Breaking down the barriers to getting greener

A while back I wrote an article for this newsletter which discussed the increasing complexity that new technology, funding options and a widening consumer base were bringing to the heating market (see What do the RHI and FITS mean to industry professionals?).

The upshot of all this was that it seems to me that contractors and manufacturers need to work ever closer to ensure that appropriate choices are made for each project. This has got to be the right way to go to ensure that we avoid the misapplication of technologies that damages consumer confidence in green technologies and slows our all important move towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

So far so good, but it’s not the whole story. Other things still stand in the way of a mass conversion to green heating and energy. This is why it continues to be the case that 5000 gas boilers are fitted a day in this country and just 1500 heat pumps a year. Obviously I spend a lot of time thinking about how we change this – and I’d like to take you though what I think the barriers are, how we at Stiebel Eltron are leading the way in breaking them down.

Think about this from the point of view of your average homeowner – let’s call him Mr Smith - whose gas boiler has come to the end of its life. It’s December, Christmas is around the corner when he plans to have all the family over; but the house is stone cold and he has no hot water. He doesn’t know anything about heating systems – he just wants to be warm again right now, and with Christmas coming up this is all a big financial headache. Mr Smith opens the phonebook and calls the first contractor that catches his eye. A so we come to:

Barrier 1 – Training

In the first place Mr Smith will be be lucky to stumble across an MCS approved installer. And of course if the installer is not trained to install renewable options and can’t sell them, they aren’t going to offer the option to Mr Smith. At the time of writing the MCS website gives the number of approved installers nationally for all MCS technologies at 4752. Break this down to individual technologies and the figures are even more stark; only 677 are approved for Ground Source Heat Pumps and only 797 for air source, for example.

The gas safe register on the other hand boasts 65,000 businesses registered as Gas Safe and around 125,000 engineers (thanks to Rachel Boon in the Communications team at the Gas Safe Register for these figures).

This is of course an opportunity that forward-thinking contractors have already snatched – to be among the few MCS qualified installers gives you a head start and a chance to grab a larger share of a new market. As I already explained in the earlier article much of the real expertise in the green energy and heating markets still lies with the manufacturers, and installers should work closely with their manufacturing partners to ensure the best outcome and learn all they can. But if growth is to be sustained then knowledge must be disseminated on a formal basis - and fast. Such is the importance of this that at Stiebel Eltron we have teamed up with training provider Scientiam to create The Green Energy Training Centre.

So let’s assume Mr Smith does happen to call an engineer who is MCS registered. The engineer comes to the house and does a good job of suggesting possible green options that are appropriate to the property. The next questions Mr Smith will want to know is “what will it cost?” and “when can you fit it”. Now we come to another hitch in the chain. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about using the expertise of manufacturer’s to help specify a system that will work for a given property. This is all very well when you have time built into a new build or full renovation project for this to happen. But Mr Smith is cold now and he is not going to wait weeks for site visits to take place and formal specifications to be drawn up and approved only to discover it’s beyond his budget. So our next barrier is:

Barrier 2 Ease of selection, pricing and installation

To answer this we need to move towards more truly packaged solutions (and when I say truly packaged its because I’ve seen some products that purport to be packaged solutions which result in a jumble of kit hiding in an airing cupboard which has be pieced together by an installer like a jigsaw). Stiebel Eltron has recently created some out of the box solutions that make life much easier. Our tried and tested solutions are aesthetically neat, designed for the UK Market, save time on site and have everything in one box, all compatible and correctly sized.

So some of retrofit packages that might suit Mr Smith include:

  • WPC ground source heat pump
  • WPL with HSBB air source heat pump package.Often air source are more suitable in retrofit situations because of they are quicker and cheaper to install and don’t involve groundwork.
  • Or to minimise the disruption in Mr Smith’s house his existing hot water tank could be connected to our high temperature heat pump WPL33HTS. This also has the added advantage that upstairs radiators don’t usually have to be replaced with lower flow temperature heaters.

Of course we also have packages for every eventuality up to the all singing, all dancing, LWZ packages which are designed to kit out new build eco homes and which contain combined ventilation, solar, heating, cooling and hot water (wifi enabled with smart phone app control).

A heat pump is not a suitable replacement for a boiler in every situation but there is also the half way house of using a heat pump – such as our WWK range - for hot water in conjunction with a boiler used for heating. This can offer substantial cost savings on bills without major disruption at a install cost comparable with a new hot water tank.

And then we follow with:

Barrier 3: Cost

Up front costs of installation for greener options are often still higher than replacement fossil fuel boilers. I’ve covered much of the existing funding available in the previous article mentioned above, so I won’t repeat myself except to get on my hobby horse again about the need for the government to include heat pumps in the green deal.

Is Mr Smith convinced to take the plunge and change his gas boiler for a greener option or at least add some greener options to the mix? One final barrier remains, which is also in a sense where we started:

Barrier 4 unfamiliarity

For the same reason that Mr Smith didn’t think about green options in the first place he may now choose not to go down this route. When a market is immature some customers can feel apprehensive. The questions they have beyond the crucial hurdle of credibility (will it work?) are what do these things look and sound like, where do they go in the home, and can I figure out how to use it ? Our job here is to ensure that customers are briefed and reassured BEFORE an installation takes place. The differences in the way new technologies work compared to fossil fuel and traditional electric heating can often be assimilated and accepted by a consumer who understands them before they are installed. A consumer discovering the same differences after it has been fitted to their property may feel – unnecessarily - disappointed in their expectations and thus become more demanding and less satisfied in the long term. 

We find the two most critical differences can be addressed as follows:

  • Clarify how customers want to use their heating and agree a “heating plan”. This will then help choose the correct heat emitter for their property. Customers in the UK are used to fast response systems which enable them to turn the heating off during the day when they are out and off at night but quickly heat their homes when they get home and get up in the morning. Traditional systems are therefore optimised for intermittent use. Heat pumps however are traditionally specified for continuous use. Customers need to understand this difference and that- if the existing radiators are used the heat-up time will be slower. Changing to fan coil radiators in some areas of the property can overcome this and increase efficiency if customers wish to continue with an intermittent heating pattern. Alternatively they can adopt the continental style heat plan of maintaining the heat inside the home continuously but this will be most economic with a low flow temperature heat emitter such as underfloor heating. There is also the option of agreeing a half way house heating plan where the temperature is allowed to drop by a few degrees during the customer’s usual “off” periods but will allow it to recover quickly – again this will probably be better with fan coil emitters.
  • Make sure customers understand that systems can look and sound a bit different to traditional boilers. If possible take potential customers to see and hear a similar existing installation in operation so they can understand how it will fit in their home

So I’ll leave Mr Smith weighing up his choices and get back to trying to find ways to move things forward. To that end I’d be really interested to hear from you your thoughts and experiences on all this – join me on twitter or linked in to share your thoughts. How have you seen consumer s reacting to new technologies – is there more we can do to help the green heating and energy revolution?