Talking tech

Heat pump specialist Bob Long highlights two key barriers which persist in curtailing the widespread deployment of heat pumps.

As often happens with my monthly article, the content is decided by yet another real-life event, from the heat pump world. We received a call from the owner of a property with a broken-down heat pump at a location near Preston. The heat pump had been installed four years prior and had cost significantly more to run than originally expected.

The heat pump is of Italian origin and the UK agent currently offers little assistance. The problem with this heat pump was traced to the electronic control board, which refused to power up the circulating pump. Although it is possible that a new board could be found in Italy, an anticipated lengthy time factor would not have been acceptable.

The facts are confined to the reality of two elderly and cold householders, in need of a fast remedy. In view of this situation, a new heat pump was offered at an attractive price and the offer reinforced with a five year extended warranty. The property owner, a retired accountant by profession, quickly calculated that the cost of replacing the heat pump would negate all financial gain. Having considered all available options, they have decided to buy a new oil boiler!

Their argument is based upon straight forward arithmetic, underpinned with the uncertainty of the unit’s actual life span and, sadly, their low level of trust in heat pump technology. Although a five year extended warranty is a well-received and bold commitment, it still only caters for a third of the anticipated lifespan. Unfortunately, due to numerous factors, this installation was not eligible for RHI payments. Had this not been the case, I am sure the heat incentive payment would have swayed their decision.
For the heat pump industry to flourish, this sort of occurrence should simply just not happen!

The intention of the RHI to reward low carbon alternatives is indeed quite obvious, but implementation seems to have ‘lost the plot’ somewhere in its delivery. To obtain the RHI payment property, equipment and installer must comply with a raft of complex rules and paperwork, together with paying numerous fees to various regulating bodies. And, whilst it makes complete sense to reduce thermal losses, it should not be mandatory to make insulation of the property a definitive factor in obtaining RHI. The value of insulation is without argument an essential requirement in any home and applicable to all heating economics, but indeed a separate issue to the economics of a heat pump.

Less than adequate insulation will currently exclude an applicant from obtaining the RHI, yet a property with poor thermal integrity would actually achieve a higher level of carbon reduction by fitting a heat pump.
To outlaw these properties through the stringent rules of the RHI doesn’t appear to make much sense. The necessity for transition to heat pump technology is simply due to electrical energy rapidly becoming the common denominator of all power in UK. There is currently no cheaper electrically powered heat source than the heat pump, and this situation is going to prevail long into the foreseeable future.

My criticism is not levied at our tradesmen – quite the opposite. I am criticising manufacturers, with over-complexity in the majority of heat pumps, and a cumbersome RHI that financially benefits only a few, while excluding many. Heat pumps should display a simple ‘dashboard’ quantifying the amount of renewable energy delivered, and display the result in a single kW/hr figure, at an easily accessible location.
This is the ONLY value the RHI should be interested in, leaving the installation work to the professionals. The technology to provide this real-time information is tried, tested and available, and could potentially rationalise our industry overnight.