Pump it up: UK householders on ditching their gas central heating


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Jun 14, 2023

Pump it up: UK householders on ditching their gas central heating

Climate crisis and high fossil fuel prices motivated some to invest in heat

Climate crisis and high fossil fuel prices motivated some to invest in heat pumps – how did their first winter go?

The return of warmer weather could not have come soon enough for households worried about energy bills. For others, the change of season marks the end of their first winter without relying on gas for their heating.

A small number of homes have installed heat pumps, which use electricity to channel warmth from the ground or the air into the home, and could play a major role in cutting carbon emissions from Britain's homes. The government wants to see 600,000 installed a year to help meet the UK's climate targets, but the response from the wider public has been tepid at best.

For those who have taken the plunge, the first winter with a heat pump has offered lessons that could help to shape the UK's move away from gas and oil.

Proper installation is paramount to how well a heat pump functions. Paul Brabbins from Halifax knows this all too well, after he and his partner spent months without adequate heating following a faulty installation.

Motivated by environmental concerns, Brabbins, 75, decided to install a heat pump in his 1930s stone and brick three-bedroom semi last July. "It slotted right in with our green credentials, that was one reason. Then the price of gas had shot right up and they were being advertised. We thought it was probably a good time to change."

After receiving the government's £5,000 grant, the air-source heat pump cost him around £7,000. He didn't have to undertake further insulation work before the installation in his home, which uses radiators rather than underfloor heating. But Brabbins, a retired probation officer, was faced with ongoing problems almost immediately, having to rely on their electric fire and oil heater as temperatures plummeted in the colder months. "At times we had neither hot water or central heating. We were wearing jumpers and blankets – it was absolutely freezing."

He says the installation company sent out heating engineers on many occasions over the autumn and winter months "to little avail", as well as providing them with electric heaters. "We must have seen everybody in the company! I was forced to frequently visit my freezing loft space to try to restart the system."

The issues were finally fixed only around a month ago, Brabbins says, adding that he was compensated £1,500. "They finally found the fault and it was sorted within half an hour. I worry that some companies are employing heating engineers who do not understand how heat pumps work."

But others have had very positive experiences. After account assistant Jade McAllister's gas boiler began to falter, she calculated that it made financial sense to take the government grant and get a heat pump.

A year after installation, McAllister, who is 35 and from Sheffield, is confident she made the right decision. "We had a very cold winter and the heat pump was fine, it didn't falter and kept us warm without costing an arm and a leg."

And it offered an added bonus when the mercury hit 40C last summer: heat pumps can also produce cold air. "The best part was being able to reverse it during the heatwave to cool the house. This made the heat bearable and was really impressive."

She urges anyone considering installing one to go with a reputable company on the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) register. "It has been nearly a year now and we have definitely saved money, it is not noisy, and it just does the job without any intervention."

Others have had more mixed experiences. Mike Greaves, 75, a retired landscape architect and former science faculty head in Hampshire, spent many months dealing with issues after his heat pump was poorly installed in August. Greaves lives in a well-insulated 1920s five-bedroom detached house with a 1990s extension, and has radiators rather than underfloor heating. The pump didn't get properly working until November, and even then it didn't properly heat radiators in two rooms until January. They were also often woken in the night by banging noises over winter. "We have had a very long process of trial and error getting it right," Greaves says, explaining that engineers are yet to fully resolve the noise issues.

After receiving the government's £5,000 grant, Greaves paid around £7,000 for the air-source pump and to get some radiators replaced. While the process has been arduous, once it got working, he has been largely happy with the pump itself. "Considering we had a very cold winter we were happy. The overall temperature has been very pleasant because it's more even. Even after several cold months, the running costs seem a bit lower than our old gas boiler, having recalculated the old bills on the current tariffs." However, it is not as simple as a boiler, he warns: "I’d very much like to encourage people to go ahead but be warned it's quite fiddly. It's helpful to have some understanding of how it works."

Greaves's home already had cavity insulation and double-glazed windows, and he opted to get further loft insulation work and draught proofing done in order to minimise heat loss. "We’re still [building] houses which have inadequate insulation – it's crazy."

Ben Richards, 51, had heard horror stories about how faulty installation could leave homeowners regretting their choice. "We saw from the media that some people have a bad experience of heat pumps but others raved about them. The difference seemed to be in how skilful and careful the design and installation team are."

After being recommended an installer by a friend and doing some research on the Heat Geek website, Richards, who works in science communication, replaced his home's 13-year-old boiler with an air-source heat pump in March. After moving into his property last year, Richards says the insulation in the four-bed 1970s property in Paisley was "either very poorly installed or non-existent", leading him to improve it through a mix of DIY and professional work before installing the heat pump.

"We moved into the house in September. We didn't want to go for another gas boiler – these days I hate burning fossils and also because I can see the grid is greening."

"Immediately we found it was cheaper to heat the house," says Richards, adding that his home has radiators, not underfloor heating. "You do have to change expectations, if you’re used to having piping hot radiators. The result is a warmed house but it doesn't feel like a sudden improvement in temperature." Whereas in February warming the house with gas cost £12 to maintain a temperature of 12C per day, with the heat pump, Richards says he was able to heat his home to 16C on comparably cold days in March at a cost of between £7 and £9.

The heat pump and installation cost close to £13,000, and he also had to replace some radiators at a cost of around £5,700. Richards benefited from the Home Energy Scotland scheme's grant of £7,500 and a £2,500 interest-free loan. "The [upfront] costs must come down for this technology to be more widely adopted," he says. "The government can reduce or switch the levies that artificially make gas so much cheaper than electricity, which would be fairer."