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To heat pump or not to heat pump that is the question?

If any of you have spent large chunks of your lock down life listening to retrofit webinars for social housing you will be familiar with the stress and uncertainty that is caused by the discussion of all things heat pump. 

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Patrick Berry, Together Energy Services.jpg
Patrick Berry, Together Energy Services.jpg

For some, the promotion of heat pumps provides a sustainable route to decarbonisation of heating systems in our existing homes. For others heat pump technology is tantamount to witchcraft and creates all kinds of uncertainty about management of their stock and the well-being of tenants. Where does the truth sit? Here we look at the most common challenges that perplex and confound those charged with planning retrofit low carbon heating investment.

Is it the right technology?

One of the most common terms bandied around is ’no regrets investment’. It’s a useful soundbite that aims to capture the need to do your due diligence on the technology and your properties. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it can also become a shelter under which to hide, kick the issue into the long grass and avoid having to make decisions until forced to by external regulation. It’s true, heat pumps are undoubtedly a major step away from the world of gas which has shaped the core of responsive repairs and associated governance procedures. Indeed, even with all the gas risks and the rigidity of its compliance, there is huge uncertainty about stepping away from it.

The common cry is ’ but what about hydrogen’? Well of course, if green hydrogen was going to be available any time soon it would be a great solution. And, it’s understandable that those with a vested interest promote its potential. The reality is though that producing enough hydrogen to service the domestic sector - after industry and transport - is a long way off. Ensuring that hydrogen is green - because if it isn’t what’s the point? - is even further away. The truth is we can’t afford to wait and find out and we need to make changes now. It doesn’t mean it can’t be used in the next generation of change.

Surely, it’s no coincidence that the Government wants all properties to be a minimum of EPC C rating while at the same time promoting an exponential growth of heat pumps. They work in homes that are decently insulated. They don’t have to be passivehaus or close to it. They have worked for decades in off-gas areas of Europe and they are getting better, cleverer and more efficient even as we discuss them. Now Is the time to embrace the application of these technologies, do our homework and get going. And yet, there remains an element of magic about a heating system that puts out more than 3 times Kwh of heat out than Kwh of power that goes in. Exciting stuff that will have a major impact on social housing.

How do we know it will work effectively in older property?

This is a good question. Bizarrely, an EPC is not necessarily a good predictor of how efficient the fabric of the property is as its score can be affected by a range of other factors. Nonetheless, it is critical that the installation of a heat pump is based on accurate data and an objective assessment about what that means for the proposed new heating system. All of the major heat pump manufacturers produce software that carries out this assessment based on heat loss calculations from the property. This not only sizes the heat pump correctly but calculates the efficiency of performance that should be achieved. This process could be carried out at a broad level by internal staff or by appointed contractors, but it provides a pretty robust basis upon which to make investment decisions and to monitor subsequent performance.

How do we convince the tenants?

Let’s face it, most of the population likes gas central heating and gas cooking. It’s instantaneous and its cheap when compared with electricity. Although gas comes with risks, the systems are in place to minimise its inherent danger. The climate change predicament means that now we must convince people to give it up and to use a very different alternative that is for greater good. It’s a tough ask and there are no easy solutions. There are perhaps three things to consider: 1) It is important to spend time softening the ground about carbon reduction, why it’s needed and what we propose to do. As with the general population, a good proportion of tenants will want to do their bit and be part of a positive process of change. 2) By making the whole house more energy efficient and perhaps including renewable power, it is possible to sweeten the deal making the package attractive, even rebranding the property to make it desirable. 3) Demonstrate how using connected technology means we can ensure the system can be maintained effectively and we can better safeguard tenants from system failure or misuse.

Even so, there will be those that will refuse the change. It will get tricky here but removing gas is key to decarbonisation and landlords will need to stay true to their convictions in the face of challenge.

So, in answer to the question posed at the start of this article the answer is yes, heat pump. But, do it with conviction, certainty, pragmatism and for the long-term.

 

Patrick Berry, managing director, Together Energy Services

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