once this filters down, the market will shift in terms of price and offering. There are already some interesting payment options around. On the Isle of Man, Manx Utilities trialled an offer to homeowners of a 10-year interest-free loan for heat pump installation and guarantees the amount they repay does not exceed their current bills.
There’s also growing interest in Heat as a Service (HaaS), a new model for how energy providers sell heating. HaaS shifts away from paying for kWhs, instead, a customer pays for a full-service heating guarantee, based on their specific needs, within a set budget. The energy provider looks after the whole heating system, fitting a new appliance, servicing, and maintenance, and energy for a fixed monthly price. Currently being piloted in the UK, research shows that people care more about heating outcomes – such as getting warm and comfortable – than which device or system delivers the heat.
What’s most important is that the heat pumps installed, work, and a lot of this relies on the first steps, the EPC and heat loss calculations to ensure the right heat pump is fitted for the application. Poor installs will dent consumer confidence and slow down take-up.