Emma Bohan of IMS Heat Pumps making a change, one heat pump at a time

Emma Bohan first came across heat pumps in Sheffield in 2001, when she was working for a business development consultancy specialising in environmentally friendly technologies. Through this, she met Alan Donald and his colleagues, and advised them as they formed a company which eventually become IMS Heating Solutions Ltd.

Emma Bohan, Managing director of IMS heat pumps

After a few years as a Business Operations Manager and then Managing Director for another heat pump Company, Emma joined IMS Heat Pumps in 2019. She’s now MD of the company, one of the leading installers of ground source and air source heat pumps in Scotland, the North and the Midlands.

We spoke to Emma about her mission to make a change, one heat pump at a time, and to get her honest views about an industry she is passionate about.

The heat pump targets are pretty huge. How can the sector meet these?

My motto is ‘One heat pump at a time’. That’s all we can focus on; do that one, do it right.

Make sure that that client’s happy, they’ll tell somebody else and so on. That’s how we’ll get to one hundred at a time, two hundred at a time.

There’s so much more that should be being done by our government and others. It just frustrates me, the lack of interest. They’re giving grants for heat pumps, but still not raising awareness, and then stand up in Parliament or are quoted on the BBC saying things that are not true.

I often laugh and say, Boris ‘word salad-ed’ out ‘600,000 heat pumps’. Where did that come from? (It came from the ECC who are, at least, trying to get the Government to do the right thing.)

 But I did some quick calculations because I like numbers.

At the end of the Domestic RHI, in 2022, there were 1,400 MCS registered heat pump installers. Those 1,400 registered over 8,000 heat pumps in the March of 2022.

There were big warnings to business owners about ‘gaming the system’ and ‘wholesale fraud’, because that’s what they were expecting, but, unless they are covering that up, that hasn’t happened. But let’s just say, for argument’s sake, 1,000 of those recorded heat pumps were [somehow fraudulent]. You’ve still got 7,500 heat pumps installed by 1,400 installers [in a month].

So, that’s 90,000 heat pumps in a year – almost a sixth of the government target. We’re not actually doing anything like that – I think we did 30,000 last year. But that’s what we could do.

There are now 1800, 1900 MCS installers, so people are joining the party. The current installer base could do 100,000 a year, if the awareness was around. But it’s not. So, we need higher awareness and better funding.

What has gone wrong?

[When] heat pumps fell out of Boris’s mouth, and the ‘green agenda’ was his key message, that meant awareness was massive. That was when we had the RHI, a much better funding regime. Yes,you had to pay for it up front, but you got £11-12,000 back on your air source and £35-36,000 on your ground source, if you were maxing out the grant. You also had the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme which meant you got £5-10,000 off your bill up front, and you could still claim any difference back from the RHR.

In 2019 it was a smaller market, but we felt the change coming. David Attenborough had become a national treasure, with his Planet Earth series, and everybody was waking up, Just Stop Oil and other climate change activists were protesting about everything, and Greta Thunberg was on the scene.

It felt like there was a distinct move. And there was a lot of policy stuff coming out again, post the Green Homes Grant: taking the gas boiler off the wall, Future Homes Standards, heating bills, heat and building strategy, grants.

So much stuff was being talked about and written about, you just felt something was going to happen. 2020 was huge in terms of the awareness, and then it all just fell off.

When people knew about the schemes and the funding available, so many heat pumps were sold and installed, it was insane.

How can that mass awareness be built?

People are looking at the gas guys and going, “Why don’t you want to get into heat pumps?”, and the gas guy’s going, “Because we can’t see the market.”

There needs to be a public information campaign. We had one about getting your TV digital-ready, we were blasted with it: “You’ll die because you’ll not be able to get Eastenders if you’re not digital ready.” We saw the same with the Millennium Bug, AIDs. It can be done.

On LinkedIn someone was talking about when they were bringing in town gas, they had roadshows showing people what a cooker looked like with gas coming out of it. We haven’t had any of that. There’s nothing to counteract what people have read in the ‘Torygraph’ or the Daily Mail, which is the same as what Paul in pub has told them [about Heat Pumps]: ‘They don’t work, they’re too expensive, you’ll be freezing, and it’s all about net zero and that weirdo, Greta Thunberg’.

