We asked for £ 70,000 in subsidy for a heat pump, but it spared us nothing
The welcome when I enter the kitchen is open and friendly, but not particularly warm. It has nothing to do with the hospitality offered by owners Lee and Jane Roche and everything to do with the rather cold temperature in the room.
Welcome to the world of heat pumps, the technology the government is banking on to help it meet bold new carbon emissions targets. Good in theory, disappointing in practice. The Roche’s are now questioning their decision to install the heating system in their four-bedroom detached house, located in the village of North Luffenham in Rutland.
A few inches below my feet is a maze of tubes filled with lukewarm water – pushed by a giant £ 30,000 geothermal heat pump buzzing in its own room next door.
Cold comfort: Jane and Lee Roche with Nicholas, 12, and Imogen, 10, in their grade II listed home
The government has just announced that it will offer grants of up to £ 6,000 to install such environmentally friendly technology from next April. Yet what he’s less keen to promote is that this “bribe” is far less generous than a previous deal that was quietly scrapped in March – and from which the Rocks took advantage.
They were able to claim £ 70,000 in grants to install their heat pump under the ‘Renewable Heat Incentive Program’. Yet even with such a huge bribe, Jane isn’t convinced the heat pump is saving them money – or that it’s even worth installing for free.
The temperature in the kitchen is such that Imogen, a ten-year-old girl, keeps her coat on to stay warm. Jane admits that she would prefer it to be maybe a few degrees Celsius warmer.
To increase the room temperature, it is not enough to mount a thermostat as you would with a traditional gas boiler. Instead, you set the heating control in the pump station. As these units are designed to repel relatively modest heat levels, the extra energy required to reach a higher temperature means that it is often not cost effective, further increasing energy bills.
The heat in the kitchen is partly dependent on £ 10,000 of triple-glazed patio windows which must be closed immediately once you enter inside. I break this rule – and apologize profusely.
Mother Jane, 46, whose other child is Nicholas, 12, says, “This kitchen is a barn conversion, so we were able to dig in the ground to install the pipes during construction. But it was inconvenient for the rest of the house as we live in a 400 year old Grade II listed building.
“Instead, it meant installing massive radiators, powered by the same ground source heat pump. They look unsightly and are rarely used because to run them efficiently they use a lot of electricity. ‘
On entering the main house there is indeed a chill in the air. Radiators are 6 feet long, 4 feet high, and protrude six inches from walls. The ugly metal behemoths seem out of place in this tastefully decorated period property. Instead, the Rocks use wood stoves to occasionally heat the rooms, with logs from local trees that had to be cut. Although despised by eco-warriors, it’s hard to dispute the lure of roaring fire.
Despite the cautious radiators, the family are calculating the energy bill for their large stone farmhouse which still costs £ 350 a month.
This despite the £ 40,000 spent on secondary and triple glazing throughout the house. Part of the problem is that while the heat pump system is efficient, the pumped temperatures can be 20 degrees Celsius lower than a traditional boiler.
More electricity is also used, as it takes longer to heat the rooms and an increase in energy is also needed to get enough hot water for a bath or shower. By installing the ground source heat pump, the Roche’s faced practical challenges that most other households would not be able to overcome. The pump room looks like an invention of Wallace and Gromit. About the size of a twin bedroom, it houses two giant heating tanks, each the size of a telephone booth, as well as the heavy-duty 4 cubic foot pump. It emits a low hum – like that of an electricity pylon – that could keep light sleepers awake longer than they want. Then there’s the acre of lawn outside the back door of the Rocks where a mile of maze-like pipes has been laid 5 feet underground.
Jane said: “During their pose, the neighbors joked that the land was being cleared to build an Olympic-sized housing estate or swimming pool. Most houses do not have the land available to install such pipes.
Cool: Imogen, in the pump room at her home in Rutland
The Roches heat pump relies on underground pipes heated by the ground, where temperatures are generally between six and 12 degrees Celsius. The pump then uses compression technology to further increase the heat. The other heat pump alternative – which will receive a grant of £ 5,000 – is air. It costs less – typically £ 15,000 compared to around £ 20,000 for a ground source heat pump. But you might still have to spend an extra £ 10,000 on double glazing and cavity insulation if you don’t have a modern, airtight house.
The air pump extracts hot air from an outside box – the size of a small washing machine. This air is then blown into the house – or used to heat water or large radiators. But it can be difficult to heat a house when the outside temperature is near or below zero degrees Celsius.
Roger Bisby is a plumber for the Skill Builder website and is not a fan of heat pumps. He says, “Make no mistake, for most people, the energy bills for an air source or ground source heat pump will be about the same as for a gas boiler.
“While you may be tempted by the grants available from April, you may end up out of pocket with an unwanted heating system unless you have a modern, well-insulated home.”
A heat pump can typically deliver 40 degrees Celsius of heat compared to a traditional gas boiler offering at least 60 degrees.
A house that is poorly insulated with a pump can also use 40% more energy to keep it properly heated. The good news is that a new pump could produce 30% less greenhouse gases.
Bisby adds: “Heat pumps are not the solution. They rarely save you money and they are loud. Unlike a traditional combination boiler, these pumps typically operate around the clock.
Pipe dream: An acre of land at the back of the Roche house had to be dug up to accommodate a network of pipes
“Air source heat pumps are the noisiest because they have boxes installed outside the house that run like an air conditioning unit. The noise is constant and if the windows are open they can prevent you and your neighbors from sleeping. ‘
Heating and insulation subsidy specialist Warma UK is also concerned that many people will be drawn to the new subsidy without realizing that there are pitfalls. Emma Garner, a director, said: “There will be a lot of sharks out there, talking about all the pros but none of the cons.
“The tasty subsidy on offer could end up being consumed by extras that are sold to you at a huge profit – like double glazing – or the installer simply increasing their costs.”
The grants are made from a pot of £ 450million and will cover up to 90,000 pumping installations over three years. Those who opt for an air pump are offered an incentive of £ 5,000, while for ground source heat pumps it is £ 6,000 as they are more expensive to install.
Warma UK estimates that 19 million heat pumps need to be installed across the country by 2050 to reach a net zero target.
So far only around 300,000 have been installed and as the Roche discovered they are not quite what they are supposed to be.
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