How to get a heat pump for your house (in Great Britain)

It’s pretty obvious that in order to decarbonise heating, we’re going to need a lot of heat pumps. Air-source, ground-source, air to air, air to water, big ones connected to heat networks – all may have a role in making the most heat out of low carbon electricity. Yet despite us knowing of their importance for years, deployment has been extremely slow and the UK is well behind the Committee on Climate Change’s indicator levels for required deployment [2].

Since writing my previous blog on how to get a heat pump in 2020, the Renewable Heat Incentive policy has come to an end and the UK government has released the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

This new scheme covers England and Wales only and in Scotland, Home Energy Scotland actually provide even higher levels of support for heat pumps (up to £7500) with loans also available to cover additional heat pump costs and other clean energy and efficiency works. If you live in Scotland follow this link to speak to the advice line run by the Energy Savings Trust. The following advice will still be useful though as many of the steps are the same and you still need to use the same accreditation.

If you live in England and Wales, it’s likely that if you are reading this blog you have a gas boiler – most people do. It’s unlikely that you have a heat pump. But by 2050, if we’re going to meet the climate goals, no-one can have a gas boiler – unless it can burn a low carbon gas. But who knows if, how and when that will ever happen.

Just think of how smug you can be when you explain to your friends that the magic box in the garden provides your heating, it’s supporting decarbonisation and you’re no longer burning gas imported from across the world. Getting a heat pump is the biggest thing you can do to reduced your domestic related emissions. Roughly, switching to a heat pump will reduce emissions from your heating by 75% compared to gas and 85% compared to oil. The reductions in fossil fuel imports you will cause will be similarly significant!

Think how virtuous you’ll feel in the knowledge that the warm water from your shower has been warmed using (at least mostly) heat in the air or ground! When it comes to running costs, the most recent estimates suggest that heat pumps will be cheaper to run than fossil fuel heating too a change resulting from the fact that while prices for all fuels have increased, gas has increased more in price than electricity. Adding solar photovoltaic panels into the mix will guarantee significant bill savings.

We need a bigger market for heat pumps. We need more installers, new skills and we need citizens to know more about them. You can be part of that by installing a heat pump, growing the market and spreading the good news! The new scheme which provides capital funding for building owners is now up and running, thankfully, it’s easier for households than its predecessor, providing a one-off grant of £5000 for an air source heat pump and £6000 for a ground source.

You want a heat pump? So what to do:

  1. Consider the state of your current heating. If you have a very new boiler you might want to get some life out of this. Anything over 7 years (or younger) old may start developing faults and can be removed without too much heartache. Having said this, the carbon savings from a heat pump are so significant that the payback time is quick, even if the boiler is brand new.
  2. You can usually get quotes for heat pump systems for free although some installers charge a fee. To claim the BUS grant, you’ll need to find an installation company who is ‘Microgeneration Certification Scheme’ (MCS) registered. You can find accredited companies geographically here: Heating engineers can also go through an umbrella scheme which has one accredited company but uses a network of engineers such as Heat Geek. You can of course check with you existing plumber/engineer if you have one (this might get them thinking too!). You might also want to see if your energy supplier is offering heat pumps.
  3. Get three quotes. The companies normally come and visit your house and should carry out a ‘heat loss calculation’ for the building and will advise on where components, like a hot water tank and the heat pump, can go. If they don’t do the heat loss calculation, as happened to a friend of mine who was told ‘yeah we’ll just whack in 8kw’, find another installer. It’s a requirement that a full heat loss calculation is done under the MCS and it’s very important to make sure the heat pump is the correct size and radiators etc. are suitable.
  4. The installer may stipulate larger radiators or suggest underfloor heating – this will be based on the heat loss calculation.
  5. Make sure you think about noise levels (they can vary significantly but modern units like mine are excellent), the efficiency of the heat pump (all need to be quite good to get accredited), and the physical appearance (some are less pretty than others).
  6. Once you’ve got your three quotes, these will give you the cost for the full works, and the quote should include the £5 or £6k reduction associated with the BUS grant. The installer will handle the whole application. For most, I’d expect the price after the BUS to be similar to a gas boiler replacement cost though this will vary on how big and complex the property is.
  7. If you want to go ahead, there may be some required energy efficiency works. If you haven’t got full loft and cavity wall insulation you will need to get this unless you meet one of the exemptions. Details are here but your installed should advise.
  8. If you have uninsulated solid walls or single glazing, I would very strongly consider insulating the walls and replacing the windows. Neither of these are a requirement for heat pumps but will obviously reduce bills. The heat pump and radiators will simply be sized to the heat demand of the building but worth bearing in mind a smaller heat demand means a cheaper heat pump and cheaper running costs.
  9. If you’re happy with one of the quotes, say yes! Bear in mind that the swap to a heat pump will take longer than a gas boilers so it’s best to try and get the work done when it’s not too cold. You shouldn’t be without hot water for long though as the hot water can be sorted quickly.
  10. Once it’s installed and commissioned, you will get an MCS certificate to show the installation is accredited.

There is enough in the Boiler Upgrade Scheme funding for around 90,000 heat pumps over the next three years which could create quite a surge in the market, the RHI was delivering significantly lower levels. This is positive but means that an already stretched market and supply chain will be even busier. Better to move quickly if you can.

N.B. This blog is based on my experience of working on sustainable heating policy, living with a heat pump for some years and recently having a heat pump installed in my own house. I’m sure experiences vary so please let me know if you think any of this advice should be changed. The official UK government guidance for building owners is here and the Ofgem guidance here. A summary of general eligibility requirements from the Ofgem guidance for installers is below.

N.B. 2 It is possible to have a heat pump installed by a non-MCS-accredited installer outside of the boiler upgrade scheme and not receive the BUS grant. Anecdotally I’ve heard this can be cheaper although perhaps not by as much as the grant.

N.B. 3 Air to air heat pumps (basically air conditioning units which can produce heat by going into reverse not using radiators, like a hotel room system) can be suitable for smaller homes or more intermittent heating, though they won’t do your hot water. Search for these online but, they are not grant funded as they are relatively low cost and the government does not want to be funding free air con systems!

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