‘Nerds’ obsessed with new heating systems

Mick's Wall

Mick Wall closely monitors his home’s energy needs

There are heat meters fixed on the pipes. Room temperature monitors. And devices that track how much electricity solar panels produce.

The jewel in the crown of this system is a newly installed heat pump.

“It’s really like a geek’s paradise,” says Mick Wall of his 1930s semi-detached house in Sheffield.

Working in IT, Mr. Wall has made it a hobby to monitor his home’s energy consumption and hone the performance of his heat pump in a determined quest for maximum efficiency.

The UK government has set a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. However, there are currently less than 50,000 installations per year in British homes and the UK is at the bottom of the heat pump installation league table in Europe.

However, there is a brave group of pioneers out there. Enthusiastic adopters who say the country is ready to drive the heat pump crazy and they can prove it with their own hard data. These are heat pump enthusiasts.

Mr Wall is one of the few enthusiasts regularly publishes data online about how heat pumps work. “I put myself out there to say, ‘This stuff works, here’s the evidence,'” she says.

A website, heatpumpmonitor.org, offers real-time results from 12 UK homes, including Mr Wall’s. The data is processed through OpenEnergyMonitor, a digital platform that allows people to monitor their home energy consumption.

Heat pumps work by absorbing a small amount of heat from the outside into a refrigerant circulating inside the appliance. A compressor then pressurizes the refrigerant, raising the temperature, and then heat is delivered to the house.

A well-installed heat pump can receive three kilowatt hours (kWh) of heat for every kWh of electricity it consumes. This ratio is called the coefficient of performance or COP – the higher the better. Heat pump watchers tend to use this figure as a tool to evaluate how well their devices are performing, sometimes in friendly competition with other heat pump owners.

The COP changes depending on the weather or how hot you choose to have your radiators.

“It’s 4.5 at the moment,” says Mr. Wall excitedly. “Six, seven degrees [Celsius] here and I’m getting 4.5.”

A COP of 3 or more is considered very good because it means that the cost of running a heat pump for equivalent heat output should be cheaper than for a gas boiler, depending on energy tariffs.

There are caveats though. Before Mr. Wall decided he was ready for a heat pump, he had to spend thousands of dollars upgrading the radiators and pipes in his home, among other adjustments.

He chose an air source heat pump that draws heat from the air even when it’s very cold outside, adding that it’s important to properly size and set up the device to ensure it works efficiently. Solar panels also help him reduce the money he pays for electricity.

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But Richard Lowes of the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy-focused nonprofit, suggests that some homes may be eligible for a heat pump, perhaps without their owners realizing.

As a rough rule of thumb, you can replace the boiler with a heat pump if you can still reliably heat your home after shutting down your fossil fuel boiler to send water at roughly 50-55C or less to your radiators. , explains Dr Lowes.

A professional heat loss calculation and heat pump inspection can confirm this.

The cost of installing a heat pump will vary depending on the appliance size you need and what work, if any, your home needs to get it ready for the heat pump.

Installing a heat pump in a 1930s semi-detached house in the West Midlands, for example, could cost around £12,000, according to an online calculator set up by research fund Nesta. Currently, households in England and Wales can apply for a grant of £5,000 under certain conditions to reduce the overall cost.

Although a heat pump is expensive to install, the device is likely to pay for itself over its lifetime. Given the volatility of energy prices, it’s hard to say when that breakeven point will happen, but high gas prices have made heat pumps much more cost competitive with oil and gas boilers.

Richard Lowes, Regulatory Assistance Project

Richard Lowes says it’s “pretty fun” to watch the heating system

Dr Lowes is an ardent researcher of the heat pump system. The heating cabinet is filled with heat and electricity meters that monitor the energy consumed and the heat output of the heat pump.

“I’m having fun, it’s pretty fun,” he says. “Every time I look at it, I am amazed.”

He averages a COP of 3.5 throughout the year, which is even better than he had hoped.

Dr Lowes’ property is a renovated terrace in Cornwall that he made sure was well insulated before he bought the heat pump.

He notes that most people who install a heat pump will not have access to detailed data on how it works automatically. But with monitoring devices installed in the system, he and others like Mr Wall can follow events more closely. Mr Wall states that he spent around £600 on the monitoring kit.

“Because we’re nerds and we’ve set them up and tweaked, we can also say how we can make it better,” says Dr. Lowes. “I think there’s this really valuable information being built.”

Jess Britton, an energy policy researcher at Edinburgh University

Jess Britton ‘not so interested’ with data from new heat pump

Still, most people don’t want or need this level of knowledge. Dr Jess Britton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a former colleague of Dr Lowes, says he installed a heat pump in his 1930s Edinburgh home last year and has yet to use any heat meters.

“I want to know that it works efficiently. Beyond that, I’m not very interested in data,” he says.

“Our initial estimates are that it’s a good move in terms of our energy costs.”

It wasn’t long ago that research suggested that heat pumps could not outperform gas boilers in terms of operating costs. For example, Nick Kelly of the University of Strathclyde published such findings in a 2011 study.

With gas prices skyrocketing and heat pump technology advancing, he suggests, the situation is different now, but he says that properly sizing and installing a heat pump is crucial.

Gathering detailed heat pump performance data can help prove that devices are working as intended, he adds. “You can compare that to what was effectively promised by the manufacturer or installer.”

Mr. Wall is very pleased with the numbers he has achieved. The heat pump works by automatically adjusting itself to changes in the weather while keeping the house warm.

Moreover, the other members of the house did not even question the heating once. “In my book, this is a very positive sign,” he says.

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