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The UK is the biggest boiler market in Europe, FACT. But the majority of heating system stock relies on gas systems – a whopping 85% are gas boilers which equate to about 1.5 million gas boilers being installed each year.

Thanks to government measures and the world’s most innovative manufacturers, renewable heating is fast becoming a bit of a trend – though it’s vital to point out that still only 2% of the heating systems in the UK are represented by renewables.

Heat pumps in particular have gathered momentum somewhat and are fast becoming the perceived solution to our emissions crisis.

The question is, how maintainable is this trend?

What’s caused the rise in demand for heat pumps?

The basic answer? Boris Johnson and his Ten Point Plan in which he pledged 600,000 heat pumps will be installed into homes every year by 2028. As part of the Future Home Standard, it was also proposed that heat pumps should be a leading technology for all new homes - Chancellor Rishi Sunak even went as far as banning fossil-fuelled heating in any new homes built from 2025.

But why now? Well, we all know the government is on a mission to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, and rightly so. 47% of all energy consumption in the UK is from heating and a massive 55% of that is used to heat domestic homes. As I mentioned before, around 85% of heating domestic homes is via gas boilers. With this comes the combustion of fossil fuel and we all know that’s a major contributor to air pollution and climate change. Similarly, buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions, with commercial properties accounting for over half of that. There’s an obvious need for change. Around 85% of heating domestic homes is via gas boilers.

So, when research into heat pumps and their ability to significantly reduce emissions took place, and more and more manufacturers began to make them available, the government jumped on the back of the trend. And so, as the new rules and pledges arose, the government had to find a way to make heat pumps accessible on both a domestic and non-domestic level.

That’s when they announced the non-domestic and domestic Renewable Heat Incentives, to provide support with installation costs of heat pumps.

It’s really no surprise then that there has been an increase in the demand for heat pumps. How can we ignore a government-approved heat source, also used to help meet their emission reduction quotas? We can’t.

Looking beyond domestic usage to commercial

In 2019, 20 million households purchased heat pumps and projections show the future growth to be impressive. Delta Energy and Environment anticipate the UK market is set to double by 2025. But what’s the commercial uptake like?

Considering the HPA is investing in multiple training routes to upskill heat pump installers, I’d say there’s something on the horizon. Wouldn’t you? But, aside from speculation, there’s hard evidence to suggest commercial uptake is on the rise.

Take GAHP’s for example. Their usage is intended for small to medium-sized commercial end-users such as schools, offices, hotels etc, and whilst the market for them isn’t quite where it needs to be – a limited number of suppliers being the main issue – they are predicted to play a key role in meeting emission reduction targets ahead of 2050. In fact, it’s thought that even the larger commercial users will have multiple GAHP’s installed to extend the capacity of heat output beyond 35 -40Kw.

Any other evidence? Sure. All we have to do is look at the other developments hitting the market which appear to be influencing the uptake and effectiveness of heat pumps and it becomes obvious. From highly efficient compressors and compression systems to the use of thermal stores, the evidence points towards a rise in demand for heat pumps in the commercial space.

The reality of commercial heat pump usage

Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means suggesting heat pumps aren’t a good thing. But I am concerned with how maintainable the trend is, especially in commercial environments.

Sure, there’s a saving to be had on heating bills, but as always with every pro comes a con. And, while there are claims that heat pumps prove to be cost-effective in comparison to other options, the upfront installation costs, whether on a new building or an existing premise can be potentially eye-watering.

Maintenance costs are also no match to the traditional HVAC equipment. Heat pump’s cost-effectiveness therefore may be overstated. And now the Non-Domestic RHI scheme has ended, I can see why the move to heat pumps could be considered unjustifiable for some - especially in the current climate.

We know the installation is costly, but it can also be disruptive. With ground source heat pumps, in particular, the installation will depend on local geology. Extensive research will need to be undertaken to determine whether heat pumps are a viable option, and this means time as well as cost. The installation itself means an uphaul of the ground surrounding the building, and thus the premise becomes a construction site - not only disruptive but could also mean planning permission may have to be granted. Maintenance costs are also no match to the traditional HVAC equipment. Heat pump’s cost-effectiveness therefore may be overstated.

Air Source Heat Pumps, therefore, are the better option for commercial usage, but these come with downsides of their own. Firstly, not all commercial properties have the right structure for installation. Given Air Source Heat Pumps require the fitting of an external unit, a suitable exterior wall or level roof space will be needed. Moving inside; maintenance of many smaller heat pumps which often need to be installed in ceilings will be a lot harder, and more labour intensive.

Air source heat pumps are also more dependent on the outdoor temperature, so use in high rise buildings is not recommended. And unfortunately, temperature also impacts the efficiency of a heat pump – basically, as the average outdoor temperature lowers, the efficiency of heat pumps does also.

Demand vs Supply

The Heat Pump Association (HPA) recently shared that 67,000 heat pumps have already been ordered in 2021 to date – a figure which is double that of current stock. Should we be alarmed? Can the supply chain cope with the growing demand?

Let’s stick with exploring Air Source Heat Pumps. In the UK, 87% of units sold are accounted for by ASHPs – though a large proportion of these are for domestic usage. Globally, there are around 33 manufacturers who supply ASHPs to the UK, and only three of these actually manufacture in the UK. Now, I don’t need to tell you why this could be an issue in future years, do I?

Despite manufacturers stating in a recent survey that they are confident they could increase supply into the UK market to cope with both demand and government encouragement, the worry comes with the fact that most heat pump components are sourced from outside of the UK. The UK’s future trade agreements are still unclear, and no one knows how this will affect the HVAC industry and its supply chain.

The heat pump supply chain in particular is extremely complex, and with the reliance on the ‘big players’ to manufacture and export vital components, our industry is a lot more exposed.

Can we really define heat pumps as a ‘green heating solution’?

It’s a difficult one, to say the least. Firstly, it comes down to whether carbon footprints have been lowered due to the use of heat pumps. The biggest factor which decides this in commercial buildings is the fuel mixed used to generate electricity.

Say electricity is sent to a commercial property after being generated by fossil fuels such as natural gas, if the climate is low or drops, the heat pump will more than likely have a higher carbon footprint than that of a natural gas furnace.

Secondly, as with all cases of “renewable” energy, when fuel is considered to be virtually limitless and free, the total cost of generation is what we really need to be looking at.

Lastly, but not certainly least, the refrigerant fluid used in the pipe system of the heat pumps may cause environmental concerns.

According to Evergreen Energy, in the event that refrigerant fluid was to leak, the hydrofluorocarbons released would contribute to global warming approximately 100 times more than carbon dioxide. Though bio-degradable options are available, experts advise acting on the side of caution while considering which fluids would work best in the long term. The chances of leaks occurring are relatively small, but the effects could be damaging.

There is no time to waste or ‘planet B’, so the HVAC industry must act now to provide a sustainable alternative, but questions should be raised as to whether heat pumps are really a sustainable solution.

I for one am certainly intrigued as to how this will pan out over the coming years and whether their usage WILL solve our industry’s emissions crisis.

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