“Maniacs” obsessed with their new heating systems

Mick Wall

Mick Wall closely monitors his home’s energy needs

It has heat meters attached to the pipelines. Room temperature monitors. And gadgets that track how much electricity his solar panels generate.

The jewel in the crown of this system, however, is the recently installed heat pump.

“It really is a geek’s paradise,” says Mick Wall of his 1930s semi-detached house in Sheffield.

Mr. Wall, who works in the IT industry, has made a hobby of monitoring the energy consumption of his household and perfecting the efficiency of the heat pump in a persistent pursuit of maximum efficiency.

The UK government has set a target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028. However, there are currently fewer than 50,000 installed in UK homes a year, with the UK ranked last in the league table of heat pump installations in Europe.

However, there is a group of fearless pioneers. Willing adopters who claim the country is ready for the heat pump craze – and that they can prove it with their own hard data. They are heat pump freaks.

Mr Wall is one of the few enthusiasts who regularly publish data online about how their heat pumps are performing. “I put myself out there to say, ‘It works, here’s the evidence,'” he says.

The website heatpumpmonitor.org has real-time results from 12 homes across the UK, including Mr Wall’s home. The data is processed by OpenEnergyMonitor, a digital platform that allows people to track their household energy use.

Heat pumps work by absorbing a small amount of heat from the outside into the refrigerant, the fluid circulating in the unit. The compressor then pressurizes the refrigerant, increasing the temperature, and then the heat is transferred to the house.

A well-installed heat pump can produce three kilowatt-hours (kWh) of heat for every kWh of electricity used. This ratio is called the coefficient of performance or COP – the higher the better. Heat pump watchers usually use this number to gauge how well their unit is performing, sometimes in friendly competition with other heat pump owners.

The COP varies depending on factors such as the weather or how hot you decide to run your heaters.

“Right now it’s 4.5,” says an excited Mr. Wall. “It’s six or seven degrees [Celsius] outside here and I get 4.5”.

A COP of 3 or higher is considered very good because it means that the operating cost of a heat pump should be lower than that of a gas boiler, with equivalent heat output – depending on the energy tariff.

However, there are caveats. Mr Wall must have spent thousands upgrading the radiators and piping in his home, among other things, before deciding he was ready for a heat pump.

He chose an air source heat pump that extracts heat from the air even when it is very cold outside and adds that it is important that the unit is properly sized and installed to ensure it works efficiently. Its solar panels also help it reduce electricity costs.

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But some homes may already be suitable for a heat pump, perhaps without their owners knowing, suggests Richard Lowes of the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy NGO.

Overall, if you can still reliably heat your home after shutting down your fossil fuel boiler so that it sends water at about 50-55C or below to the radiators, you may be able to replace your boiler with a heat pump, explains Dr. Lowes.

This can be confirmed by a professional calculation of heat losses and a review of the heat pump.

The cost of installing a heat pump will vary depending on what size unit you need and what jobs, if any, your home requires to be heat pump ready.

According to an online calculator set up by research fund Nesta, it could cost around £12,000 to place a heat pump in a 1930s semi-detached house in the West Midlands. Currently, households in England and Wales can, under certain conditions, apply for a grant of £5,000 to reduce their total costs.

Although installing a heat pump is expensive, the unit will likely pay for itself over its lifetime. Given the volatility of energy prices, it is difficult to say when this break-even point will occur, but high gas prices have made heat pumps much more cost-competitive compared to oil and gas boilers.

Richard Lowes, Regulatory Assistance Project

Richard Lowes says that monitoring his heating system is quite fun

Dr. Lowes is a zealous researcher of his heat pump system. His heating cabinet is full of heat and electricity meters that track the heat pump’s energy consumption and thermal efficiency.

“I like it, it’s quite funny,” he says. “Every time I look at it, I’m amazed.”

During the year, it averaged a COP of 3.5, which is even better than expected.

Dr Lowes’s property is a refurbished terrace in Cornwall which provided good insulation prior to the purchase of a heat pump.

He notes that most people who install a heat pump will not be able to access the details of its automatic operation. But with monitoring devices attached to the system, he and others like Mr Wall are able to track things more closely. Mr Wall notes he spent around £600 on his monitoring kit.

“Because we are nerds and have installed and tweaked them, we can also tell you how we can make it better,” Dr. Lowes argues. “I think this really valuable knowledge is being built.”

Jess Britton, energy policy researcher at the University of Edinburgh

Jess Britton is ‘not interested’ in data from her new heat pump

Yet many do not want or require this level of information. Dr Jess Britton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a former colleague of Dr Lowes, says she installed a heat pump in her 1930s Edinburgh home last year and had not yet used any heat metering equipment.

“I want to know if it works efficiently. Besides, I’m not interested in data,” he says.

“Our early estimates indicate that this was a good move in terms of energy costs.”

Not so long ago, studies suggested that heat pumps could not outperform gas boilers in terms of running costs. For example, Nick Kelly of the University of Strathclyde published such findings in a study conducted in 2011.

He suggests that with rising gas prices and evolving heat pump technology the situation is different now, though he says it is paramount that the heat pump is properly sized and installed.

Collecting detailed heat pump performance data can help prove that the equipment is working as intended, he adds. “This can be compared to what the manufacturer or installer effectively promised.”

Mr. Wall, for example, is very pleased with the numbers he receives. The heat pump works by automatically adjusting to changes in the weather while keeping your home warm.

What’s more, other household members never once questioned the heating, she says: “I think that’s a very positive sign.”

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