With so much talk in the news at the moment about heat pumps and new government targets on lowering carbon emissions, you might be wondering what on earth a heat pump is, how the latest news might affect you as well as the pros and cons of a heat pump versus a traditional combi gas boiler.
We’ve put this guide together to help you better understand heat pumps, their pros and cons, how much a heat pump typically costs as well as the UK government carbon emissions targets.
On Tuesday 19th October 2021 the UK media was awash with reports of the government’s pledge to cut carbon emissions, spearheaded by a push towards low-carbon home heating systems.
With over 85% of UK homes currently relying on gas boilers for their heating and hot water, such a move would mean the vast majority of homeowners would be expected to switch to heat pumps or an alternative lower-carbon heating system in the coming years.
Indeed according to the latest special report from The International Energy Agency, it states that no new gas boilers should be sold after 2025 if we hope to reach carbon emissions targets set for 2050.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, emissions from domestic heating and hot water systems account for approximately 77% of total household carbon emissions, making this an area that needs tackling in order for the UK to meet emissions targets.
Critics however are warning that heat pumps can be expensive, aren’t suitable for all properties, might not be as effective and that lower-income families could find the move next to impossible to finance, leaving them having to pay for increasingly expensive gas central heating.
What are heat pumps?
The easiest way to describe a heat pump is that they work a bit like your fridge, only in reverse. They extract warmth from either the air or underground water sources and then concentrate that heat and transfer it inside the home.
Heat pumps look like large air conditioning units and will typically be located on the exterior of a property and there are generally two options, air source and ground source heat pumps, with ground source heat pumps generally thought to be superior.
What are some of the downsides of heat pumps?
There are no two ways about it, heat pumps are expensive and whilst The Guardian reports they can cost anything from £6,000 to £10,000, this estimate is quite low with other sources, including Worcester Bosch, stating that an air heat pump will cost in the region of £6,000 whilst a ground source heat pump could cost anything up to £20,000.
Consider too that both air and ground source heat pumps require specialist installation. When these costs are compared to a combi boiler which could typically cost less than £3,000 to buy and install, it’s clear to see that a heat pump, even with a government grant, isn’t going to be a viable option for all homes as it stands.
Even replacing the average gas boiler represents a significant expense that can take finance over many years for homeowners to pay off, with a heat pump coming in currently at double or triple this cost, the price of heat pumps could become a significant barrier and burden to homeowners.
Heat pumps also have varying performance ratings, so we might find that some heat pumps simply aren’t up to the job of maintaining a warm home throughout cold UK winters, indeed heat pumps currently need to be in constant operation and kept ticking over, as they are unable to provide the rapid heating that a flick of thermostat in a gas boiler heated property provides.
A ground rather than air source heat pump is likely to be the smarter most reliable option, but there are of even greater cost and practical implications.
Heat pumps are still relatively new technology here in the UK and homeowners might be hesitant in making such a big investment, preferring to wait until the technology is refined and more commonplace.
We’ve spent decades moving away from old gas central heating systems that required a water tank, but a move to heat pumps, means a water tank will once again become necessary in homes.
As well as the space required for the heat pump itself then, homes will also need to have a well-insulated hot water tank and with UK homes getting smaller and smaller by the decade, in new build properties, flats and apartments in particular, finding space for a hot water tank and the heat pump, could provide a real challenge.
The final big consideration is that for a heat pump to work effectively a property needs to be sufficiently insulated, which means some, particularly older properties that may have a poor EPC score, would need to invest in thoroughly insulating the property prior to switching to a heat pump system, representing a further cost and barrier.
What are some of the benefits of heat pumps?
Of course heat pumps are being promoted by the government as they produce far lower (but not zero) emissions than a traditional gas boiler. Not only is this better for our planet but it’s better for our pockets too.
The running and maintenance costs of heat pumps are thought to be lower than those for a gas powered central heating system, though of course, this will be somewhat off-set by the high installation costs, at least initially.
Heat pumps are typically quoted as being between 300%-600% more efficient than other home heating options which could translate to a saving of around £500 per year according to Renewable Energy Hub.
They are designed to keep properties at a steady temperature, so feeling a chill and ‘popping the heating on for a bit’ will become a thing of the past as the system is technically on all the time.
Take a look at some of the Renewable Energy Hub for more pros and cons of heat pumps.
What are the alternatives?
Biomass systems are an option, but can be even more expensive than heat pumps to install and the other main alternative currently is a solar based heating system. Take a look at the Energy Saving Trust for more advice on renewable heat for your home.
The simple fact of the matter is whilst a heat pump is unlikely to be compulsory any time soon, our old reliance on gas fueled home heating is set to become a thing of the past. With the cost of gas rising, heating a home with a traditional gas central heating system could become extremely costly, forcing a change to either a heat pump or other lower-carbon home heating system.
Whilst the government potentially capping heat pump unit and installation costs, offering grants and loans to homeowners, and compelling all new-build properties to change to lower-carbon heating systems could make a switch to heat pumps more viable and widespread, many homeowners will probably want to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach.