How to switch the UK on to heat pumps

heat pumpHeat is responsible for a third of carbon emissions and around half of the energy we use in the UK. Whilst there is a range of views about how to achieve the deep cuts needed in carbon emissions from heating, all future scenarios indicate that there will have to be a significant rise in the uptake of heat pumps.

The government has introduced financial assistance to help people to switch to heat pumps in the non-domestic sector and payments for householders are eagerly awaited after a series of delays. However there are a number of non-financial barriers to people changing their heating systems, and financial incentives alone aren’t enough to get most people to switch.

In the new heat pump presentation we launch today we argue that the government needs to do more than just offer financial incentives. It now needs to use regulation and improve the reputation of heat pumps.

1. Use clever regulation  The mass adoption of condensing boilers was stimulated by regulation ruling out inefficient non-condensing boilers. A similar policy should be implemented to drive the uptake of low carbon heating options like heat pumps. Boiler regulations need to switch from efficiency ratings to rating carbon emissions. Regulation should be targeted first at the owners of  properties without access to the gas grid, who stand to make big gains from switching to heat pumps. Early signalling of this regulation will enable industry and consumers to plan and adapt. Getting new build right is also important. Stronger standards are needed to ensure that lower carbon heating options, like heat pumps, are fitted in preference to conventional gas boilers.

2  Improve the reputation of heat pumps Heat pumps in the UK haven’t performed as well as in other countries. They have suffered from poor quality technology, poor installation and haven’t been used properly by building occupants, leading to higher energy bills and horror stories. Whilst much has been done to improve the standard of the heat pumps and their installation, it is not enough. Heat pumps need to be properly monitored, and subsidy should be based on performance. Standards should require installers to train people in how to work them properly and sub-standard installers should lose their certification.

Without these actions it is unlikely that we will achieve the roll out of millions of heat pumps that is required. The real risk is that efforts to reduce carbon emissions from heat will stall if the UK stays locked into heating systems that will never be low carbon enough.


  • We also need better information on which heat pumps perform better than others. The Swiss heat pump testing facility(WPZ releases its results, but the UK testers don’t.
    We also need a simple method of discovering whether heat pump systems are working correctly without waiting for three months to see whether we get an enormous bill. This requires a specialised monitoring set-up that doesn’t exist at the moment, as far as I know..

  • davidgrichards

    A major problem with the UK is that we are wedded to central heating using radiators. GSHPs work efficiently at 40C – 45C which is only sufficient for underfloor heating systems. This is borne out by the fact that well over 90% of the GSHP installs are for underfloor heating in new builds or complete renovations. Even then, domestic hot water needs to be at 60C so either you need some form of supplementary heating (eg immersion heater or small gas boiler) or the occupant has to run the GSHP at very low efficiency (which is uneconomic, and highly carbon intensive).

    The only way through this that I can see is a technological breakthrough in order to get GSHPs to produce higher temperature water at good efficiency. This would allow for retrofit to existing radiator systems as well as providing the hot water direct.

    I am currently working on a project to do this but trying to get support from government (by way of R&D grants) is proving difficult. It seems that the main source of funding is via the Technology Strategy Board (with SMART awards etc). But there are many applications in the renewables area at the moment and very few are getting funding. If anyone has any thoughts on this, or contacts or people who might be prepared to contribute in some way, please let me know. David Richards.

    • What about EcoCute (R744/C02)-based pumps to achieve the high (esp, DHW) temperatures relatively efficiently, plus “instant” systems to eliminate tank losses?

  • Pingback: Boring but brilliant: Four dull-yet-important energy solutions | Utility Details

  • We moved away from coal fires, to oil, then gas, and then gas central heating.
    We like the idea that you can move into a home, turn the central heating on and forget it for thirty years or more.
    The average person doesn’t want a heating system that is difficult to use and expensive to maintain.
    That is why the move to Passive House standard in 2016, will mean a well insulated home, heated merely by a small resistance heater inside the incoming air ventilation system. What could be simpler, what could give one more pleasure than a Passive House and almost no heating bills.

    • davidgrichards

      I agree that Passivhaus is the way to go for new build. But that still leaves the problem of existing housing. We are building only about 250,000 homes a year which as a proportion is only 1% of the existing property stock in the UK (about 25 million). To get these existing properties to anywhere near Passivhaus standards is probably impractical and prohibitively expensive, so innovative low carbon heating solutions are needed. Yet as far as I can see this point has not yet been taken on board by government (though the TSB are now doing a Retrofit Programme). The logic for GSHPs is compelling.

      • Here is my own interest (in making retrofit easy for existing homes) with the OpenTRV project, though I have also made my 60s council timber-frame end-of-terrace into a “Superhome”, so there’s a lot that can be done without knocking down and starting again…



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