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Patrick Mooney looks at a positive survey that points to greater sales of heat pumps

Patrick Mooney finds that higher than expected customer satisfaction rates could spark a big boost in demand for heat pumps.

The Government’s attempts to persuade more of us to replace our old oil and gas boilers with electric heat pumps has received a timely boost in the shape of very positive feedback from a survey of new heat pump users.

The Boiler Upgrade Scheme with its tempting £5-£6K subsidy has been roundly criticised by MPs and industry experts for failing to hit its mark due to a lack of marketing, low rates of public awareness and a shortage of skilled installers.

Designed to incentivise 90,000 of us to make the switch (over the course of 3 years), the scheme was plagued by problems in its first year of operation and appeared destined to fail with only a third of the planned 30,000 new pumps proceeding to installation.

But a redemption, of sorts, has possibly come in the results from the first major survey of heat pump users commissioned by the charity Nesta. Many of its findings challenge the perceived wisdom of urban myths - namely that they only work in new buildings, fail to heat houses sufficiently and are noisy.

Clearly the results provide some grounds for optimism going forward

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney News editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine

Positive results 

The survey found that: 

  • more than 80% of households that have replaced their gas boilers with an electric heat pump are satisfied with their new heating system;  
  • those who use heat pumps to warm their homes reported broadly similar levels of satisfaction to those with gas boilers;
  • satisfaction levels were also similar between users who installed a heat pump in a new-build home or in an older property;
  • heat pump users are more likely to be satisfied with running costs than those using gas boilers; and
  • an overwhelming majority of heat pump users are satisfied with space and hot water heating, safety, reliability and noise.

The survey also found that upgrading a property’s building fabric alongside heat pump installations was common, but by no means universal.

About 36% of heat pump users carried out loft insulation before the installation, 23% installed wall insulation or extra window glazing, while 14% chose to undertake multiple measures.

Some signposted changes

A number of improvements were also identified to make heat pumps even more attractive, namely: 1) making clear, impartial information about heat pumps more easily accessible; 2)
making it easier for people to use their heat pump once they have one; and 3) reducing the time and disruption associated with installations.

Clearly the results provide some grounds for optimism going forward, but also useful feedback to Government Ministers that should allay outdated concerns and encourage them to do more to phase out fossil fuel heating in favour of environmentally friendly technology.

However, turning things around is not going to be an easy task and a massive marketing campaign selling the many positive aspects of converting to heat pumps is probably justified along with further help from the Treasury.

Enthusiasm for heat pumps among the general public in the UK appears to be very low even though growing numbers of us want to pursue a greener lifestyle.

Despite a modest growth in new installations in the UK since 2021/22, less than 1% of homes in the UK currently has a heat pump and the technology is unfamiliar to many householders.

Apparently only 3% of us intend to buy a new heat pump in the next year according to the latest National Home Energy Survey, while just 51% of UK residents are even aware of heat pumps.

The Government has a target of the country installing 600,000 heat pumps in our homes each year by 2028, with a total ban on new gas boilers being installed probably taking effect from 2035 although the date has yet to be finalised.

How do we compare?

The UK has only installed approximately 380,000 heat pumps so far, placing it a long way down the European league table for installations. Getting to the target in five years is a tough ask, but it’s by no means impossible.

Across the channel, France has a similar sized population to the UK but it has already installed 3.9 million heat pumps, while Norway, with just 5.4 million people has installed more than 1.6 million heat pumps.

Looking at the figures in another way – we see the UK has 564 heat pumps per 100,000 people, whereas the European average is almost eight times higher at 4,016 heat pumps per 100,000 people.

If the Government really wants us to embrace heat pumps like our continental neighbours then it may need to take a leaf out of Italy’s book.

Heat pumps have been growing in popularity in Italy for more than a decade, but 2022 was a stand out year when the country achieved a record 502,000 installations bringing its running total of heat pump installations to 3.2 million. 

In the UK in 2022, we also managed a record number of installations but at 59,900 the figure is dwarfed by Italy’s achievement.

Italian governments have long supported this growth with special tariffs for heat pump users, but probably the biggest stimulus has been provided by a generous scheme that covers 110% of the cost of a home's heat pump installation – compared to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme which amounts to between 30% and 60% of the average installation costs in the UK.

For Italian consumers the government will not only pay the entire cost of having a new heat pump installed but it also takes 10% off their taxes for the next five years. Perhaps not surprisingly Italy saw the highest growth in new heat pump installations for any European country in 2022.

Grounds for optimism

In other parts of Europe, cities like Copenhagen in Denmark and Stockholm in Sweden are combining the installation of super-sized heat pumps with district heating systems, so that tens of thousands of homes can be connected to eco-friendly and energy efficient sources of power.

These dwarf the district heating systems already in operation within the UK, but they demonstrate an alternative for our politicians and energy operators to consider. The current Boiler Upgrade Scheme is only applicable to homeowners and district heating systems might be more suitable for the rented sector.

Clem Cowton, the director of external affairs at the energy supplier Octopus Energy, said the Nesta survey’s findings were reflected in “the astronomical demand Octopus is seeing for our heat pumps”. The company says it has a waiting list of about 50,000 households that have expressed an interest in having a heat pump installed.

British Gas has reported similar levels of interest and both companies are currently offering reduced price deals on heat pump installations to attract more customers over to switching.

Something similar happened back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s during the dash to gas which drove us towards a heavy reliance on North Sea gas to run our central heating systems and for cooking. Increased demand helped to drive a virtuous circle with higher production levels, improving the technology and lowering prices.

Hopefully we could see this replicated with the latest heat pump models, which are already proving to be more efficient, longer lasting and quieter than earlier models.

Today’s more eco friendly consumers would appreciate all these benefits, but may also need a nudge in the shape of the Italian incentives that have worked such a treat.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine