In conversation with Jo Alsop of The Heating Hub 

Jo Alsop, Founder of The Heating Hub, speaks with REI about the importance of empowering consumers with cost-led education, so they can go into conversations with installers better informed. 

Jo Alsop of The Heating Hub speaks with REI about the importance of empowering consumers with cost-led education.

The Heating Hub has existed in various guises for over a decade now. How has the organisation changed and grown over that time? 

“We started life as a local heating company initially repairing boilers and later expanding into renewables and wood-burning stoves. I used to blog about boilers and heating on our website and, over time, we attracted a national audience. When we sold the installation business, I carved out the website from the sale to launch a new standalone advice service. 

“The business today provides 1-2-1 help for households at every step, with the ultimate destination of fitting a renewable energy system and providing referrals onto a network of technically assessed installers. Households are wasting thousands of pounds on products they don’t need and nearly always underperform, due to low levels of know-how, and we wanted to correct this. 

“Three years in, we took our next step and merged with tech start-up, Warmur. Warmur is using software to help people understand the combined benefits of heat pumps, solar, batteries and time-of-use tariffs and fit optimised products. They are also using the same tech to help local installers advise their customers on combinations of products and compete with national operators. It was a natural fit, as our joint mission is to help households make better buying decisions and help great local companies compete.” 

What is your biggest motivator when it comes to your business? 

“I am massively motivated to stop poor buying decisions. I know that households are wasting precious budget on products they don’t need or do little to improve their situation – such as by lowering their fuel bills and/or reducing their carbon footprint – simply because they don’t have access to independent and expert advice. 

“Budgets are tight, and what we spend must have the biggest impact if we are to decarbonise our homes quickly. It will ultimately be households that pick up the bill for moving from gas to renewables and improving their insulation, so they need help to avoid wasting their money.” 

Communicating with consumers is central for you. What do you recommend to installers when it comes to communicating clearly, with the right information? 

“We find consumers at all different stages of their understanding – from grappling with their heating programmers to chartered engineers that understand the physics of their heating systems, and everyone in-between. Adapting your starting point for advice is important, as is appreciating where customers are on their journey. 

“Installers are so tight for time, however, that it’s hard and, in many ways, unfair to expect them to advise consumers on what they should do across multiple measures. Renewables installers need customers who understand their options and know a heat pump is right for them today. 

“Many installers are now charging a fee for surveying, to sift out customers that are less serious or have not considered all their options. This is the right thing to do for the installer, but it ultimately doesn’t help households progress their understanding or make a plan. 

“This is where our business works for both parties. We make life much easier for installers, and smoother for homeowners, by taking the time to triage customer needs before an installer has even set foot inside a property, and then route them back to great local businesses when they’re ready to take the next step.” 

What are consumers looking for at the moment? 

“Evidence of climate change is all around us and this has driven up interest in green technologies. Many consumers want help to go greener, but don’t know where to start. 

“The cost-of-living crisis has also forced households to focus on their energy bills in a way they haven’t had to before. Consumers are interested in technologies that can reduce their energy demand and save them money. Heat pumps and solar PV panels are a great combination and do save households money on their energy bills, but no-one is joining the dots on combined technologies, which is where Warmur’s software comes in. 

“We’ve certainly seen a culture war play out in the press around heat pumps and ‘hydrogen-ready’ boilers, with both technologies weaponised by political groups and the gas industry in an attempt to frustrate and delay heat pump take up. It’s certainly working, as boilers continue to sell in inflated numbers and heat pumps sit firmly within the innovator/early adopter stages. 

“But there are green shoots; an increase in the BUS grant has been successful in tipping the balance for many households towards a heat pump and big players, including Octopus and Aira, are pumping vast sums of money into their heat pump businesses. Whilst low-cost competition is not always welcomed by sole traders and small businesses, it does show there is confidence in the market and that will drive consumer demand for all installers.” 

What do you think are the biggest barriers for consumers and how can installers help overcome these?

“Confidence is the biggest barrier. Households want to take action, but they don’t know which thing to do first and then which to do next. 

Beyond confidence, there are a multitude of drop- off points where potential heat pump customers can lose their nerve during the research phase. 

“Many potential customers will be put off by uninformed opinions of existing gas engineers with a vested interest in discouraging switching. More still will start googling heat pumps and quickly convince themselves (erroneously) that their property needs tens of thousands spent on insulation before it could be ready to have a heat pump installed. Even for those who get past this point, confusion about fuses or flat roofs or outdated concerns about noise mean that all but the most committed innovators will be put off before even picking up the phone to an installer. 

“A local installer or small business cannot possibly overcome all of these barriers alone, but they can try to target customer types that have fewer barriers. We are still in the innovator/ early adopter phase of the take up cycle for heat pumps, which are those customers who are willing to take on a technology even when they don’t know anyone else that has one. 

Understanding who is an innovator/early adopter will help installers know whether they’re likely to buy. For example, do they have an EV and/ or some solar panels already? If yes, they are likely good candidates for more household electrification.” 

How do you find and work with installers – your ‘heroes’? 

“All of our installers are technically assessed before they come onto the network and then we get to know them through the jobs they do with us. We aren’t looking for high volumes of installers, rather a core group of high quality installers. Most have gone through training and understand hydronics and weather and load compensation as a minimum and have been designing gas heating systems to run optimally.” 

“We’re always keen to hear from renewables installers who want to do the best possible job for the consumer. Homeowners have plenty of options if they’re motivated solely by lowest price. Our installers are typically offering a high quality product and standard of installation, which sets them apart.” 

What are the major benefits or challenges when it comes to being a woman in the sector? 

“I haven’t experienced any major challenges. The odd Twitter bashing aside, I find the heating sector a brilliant and highly supportive place to work. I am, everyday, inspired by the high standards of those installers on our network and the innovative work going on across the industry to expedite the energy transition. 

“0.5% of registered gas installers are women, which must be one of the worst work-based gender imbalances of any sector. Yet 21% of women would consider a career in trades according to some research by Powered Now. 

“At the school leaver level, the number of women entering the trade is increasing, and that is very positive, but it’s also a long pipeline. 

We need more career-change women if we are to redress the balance anytime soon, but that means going back to college, a drop in salary and finding an apprenticeship for on-the-job training. 

“At the moment, there is no fast track, supported training route for re-training as a heat pump installer. Women need to brace for a period of low pay and going to great lengths to find some work experience. My advice is to ignore gas training and focus initially on plumbing. ‘Plumbing Craft’ courses are typically 8-10 weeks and teach the basics of plumbing, heating and pipework. Heat pump installers will also need to access training on hydronics, heating controls and heat pump products (e.g. by attending manufacturer training courses). Peer-to-peer support via Facebook groups is also a good source of knowledge.” 

What are your thoughts on government strategies for achieving net zero? 

“Government policy is woefully lacklustre and has been for more than a decade. Policies that were successfully insulating homes up until 2012 and plans to phase out gas boilers for new builds in 2016 were scrapped under the Conservative government and have not yet been reinstated. 

Gas boilers will now be banned from 2025 in new builds and the Great British Insulation Scheme doesn’t make up for a decade of lost momentum retrofitting homes. The increase in the BUS grant to £7.5k and, more recently, the total funding pot to nearly £2 billion is welcome, but we still lag behind many comparable European countries.” 

What is the vision for the industry, and your company within that? 

“Despite on/off government policy around renewables, businesses can see the size of the market. The last 12 months has seen Octopus really ramp up its operations and there are other big operators getting into position, for example Aira and British Gas. 

“With Warmur, we are working on helping independent installers respond to this by bringing them well-informed customers and powerful operational tools to compete with national operators.”