Following a new report from Nesta, ‘Insulation impact: How much do UK houses really need?’ which suggests the fabric first approach, such as making homes as energy efficient as possible, is not an essential part of the UK’s current stage in the heat pump roll-out. Paul Spence, Technical Manager at heatly, urges installers and heat pump customers not to take this as a cue to view energy efficiency upgrades as less important.
Nesta’s report focuses on carbon reduction and ripping out fossil fuel heating and replacing it with cleaner, greener heat pumps, which will, in turn, reduce the UK’s carbon footprint.
Paul claims that for the majority, comfort and the cost of living feature far higher on their agenda than cutting carbon. He states that even as a fan of heat pumps, he cannot endorse the idea that homeowners should move improvement of the UK’s woefully damp and draughty housing stock lower down the list, in favour of banging in heat pumps as quickly as possible. This approach could serve to dent the reputation of heat pumps, ignoring the consumers of gas who are not able to make the switch.
As an installer, Paul views first-hand the problems arising when heat pumps are installed in inefficient homes. One of the main problems is over-specification, which leads to higher costs and future problems. If heat loss is high, the size of the heat pump required to keep a building warm, increases. The bigger the heat pump, the more expensive it is. If, in the future, the homeowner makes energy efficiency upgrades, the heat pump and ancillaries (pipes, circulators, pumps etc.) can end up being over-specified, leading to systems that use too much power and are difficult to control.
Nesta’s report states, ”While better insulation is always beneficial with any kind of heating system, it is not an essential prerequisite for getting a heat pump. The key factors affecting a heat pump’s efficiency are system design and adequately sized radiators. While insulation plays an important role in reducing heat demand and can sometimes make heat pumps operate more efficiently, it is not the key factor in heat pump efficiency. Instead, having a well-designed heating system, with correctly sized heat emitters which enable a lower flow temperature, is the most important factor behind a heat pump’s efficiency.”
According to Paul, this is all true but if the energy efficiency of the house changes, as is most likely the case in poorly insulated properties, the original design will no longer be suitable.
Crucially, without a fabric-first approach, energy bills will be prohibitive. One of the arguments Paul has seen to counter this is raising gas prices and reducing the cost of electricity. Everyone wants the latter to happen, but not at the expense of gas customers. Currently, 26 million homes are on natural gas, many of which are not able to switch to heat pumps, it seems unfair that they should be penalised for something beyond their control.
This type of policy masks poor housing and poor heat pump installation by economics. Paul states that we should strive for a future where COP 4+ is the norm.
According to him, ‘fabric first’ should always be the way to go. Suppose carbon reduction using a swift switch to heat pumps is the only goal. In that case, homeowners and landlords will need larger subsidies than currently available and the industry must be prepared for greater numbers of dissatisfied customers.
For the low-carbon sector to thrive, quality is key – happy customers in warm homes that cost less to run. Paul expresses excitement to be working with heatly because it will make a big contribution to this goal; improving heat pump specification and installation accuracy, simplifying the associated processes for installers and making the benefits of heat pumps and supporting energy efficiency upgrades easier to understand for consumers.
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