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Installation and economics prove problematic

An initial appraisal of the Energy Saving Trust’s Getting Warmer report does not make upbeat reading. At least that’s how it might appear on a first reading - but there is much to encourage the industry.

A coefficient of performance (CoP) of 3 or above is seen as a realistic benchmark for a quality installation. Sadly, only 13 per cent of the sample reached that level. However, the EST was quick to point out that there was no problem with the technology - the important factors centred around installation, commissioning and usage.

The trial considered technical issues such as system sizing and installation as well as customer feedback and behaviour. It looked at 29 air source and 54 ground source pumps from 14 different manufacturers.

Installation quality

It would be simplistic to interpret the results of the field trials as an attack on the competence of installers. There are a number of variables over which the installer has no control. However, improving the quality of installation and, particularly, final commissioning of the units will improve overall user satisfaction. We also need to get better at explaining our work to end users.

While heat pumps are not new, the market remains relatively small and the industry, therefore, is still learning. We are in the process of training and retraining ‘traditional’ installers and the EST report acknowledges this fact.

Our European neighbours had similar teething problems and are now reaping the benefits. In Scandinavia, in particular, the climactic conditions have created a hugely successful heat pump market. We have a long way to go and our elderly housing stock suffers from poor insulation standards. As this is addressed so the picture for heat pumps will also improve.

There is no doubt that heat pumps will play an important role in our low carbon future. With heating and hot water accounting for 47 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions, according to the EST, we cannot afford to ignore this ­affordable and potentially mass market option.

Currently, the economics of heat pump installations are not showing good payback for customers and that is an issue the ­industry must address.

However, improved installation practices and the potential for financial subsidies through the proposed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), due to come into effect next year, could radically change this picture for ‘on grid’ customers as well.

It is the intelligent application of the technology that is important and simplicity is the key. Installers can drive this market by harnessing their in-depth knowledge. The increase in the use of lower temperature heating systems, such as underfloor, is another positive development for heat pumps, which also work well with traditional radiator systems.

The EST field trial has created much food for thought and we have been challenged to improve our performance. Heat pumps are not right for every application, but they are appropriate for many and this report should be seen as a useful starting point.

The challenge to manufacturers is to provide more comprehensive support and guidance to ensure the application of the technology is appropriate.

Nick Stevenson is new energy director at Ideal Heating