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Karen Fletcher looks at whether heating and cooling technologies are inevitably converging

Heating and cooling systems are converging.

As we move down the road towards decarbonised heating for homes (and non-dwellings), the technologies that we use for these crucial building services systems are moving ever-closer.

While a single technology can’t be the panacea for all our environmental problems, there is no doubt that heat pumps will play a key role in lowering UK carbon emissions, to which heating contributes a significant proportion.

Is there a moral duty on government to fund an awareness campaign?

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Head of content for MBS & MBStv

The future of heating

Government has already recognised the importance of heat pumps in future domestic heating systems. Powered by electricity from our increasingly carbon-free grid, and already proven in thousands of installations, it’s safe to say that this tech is on the rise.

Leading manufacturers are providing heat pumps for a wide variety of heating loads. And on the domestic front, they can often be installed by plumbers who don’t need any experience in handling refrigerants.

This is because the majority of heat pumps are monobloc systems, with the refrigerant safely sealed away from potential leaks.

So the technology is opening up opportunities to expand the range of heating systems that plumbers can offer their customers.

Education and training

However, things are not quite as simple as they seem. There is growing concern in the industry that two key groups – installers and end-users (i.e. homeowners) – need further training and advice if heat pumps are to be applied successfully at scale.

Speaking to MBStv recently, the head of the UK’s leading F Gas register (REFCOM), Graeme Fox, highlighted a crucial point: “ One of the big issues that we have is this situation at the moment in the industry is that electricians or plumbers take an F Gas course and suddenly think they’re an air conditioning / refrigeration engineer. It has been a huge bugbear with the industry since F Gas regulations came in.”

The problem is not so much at the installation stage but later on in the system lifecycle when heating systems need repairs. Homeowners have been made very aware that they need to find a Gas Safe registered tradesperson to fix a poorly gas boiler.

But what happens if their heat pump heating system doesn’t function?

Calling the company that installed it might seem like the logical conclusion, but may not be the best idea: “I have heard of situations where a plumber has gone out to a system that wasn’t working, and because he can see copper pipes, he assumes it’s water in there; he’s cut the pipe and lost the refrigerant,” explains Fox.

Monitoring from afar

Leading manufacturer, Mitsubishi Electric has already recognised this issue with ongoing maintenance and is using the latest remote monitoring technology so that a householder’s heat pump system can be monitored from a distance in the event of problems.

In 9 out of 10 cases, it’s a question of adjusting the system, rather than requiring a call-out.

But if the heat pump market grows as it seems set to do, proving competence and training levels will be a crucial part of grasping the opportunities it offers.

This is not simply about REFCOM requirements.

All across the construction sector there is an increasing focus on proving competency on site in our post-Hackitt industry.

TV advertising

And if we are to achieve a big switch to heat pumps away from gas boilers, consumers also need long-term education and support.

Graeme Fox says: “Government helped to fund TV advertising for CORGI and then Gas Safe. REFCOM is a charity and doesn’t have the resources to do that, I think there is a moral duty on government to fund some kind of campaign to make householders aware that they should call a REFCOM-registered installer, for example, if their heat pump system breaks down.”

The industry has gone through some very challenging economic times recently, and it’s tempting to see training and certification as areas that can be set aside to save money.

But in order to prepare for the opportunities created by the convergence of heating and cooling, that’s exactly where investment should be made.

Karen Fletcher is head of content for MBS & MBStv