Heat pumps aren’t a new phenomenon and have been around for over 150 years, the first Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) was first used some 70 years ago. Prevalent on the continent, especially Scandinavia, where homes and property are better insulated than in the UK. The amount of heat pumps within the UK is set to increase to 600,000 units per year by 2028. This fuelled by the government’s goal and the incentive of the £5,000 grant rising to £10,000 for poorer households. Will the grant, in itself, soften the capital outlay as (installation incl) costs are typically upwards to £10,000 for Air Source Heat Pumps and towards £16,000 for GSHPs.
Perhaps an ominous pre-cursor to these proposals was the pilot scheme ran by the government near Newcastle. The upshot was that the government couldn’t give the units away even following an offer to remove existing gas boilers for free. Those participating who refused the offer simply didn’t want or need the disruption. The original Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme between September 2020 and March 2021 was designed to fail. Over 3,000 complaints were received between October 2020 and April 2021. Administration costs were put at £1000 per household/voucher, that being over £50 million on administration.
The initial 6 month pilot was also far too ambitious which compromised the capacity of installers especially job creation and training. The original plan put forward was, in fact, for a two-year scheme however this was rejected by HM Treasury. The digital voucher application scheme proposed to streamline the application was still not in place by March 2021. The question also remains as to how sales companies will be policed in respect of costs and claims. Those claims in respect of installers and sales company’s projections and incentives. Against this dysfunctional backdrop there are very few positives in support of the installation of either an ASHP or a GSHP.
Energy bills have seen a dramatic rise over the last 12 months due to events in Ukraine and global markets. The UK government remains committed to moving away from fossil fuels. Because of this, new technologies continue to be explored such as EV’s, renewable fuels and heat pumps earmarked as a potential replacement for the gas boiler. However, in their current form, heat pumps are unlikely to fill the void and succeed in providing a national solution. Here’s why:
1.Heat Pump Noise
In terms of noise, a heat pump unit can produce between 40 to 50 decibels. For comparison, an Airbus A321 aircraft records levels of 60-65 decibels before takeoff, 80-85 decibels during the flight, and 75-80 decibels when landing. Any qualified refrigeration engineer/installer will also confirm the minefield that needs navigating around noise and outside refrigeration units (condensing units). An outside unit for an air conditioning split system or a cellar cooler serving licensed premises, within residential, was typically to be kept below 40dbs. Does this therefore mean, taking England alone, that there has been a unilateral decision by all 333 local authorities to exercise some subjective discretion.
The fact that your neighbour’s heat pump should be a minimum of 1 metre from a boundary is irrelevant. Together with the physical size not exceeding 0.6m3, neither mitigates the noise pollution. The government’s response at the time to a 2012 consultation looked to a minimum of 45dbs while many were divided that 45dbs was too high. Many companies that sell or promote ASHPs and GSHPs attempt to gloss over this glaring noise issue. A ground-source heat pump runs at quieter levels than its air-source counterpart, however, the costs and practicality of installing this type of technology (GSHP) are not viable for most households and businesses. The below responses are taken from a heat pump retailer’s website:
“The noise level of an air source heat pump is on a par with a microwave oven and is significantly quieter than a toilet flushing.”
However, take your microwave into your back garden at 3 am in the morning and heat your jacket potatoes, see what reaction you get from your neighbours.
Even The Energy Trust in their infinite wisdom has downplayed the noise issue:
“In really cold weather, your heat pump might make more noise because the system has to work harder, but this would not be expected in any situation other than coldest days.”
2.Sleep, Mental Health and Well-being
Just as points 1 and 2 are inextricably linked so are sleep and mental health. Sleep, or the lack thereof, has a direct impact on mental health and well being. Sleep deprivation affects mental health, a person’s psychological state and in turn well being. Lack of sleep will exacerbate mental health problems and pre existing sleep disorders. Not only will this affect neighbours but also the owner’s of the host property. Loss of sleep will also cause undue stress. The effect of disrupted sleep can range from a lack of productivity at work to poor functionality in your day-to-day life. A good night’s sleep is vital in maintaining a person’s well-being.
Studies show that people who get less than 5 hours of sleep suffer a 29% drop in productivity the next day. It may well be that forgiving neighbours who have some distance between properties could be accommodating. It is clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between mental health and sleep in which sleep deprivation may be both cause and consequence of mental health problems. Therefore what is the likely scenario given a row of terraced properties all using a heat pump. The Covid pandemic has seen children and young people bear the brunt of the mental health crisis. Will any proposed proliferation of these units merely hamper and prolong any perceived recovery from the pandemic.
Recent analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ confirmed that over one million more treatment sessions were given to adults between April and December 2020 (1,078,539), an increase of 8% on 2019
3.Heat Pumps are not as efficient as you might think
Herein lies a counterargument, but if we scratch the surface we can find a number of anomalies in the reasoning. These anomalies throw into disarray any justification or mitigation for installing heat pumps. Ambient Temperature, Electricity Cost, and capital write-down are all highly problematic variables. Therefore, how can it be that fixed and firm figures are being put forward by the installers, sales organisations and government as to why we should be installing 600,000 heat pumps annually by 2028? Let’s consider this ‘efficiency’ argument from a generation point of view. Below are the respective shares of the UK energy generation mix.
- Primary Oil (crude oil and Natural Gas Liquids) – 42%
- Natural Gas – 29%
- Primary Electricity (nuclear, wind, solar and hydro) – 16%
- Biofuel Energy and Waste – 12%
- Coal – 1%.
When a heat pump consumes 1 kWh of electricity, it provides 3 kWh of heat (or less in cold conditions). However, Electricity costs substantially more than gas (10.3p kWh) at 34p per kilowatt-hour. This means that any homeowners switching from a gas or oil boiler to a heat pump will experience a steep increase in running costs. How can this 2028 target make any cohesive or economical sense? This is financial folly that appears to have circumnavigated common sense. Especially considering fossil fuels still provide the bulk of the nation’s electricity needs.
4.The REAL Cost of Electricity
Following on from the above point, the price of electricity has been driven up further by the loss of coal. This makes heating options that rely solely on electricity an expensive option, at a time when many households are facing big financial constraints. In 2015, coal held a 22% share of the generation mix, and in 2016 it was announced that all coal-fired power stations will be shut down by 2025. This was then brought forward to September 2024.
Below is the current situation regarding coal-fired power plants in the UK.
- Aberthaw B – Owned by RWE (Non-operational closed On 31 March 2020)
- Cottam – Owned by EDF (Non-Operational) In January 2024, the four-year process of demolishing the station lasting to approximately December 2027.
- Drax – Owned by Drax (In 2021, all coal supplies to Drax Power Station and commercial electricity generation from coal ended in accordance with the plan for the end of coal announced in 2020.) Drax ended commercial operations on its two-remaining coal-fired generation units in March 2021, and formal closure was planned for September 2022, following the fulfillment of the Group’s Capacity Market obligations on these units. There was a Six-month extension (March 2023) of coal operations at the request of the UK Government. Drax has received £6bn in green energy subsidies from the government and is currently the subject of a BBC Panorama Investigation. It is claimed the UK tax payer is funding the destruction of environmentally important forests in British Columbia.
- Eggborough – Owned by Eggborough (non-operational – recently demolished)
- Fiddlers Ferry – Owned by SSE (non-operational The Fiddler’s Ferry site, near Warrington, Cheshire, closed down in March 2020 after 50 years in operation.)
- Ratcliffe – Owned by Uniper (Still in operation)
- Uskmouth – Owned by SSE (non-operational)
- West Burton A – Owned by EDF (Still in operation)
- Kilroot(County Antrim) – Owned by EPH (Still in operation)
5.Heat pumps will not save money
Heat pumps may well reduce your carbon footprint but will incur additional costs. It is misleading and entirely incorrect to even suggest that heat pumps will save you money. It’s lack of clarity to consider the installation of a heat pump will contribute to reducing utility costs. While referring to points 3 and 4 heat pumps may allow a reduction of emissions by 40>50% per annum however run on electricity (Point 4). Electricity being four times more expensive than gas. It is also a fruitless exercise to install an ASHP or GSHP in to a property with non cavity walls.
Running costs are open to conjecture dependent on rating/duty (KwH), time running and cost of electricity. However annual running costs put forward are in excess of £1,700 for a 4 bed property (ASHP). The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) had previously capped running costs. For ASHPs at 10.85p/kWh (Maximum allowance 20,000kWh per year) and 21.16p/kWh for ground-source heat pumps (Maximum allowance 30,000kWh per year). However this was scrapped on 31st March 2022.
For each 1 kWh of electricity an ASHP produces 3kWh of heat. The average demand per annum for a 4 bedroom property is approximately 15,000 kWh.
15,000 kWh (heat demand) / 3kW (heat production per unit of electricity) = 5,000 kWh of electricity
At 5,000 kWh of electricity priced at £0.34 a unit, it will cost around £1,700 in annual heating costs. However again these figures are open to scrutiny. Some homeowners are putting forward figures of £6k to run an ASHP for a year and between 75KWh per day > 158 kWh per day in electricity. Mindful also that heat pumps will run continually during cold weather and will typically only begin to off cycle above 20c ambient. Many believe that the reason for ASHPs running constantly is that they are undersized or have lost refrigerant. It is a popular misconception that all problems point to refrigerant loss. Refrigerant systems are hermetically sealed and should not leak, especially within new systems.
Installing in to a property with an existing gas boiler needs much consideration. As well as the cost of a heat pump additional equipment will need to be sourced. This includes but is not restricted to oversized radiators that should be around 2.5 times larger than standard radiators. A hot water cylinder will need to be sited in your property, preferably the loft, do you have room and has your loft been converted? ASHPs will not heat water ‘on demand’ as your boiler does. Will larger bore piping be required i.e. 22mm instead of 15mm.
Heat pumps release heat more slowly than conventional gas boilers hence larger surface areas are required. The issue of insulation is also a critical factor and should be addressed first and foremost. Therefore the cost of upgrading insulation, cavity walls etc needs to be factored in.
7.After Service and Maintenance Costs
Given such an ambitious and misguided roll out for ASHPs and GSHPs the skill set to install and maintain/service has lagged considerably. While service and maintenance contracts per annum appear to be levelling out at around £450 should something go wrong. In a recent report by Baxi it reported that less than a third of UK heating engineers will embrace heat pumps in the near future. However, there was some equal dissent as a further 30% confirmed they were extremely unlikely to install the units. To support he government’s plans an army of installers would be required.
The main sticking points are cited as training costs as engineers currently subsidise their own training while also losing work hours. If there was help with training costs 39% said they would be likely to install. Customer demand needed to be addressed was put forward by 56% and 38% of installation engineers had concerns around government support.
8.Putting the Cart before the Horse
Insulate Britain, love them or hate them, the message is clear. We need to insulate homes, as a priority, before even considering installing a heat pump. Around 85% of the UK still rely on a gas boiler to heat their homes. If your home is poorly insulated there is no reason why you should install a heat pump. More importantly we have to focus on reducing the environmental impact of buildings. Sustainable property development within the UK may well be ambitious, realising and becoming a Net Zero nation by 2050 can be achieved. However heat pumps will not contribute towards this goal and continuing along this path will have serious consequences and repercussions.
The UK has the most poorly insulated homes in Western Europe (29 million homes) compounded by 20% of housing stock constructed prior to 1919. In the UK properties account for over 40% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. While double glazing accounts for a substantial amount of installations (86.7%) in UK homes solid/cavity wall insulation benefits only 49% of UK property. Loft insulation is present in over 39% of homes. Falling installation rates can be directly attributed to the withdrawal of government support for insulation/installation in 2013. The motivation an election vote winner of cutting energy bills at the expense of long term savings. Analysis and data confirms that the withdrawal of environmental initiatives had increased energy bills by £2.5bn.
We have to meet commitments made by the UK (Paris Agreement 2015) and our legal obligations (Climate Change act 2008). Emissions have to be reduced by 78% in under 15 years and to zero by 2050. A nation wide upgrade is required for almost every UK property. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2018 report, Scaling Up Retro fit 2050, puts forward that almost every home within the UK needs to be upgraded with energy efficiency measures.
Unsuitable For Over Half of All UK Property
Heat pumps are therefore unsuitable for over 50% of all UK properties. These points include the lack of efficient insulation (loft and cavity) which may affect certain grants. Outside space for the unit which may prove problematic for many households. Finding an adequate space for the hot water cylinder which (on average) needs to be around a capacity of 150 litre to 200 litres. As a rule of thumb allowing 35 to 45 litres per person/occupant. If underfloor heating is impractical then radiators need to be upgraded to 2.5 times the size of standard. As the temperature drops towards and below freezing your ASHP will convert less heat, that being when you need it most.
Hot water from a boiler will be in the range of 60c, hot water from an ASHP in cold weather, will likely be around 40c. The point being that rather than being swept along on an ill conceived and misguided path costing billions we ensure that all UK properties increase their EPC rating to a certain level i.e. that homes are properly insulated.
9.ASHP – GSHP Heat Pump Alternatives
Baxi, Vaillant and Worcester have already designed hybrid boilers:
BAXI: Has installed it’s hydrogen boiler in the UK’s first hydrogen house.
Worcester: Hydrogen blend ready boiler.
Vaillant: Hydrogen-The Future Fuel For Boilers.
BDR Thermea Group: The world’s first hydrogen-powered domestic boiler.
On 25th June 2019, the world’s first hydrogen powered domestic boiler was commissioned in Rozenburg, the Netherlands. BDR Thermea Group developed the boiler, a leading manufacturer of virtually zero Carbon Dioxide (CO2) heating and hot water solutions. The boiler burns pure hydrogen produced by wind or solar energy. A gas network provider (Stedin), initiated the project and supplies the sustainably produced hydrogen.
Before you apply for planning permission have an MCS survey carried out (noise levels). It would also be advisable to speak to neighbours and balance responses, block and location plans together with elevations should also be provided to planning. Many local authority planning departments are still finding their feet in respect of heat pump installations.
Heat Pump Advantages
Zero VAT rated.
From 1st April 2022 for 5 years, the installation of certain energy saving materials, including heat pumps, will attract zero-rate VAT. This represents a reduced rate from 5% and a simplification of the VAT rules to energy saving measures.