Bob Beattie has designed and supplied heat pumps since the 1980s and has been involved in the evolution of domestic heat pumps since the mid ’90s. Today, we’re quizzing Bob about heat pumps and the market. In part one, we look at questions and concerns homeowners in the UK have about switching to heat pumps from gas or oil boilers.
When installing a heat pump, what are the most important things homeowners should take into consideration and be aware of?
Before undertaking any work, homeowners should investigate how much of the heat load they can reduce by taking simple measures like improving or adding insulation, adding to the glazing, checking the air tightness of doors and windows, and researching the various types of heat pumps that are available.
Check the size/rating of the existing boiler to get a guide to the size of heat pump that may be required. Changing radiators, if required, is not as expensive as it sounds and may not even be necessary. You can buy a double radiator, 1200x600mm, for £52.00 including valves.
Check with local authorities to see what grants and loans are available and be persistent with them. Then check out your local heat pump contractor or heating engineer, and get a few to give you proposals and quotations. Query any remedial work required to the property.
Lastly, check out the products offered on the web and look for reviews of product and contractor, checking their credentials.
For houses that are to be retrofitted with a heat pump, what are the most important things that should be addressed as part of proposal from a potential installer?
Apart from reducing your load in the first place, take a critical look at the property and decide if the various current parts of the system are in good order and fit for purpose. Check radiators for leaks and sizing, and question whether they are adequate for the current boiler. You may not have to change some radiators at all or not in all rooms. Also check your piping and their routes. Many can be piped and sized incorrectly.
Other questions to ask. Have you got the space for tanks and pumps? Is the power supply big enough for the new system? These are very important points, and any planning and power permissions should be dealt with by the contractor.
Think about the physical size of the heat pump and ask about sound levels and ensure you are happy with the final position of the outdoor unit so that it doesn’t affect you, and also consider your neighbours. Remember, you have to live with them, the engineer doesn’t! Despite their size, you will be surprised where a heat pump can fit. I would strongly recommend that you ask to hear a system in operation.
Ensure that a good, well drained base for the outdoor unit is laid with anti-vibration mounts. These units, in humid conditions, will defrost regularly and that water has to go somewhere. Good drainage prevents the unit suffering from icing up after defrost.
Be prepared and expect a variety of prices, and sit down and compare what is offered. One of the most common complaints, after the event, are “we did not quote for that”.
The heating engineer is not a mind reader, as least not many are, so talk through what is required, focusing on timescales and disruptions, and ask questions, no matter how stupid you think they may be. Who knows, you might help him win the sweepstake for daft question of the week.
Often, the mid- to high-end quote can often be the best. Ask for a detailed quotation and do not be afraid to query every component. The best engineers will be happy to explain every step. You may not understand what the component does but ask any way.
Ask about the manufacturer’s warranty and get written proof. A good contractor will have a relationship with the manufacturer he is pushing, and they may have an extended warranty to offer. Ask what the warranty entails. Does it cover the installation as well as the unit? Is it parts and labour, and only for the unit? Ensure you get service and maintenance numbers for warranty and try them before signing off the installation.
Ask for a manual. Far too many people have the job installed and don’t get or ask for a manual. Ask for the controls to be explained and demonstrated until you actually grasp what they do.
A good to great heating contractor will cover most of things I’ve mentioned above.
What are the most common mistakes you have come across when heat pumps have not been installed poorly or incorrectly?
Undersizing of systems can be too common and changing radiators when it’s not required.
Fake warranty, because people do not check this. No manufacturer sells extended warranty even if it is backed up by an approved installer.
A common error is relying on the pump supplied within the heat pump to cover a diverse size of buildings. Also, installation companies going bust is common in today’s market, partly due to Covid. Check Companies House. It’s free, and you get some idea of the trading history.
Not installing a flow meter is a mistake. We offer one with each domestic heat pump, but many engineers have their favourites.
Not understanding the controls, then changing them from design settings. This causes problems and could increase the energy costs of running the system.
From your experience, what are the biggest concerns households have to switching from oil/gas boilers to heat pumps?
Lack of research and knowledge. This is not helped by the contradictory information that is out there, even from government. Beware of vested interests and their agenda. Current air to water heat pumps have been in the UK market for over 11 years, some longer. New buyers do not appear to question the method of heating in the property.
Educating the domestic buyer to raise their expectations and not rely on the builder to tell them what they need in a property. The heady days of owning your own home or a bigger version, tends to exclude sanity. How many people really question the heating system, efficiency, type, etc? Do buyers ask for heating bills? When buying a TV, car or appliance the seller gets bombarded with questions from people who do research. However, when buying a home, the same people are only considering where the said TV, cooker, ovens and appliances are going – not how they are going to heat the place.
Builders and developers do not typically enlighten buyers so we must educate buyers and homeowners to ask and expect more. People that are off-grid do not often have a choice of heating source or at least a cost effective, efficient one. I have seen installed LPG, oil and biomass with mixed results. The latter having clients left without a heat source as their supplier went bust.
The range of heat pumps in the market is vast, but not all suit every property. Ground source is perhaps the most efficient, but is often the most expensive to install.
We are blessed with a variety of sources to extract heat from. This includes rivers, lakes, canals, and, recently, mine shaft water for district heating.
Should consumers be worried about rising electricity costs and the effect this may have on their heating bills?
As sure as death and taxes, energy prices will rise and often without justification. Like car fuel, we have no choice, but make the best of what we have and reduce our consumption with the methods available in the current market and within our budgets.
My recommendation is to integrate renewables in properties, where financially possible. Heat pumps, solar PV and thermal are a starting point and, perhaps, a domestic wind turbine. All, but the latter, are perfectly feasible on new build sites now. It is the best time to install on a new estate where the builder has negotiated a deal with manufacturers. Chances of that happening? Slim without legislation.
A renewed interest in district heating is particularly relevant for new estates but not applied as often as feasible. However, some councils are being innovative by retrofitting district heating using various sources. They get grants from government.