There are a lot of people in this country like that. It means nothing to them, and we haven’t got a plan to appeal to them; we haven’t got plans to talk to them.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that needs a simplified message for the consumer to engage with but, specifically, it needs to come from the Government, or a trusted voice.

What we need is a clear path, without the bombs being thrown at us, we need the highway lit up. And we need to see it for the next five years. And people will strategize on that, businesses will transition from gas to heat pumps. Because, if you build the awareness, the client starts asking the plumber, “I want a heat pump, what do you say?” The plumber starts getting on board because the messaging is saying it’s a positive thing to do, and you make a bit more money doing it. And if you don’t do it, you’re going to be a fossil fuel yourself, you’d be a dinosaur. But if you’re coming into this market [for the first time], you don’t want to be fixing steam trains, you want to be installing fast electric super trains. It’s the same kind of thing.

As a nation, we have always pulled our socks up to deliver what we need. Think what you want about COVID, but it proved it: the action that happened, the partnerships that were formed, the things that were delivered, and the fast action from different industries to get things done.

Because the Government was saying “It’s a priority, it’s an emergency, it needs to happen.” We kind of need that war effort feeling behind it, giving it our 100% backing. And if you build it, they will come.

What is most exciting about the industry?

It does feel buzzing. The industry was always quite small, and it’s still very friendly. Nobody is competition, really, as there’s enough of work to go around. And it’s exciting to see new things happen, you know, the Airas of the world, and the Octopus, the EDFs, and all of these coming into the industry. It’s exciting seeing what they’re going to do because they are marketing it and they’ve got budget so, if they’re marketing it, it’s good for everybody else. They’re saying, “get on board” and the trickle down for that is that we will pick up more work.

Can you talk about being a woman in the sector?

It’s interesting. My husband bought me Mishal Husain’s book recently [The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job – What Every Woman Needs to Know] and it starts off by talking about competence and confidence. What I’m really feeling is imposter syndrome. The thing about the construction industry is that it is male dominated, but there are a lot of cool women doing some cool stuff.

It’s a construction industry-wide challenge. The fact that only 2% of women are in construction is just diabolical. There are only 2% of women on the tools, and I’d take one tomorrow [if they applied for a job], but I’ve only ever seen four CVs [from women]. Three of them were not in our area, and one got over-offered to stay where she was. But that’s in eight years of working in heat pumps.

The women in the industry tend to be in my position. I’m not a plumber, I’m not a sparky, I’m not a brickie, I’ve not come out of that industry. I’m a businesswoman who wants to do a good job.

The majority of the women in my position tend to not have an engineering background. But, out in the big world, it’s all about your technical prowess, that’s their language. However, there are brilliant women out there who do know their stuff. And the guys in the industry that I’ve come across have always been very supportive, very helpful, and they do really talk to you on an equal level.

But we [women] are banding together, there are a lot more of us now. It’s going to be interesting to see how the industry – construction and heating, plumbing, heat pumps – react. It’s all wave after wave after #MeToo, it’s another round of women’s rights and equality. And the fact is, the construction industry needs to wake up and look at how it advertises itself as a career path for women.

What would you say to those considering moving into the industry?

I spend a significant amount of time rolling my eyes at the fact that they [the Government] have made university the de facto educational route or choice for everybody. They’ve done the construction and related trades and massive disservice over the last three generations by taking people who would have ordinarily gone into trade and making them go and get a 2:1 in marketing, or whatever, that’s given them debt and no real career prospects. But because of that, we might now see a shift towards trades. I’ve got 22- and 23-year-olds earning £30,000 a year; there’s good money to be earned here.

We are here to stay. If you are looking for a job for life, you can’t go wrong by choosing a career in heat pumps, whether that’s an office job, project coordinator, finance. With the green economy and the green skill set, it’s the same jobs but just in a different sector. But you’ve got to have an interest in learning about the technology as well, because it’s not [one size fits all].

Our motto is that everybody has to be able to have at least a minimum level of conversation about the products that we sell. If someone calls up and says, “I just wanted to know, what’s the difference between air source and ground source?”, everybody in the business should be able to answer that, and about related industries: solar, PV, batteries, groundwork, heat networks.

There are so many things happening, there are definitely worse industries to be a part of!