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Heat pumps boom requires decisions

Heat pumps have assumed the mantle of being, almost, the saviour of the building products and services industries. I believe the reality is somewhat different.

The domestic heating and hot water market had something like 2 million new installations of gas central heating boilers in 2008 - to add to the 20-odd million already in place.

The remaining five million or so of our current housing stock gets its heating and hot water from a mixture of electricity, oil and solid fuel. Renewables make up, at best, 1 or 2 per cent of the installations of new heating and hot ­water systems in residential ­properties.

I fully accept the logic for the growth of heat pumps. They are cleaner and can be far more energy efficient than current systems. They are also much kinder to the environment and promise years of efficient usage.

Barriers to growth

Heat pumps - especially air-source - may make an excellent replacement for our overdependence on gas central heating systems, but there are a lot of hurdles to be surmounted before the ­domestic heat pump marketplace becomes a major force.

The crux of the problem appears to be a twisted puzzle: who will successfully take over the ­installation of domestic heat pumps?

Air conditioning contractors know all about heat pumps but not necessarily about installing them on a domestic system and there is a huge difference between the two. Heat pumps have fridge handling issues - plumbers are loathe to get involved; air conditioning contractors are not familiar with the structure of the domestic market.

But someone has got to do the installations and specify the products on big housing projects, whether they are private or social ones.
Estimates vary as to the total value of the domestic heating marketplace.

The last one I saw had the total market as being worth about £2.5 billion. Installation makes up over 50 per cent of that figure.

All the signs point towards heat pumps growth of anything from 10 to 20 per cent a year.

I accept there are some contractors doing sterling work in ­establishing themselves as specialists, but it still isn’t a mass market - yet.
My personal view - from an air conditioning background - is that we have to rethink our collective approach.

That should start with having a specialist and dedicated heating division or company within your own particular organisation.

I have seen some manufacturers bolt on air conditioning to their product offering of DVD recorders, TVs, fridges, microwaves, etc and there were always problems of trying to give balance to the fact that selling in the commercial market is so different to selling to the consumer.

If an organisation commits to having a specialist or dedicated heating division it can then go about setting up the necessary infrastructure, for example partnering with the right manufacturer or contractor, ongoing commitment to training, aftersales service, end user aftersales service, and breakdown response teams.

End-user support

There is a big potential market but there is an over-riding need for research, planning, sales and marketing and - above all - end-user aftersales service.

At the moment air conditioning product manufacturers are competing against the boiler manufacturers who already dominate the current domestic heating marketplace.

Boiler manufacturers will not be relinquishing that dominance without a fight - and never forget they have all the necessary infrastructure in place.

From my own company’s point of view we have watched and listened very carefully to the market developing in the way and manner it has - we have chosen not to introduce our product range into this arena and will continue to watch and wait before we commit.

Tony Gittings is sales and marketing director at FG Eurofred