The barriers to making sustainable heating solutions more accessible
Arundell HVAC offers installation, servicing, and maintenance for air conditioning, ventilation, and heating. Looking towards a ‘greener’ future, Director Matt Arundell saw a gap in the market for more specialist installers of air-source heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps are a low-carbon way of heating your home. Moving to this form of heating will help us hit sector sustainability targets by lowering energy use. But to increase take-up, two issues need addressing – government funding incentives and a skills shortage.
According to the Financial Times, our homes produce 14% of the country’s carbon emissions. To reach their net-zero aim by 2050, the government has set big targets to change the way we heat our homes. This includes banning new gas boiler installations from 2025. Matt explains:
“Gas is getting phased out in new builds. The government has said we need to start using renewables i.e., air or ground-source heat pumps. They want 600,000 new builds to have heat pumps by 2028, so, they need to make people more aware of the alternatives.”
There are three types of heat pumps: Air-to-air, water, and geothermal. Rather than generating heat, they use the heat from sources outside your home to warm the inside. The type installed most often is air-source.
“Air-source is becoming the ‘new norm’ now, and they're popular in houses. Air-source won’t help us hit ‘green’ figures alone, but it will help emissions (depending on how the electricity is produced).”
Air-source heat pumps absorb heat from the outside air to heat your home and hot water. While they need electricity to run, they are an energy-efficient method of heating your home because they extract renewable heat from the environment. They even work at temperatures as low as -15°C.
Installing air-source heat pumps
Matt has a successful business that has been growing at a sustainable rate through word-of-mouth. He believes increasing his team’s skills in installing air-source heat pumps, is a positive step towards future growth. He’s not the only one.
“I have a friend who had an air conditioning company. He's ceased doing air conditioning and is going to work solely on air-source heat pumps. My friend has done extra training and has been accredited. He is adamant that things are going to boom in that area, so therefore he has decided to go down that path, and I agree that it is a good idea.
“Currently I have too much stable work coming in from other areas to work solely on air-source, but in the future, I will be pushing more on the air-source heat pumps and will be doing some advertising around them. I’ll be bringing in more staff, training up some of the other guys that don't currently work on them. It's going to be a massive change in the company.”
Addressing the slow return on investment for retrofit projects
Air-source heat pumps increase your electricity bill but lower the amount you spend on gas or oil heating. They can cost around £6,000–£8,000 to install, depending on the size of your home and any additional upgrades you need to your heating distribution system. It takes a while to see a return on investment. Many homeowners have complained about heat pumps that were mis-sold to them.
“The problem with air-source is it’s expensive. If you're going to stay put for 7 to 10 years it’s the way to go, but if not, you're not going to see the benefits. The costs are going to outweigh the benefits.
“Some companies just want to get the sale, so they'll sell the customer a dream, ‘This is how much you're going to save’. What they're not telling them is that it's going to take you 15 years to save that money. A lot of people don't want the payback to take that long. If it's not under a seven-year payback, they're not interested in it. You can understand that, but people need to see the bigger picture.”
Initially, consumers were incentivised to install heat pumps, but the government’s Green Homes Grant voucher scheme closed earlier in 2021. The scheme gave the homeowner up to two-thirds of the cost of your chosen improvements (up to 100% if you received certain benefits). The GHG scheme faced administrative issues, which left some homeowners and installers disillusioned.
The government’s Clean Heat Grants scheme, due to launch in April 2022, is a chance to get things right. While homeowners will want clear and up-front payments, installers will be looking for ways to secure prompt payment. For Matt, the scheme can’t come soon enough.
“To hit the targets the government needs to fund it more. There needs to be more incentive for companies to make more money out of it. They should re-start the grants and payback schemes to incentivize companies. If you want these things to boom, then you need to put the money into them.”
In the meantime, consumers can look at the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI), where the homeowner pays for energy-saving measures and is paid back over the next seven years.
Solving the skills shortage
Matt believes the extraction industry is thriving. He also recognises that across the construction sector there is a labour shortage in the trades.
“I know for a fact; they don't have the skilled labour to meet the demand. The problem is there’s a huge skill shortage in installers. Anyone could go and install them, and the people installing them often have no idea what they're doing. A lot of equipment requires a mixture of plumbing and air conditioning skills. To have people, like us, who can deal with both is a rarity.
“Usually plumbers work on one side, and the air conditioning engineers on the other. They each blame the other for any issues, rather than fix them. If they don’t use the correct size equipment, or the equipment’s put in incorrectly, the end-user has a bad experience with it. That in turn causes issues for the client. Once they’ve had a bad experience their negative opinions are hard to change.
“We need to have more people trained, or only using specialist contractors – rather than going for the cheapest quotes. There needs to be a stricter governing body.”
The future of the sector
Sustainability targets will make a big change to a sector that is slow to change. Matt’s view is there’s more that can be done beyond upgrading heating sources. Reducing installation waste for example. Again, it all comes down to costs vs benefits.
“Energy efficiency is driving everything. Most products are becoming more energy efficient. The HVAC industry is going to be concentrating a lot more on renewables, like the energy sector.
“I think things have got to start going down a more renewable route. With some of the projects we go on, they'll rip everything out and then put it all back in again. The waste is unreal and that's just standard. That side of things I think really needs to be looked at.
“The problem is the guys doing the work want to generate as much income as possible. To generate that income, they need to put everything in new. So, I think that they need to start looking at reusing stuff.”
Sustainability is a prominent theme for any sector. The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be held in Glasgow from the end of October. One goal of which is to ‘encourage investment in renewables’, another is to increase ‘collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society’. By helping the HVAC industry to adopt sustainable technologies more easily, the government can take a step towards their targets, including helping the construction industry meet net-zero.
Matt’s suggestions are to incentivise home and business owners to adopt more sustainable heating methods; Help businesses to become specialists in supplying and installing air-source heat pumps and other sustainable technologies. Not only will this meet targets, but it will also have economic value – creating new jobs and work for SMEs like Arundell HVAC.