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Blog Post 24 June 2021

Air source heat pump: a low carbon heating solution for a rural, off gas home

To reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we will need to change the way we heat our homes and buildings. One way we can do this is to replace fossil fuel boilers with electric heating systems like a heat pump.

We sat down with Sadie Dainton, consumer policy manager at the British Standards Institution – and proud heat pump owner – to find out more about her personal experience of installing and owning a low carbon heating system.

Why did you decide to install a heat pump?

I live in a very rural location; despite being just 30 minutes from London, there is no mains gas line. When I bought the property, it had electricity and was fuelled by oil. Oil was very expensive and unsustainable, and I’ve always been interested in sustainability and reducing my impact on the environment.

We installed the heat pump as part of a big renovation of our 1953 property that hadn’t been touched since it was built. I looked at what the government was offering in terms of renewable heat options, as well as the energy review carried out on your home when you buy or sell a property. As there was no gas connection, I was eligible for the UK Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which offers payments for installing a renewable heating system over a period of seven years.

I opted for an air source heat pump with underfloor heating throughout the entire house – upstairs and downstairs – as well as fully insulating the property. I worked with an architect who was similarly interested in sustainability. Interestingly, the decision to install an air source heat pump helped with the planning and building approvals. Given that we decided to do a complete renovation, it became a cost-effective way of bringing sustainable energy into our home. Now it heats our home and hot water.

Do you need backup heating during colder months?

No. One of the concerns you often have about heat pumps, which run entirely on electricity, is what happens when there’s a power cut? We looked at all the backup options, but in six years, although we do have lots of power cuts, I’ve never had a problem with the heat pump. Electricity failures tend to be short, so it hasn’t been necessary to install a backup generator. It’s been very low maintenance, with just an annual service. There’s nothing really to go wrong! It’s been a very efficient and effective way of heating our home.

With underfloor heating, you need to adjust to a different way of heating your home. You’re using a much lower temperature under the floor, but you have a consistent heat, and it’s more humid. You don’t have big fluctuations in heat where you’re either freezing or boiling hot! It does take a bit of time to get used to the system and to work out what to set it on. With insulation, a lot of the time we don’t need any heating; with a bit of sunshine, our home is warm!

The heat pump is very efficient at heating our water; it’s only set for an hour or so at each end of the day, and there’s always plenty of hot water. When we use the system for heating in the winter months, it’s left on 24 hours a day, but I have a thermostat in each room, which reduces the temperature overnight. It can take several days to get back up to heat if you switch it off – about a degree a day – but as long as you understand the system, and understand the way you live, then it works well!

Has the transition to working from home over the past year changed how you use your heat pump?

It’s been no problem. With a heat pump, you don’t feel like you’ve got the heating on all the time, because it works at a lower, consistent temperature. You don’t have that feeling of one room being cold and another warm, it’s much more consistent throughout the house. The underfloor heating, while it takes a longer time to heat up, also takes much longer to cool down. There are no peaks and troughs in heating temperatures, it’s more of a steady heat that fluctuates by just two or three degrees.

What about RHI payments?

I receive a payment under the RHI scheme every quarter. The idea is that when you invest the upfront cost, you get that money back in instalments over seven years. It’s the house that gets the payback – so if I moved, the new owners would continue to receive RHI payments for the heat pump. The scheme was a contributing factor in my decision to install a heat pump, as I think it is for many people. The support is important if the government wants to encourage people to install renewable heating systems.

The local council has installed several heat pumps in the village near me, as have other private homes – one of which even has two! This is primarily for the same reason that there’s no gas and it’s been more economic to install an air source heat pump. And because we are rural, there does tend to be outdoor space to put the heat pump. However, the unit I have could go into a property with any outdoor space, and it’s extremely quiet – we never hear it!

Did you consider a ground source heat pump?

We opted for an air source instead of a ground source heat pump mainly due to the cost. At the time, a ground source was around 4-5 times more expensive than an air source heat pump. It also requires more outdoor work to install one, and it needs the same amount of indoor space too, so the benefits didn’t seem to be worth the higher investment.

A friend who lives nearby has built a passive home, and he opted for a borehole ground source heat pump. While this type of ground source heat pump wasn’t cost-effective for me, he investigated all the options and decided a borehole was best for his situation.

What’s the main benefit of owning a heat pump?

I think it’s the simplicity of it. Like any heating system, it requires some effort to set up, but I have great confidence in the heat pump. With gas boilers, there’s always a concern about NOx emissions and the system breaking down. So, it’s the safety and the simplicity of a heat pump that’s great.

What advice would you offer someone considering installing a heat pump?

Find an independent expert who can help you understand the benefits and how to make the most of the system. When I was first looking, it was still a relatively new technology, so I attended several shows where I found the manufacturers to be extremely helpful and informative about the products. As a consumer, you need to feel confident that the installers have the right knowledge to help you make the right decision. We now have a village WhatsApp group, and if someone asks ‘do you know anyone who services heat pumps?’, there’s now five or six engineers who offer that service. When I installed mine six or seven years ago, no one was able to service them.

People are often fearful of new products, so consumer confidence is important. It’s knowing that if you invest in a heat pump, there will be maintenance and servicing options if you need them. Heat pumps are now a much more common system, but they also don’t require as much maintenance as a boiler. You always hear about boilers breaking down, but I don’t hear that about air source heat pumps!

I think it would help if there was more information available to consumers about the reliability of the product to help them commit to that larger investment. When I did a price comparison in the early stages of the renovation project, if you’re starting from scratch, there’s not much difference between the cost of an air source heat pump with underfloor heating and the alternative: pipes, radiators, a boiler and either Calor gas or oil. There is a difference if you want to just switch a boiler for a heat pump, but if you have to replace your entire heating system, then it’s definitely a cost-effective option.

Any final thoughts?

Be confident and take the opportunity to explore more sustainable ways of heating your home when you have to make a change. Consumers can make a real difference when they’re able to make an informed choice and contribute to more sustainable lifestyles. It can sound complicated and if it’s something new to you, it can be off-putting. But we’ve adopted new technologies in our homes before. We didn’t used to have WiFi at home and now everything’s connected! And while heat pumps are relatively new to the UK, they’re well-established in places like Germany and Sweden. So do take a look – there’s a lot of data out there that could reassure you.

Last updated: June 23rd, 2021