How heat pumps have divided Britain
To heat pump, or not to heat pump? That is the question.
As Britain limps towards its government-imposed target to have zero carbon emissions by 2050, the seemingly innocuous heating units have wound up at the centre of an eco-culture battlefield.
By 2028, the Government hopes the heat pump rollout will have accelerated to the point where 600,000 of the units will be installed every year in British homes – and has even offered a £5,000 grant to those who opt in before 2025.
On paper, there has never been a better time to embrace the green technology, which runs using electricity rather than gas – a resource that has become wildly expensive ever since the war in Ukraine drove wholesale prices through the roof.
But in practice, the new technology is proving divisive, with horror stories of shock repair fees and steep installation costs causing many to be wary of making the leap.
It comes at little surprise, therefore, the rollout has stalled. Only a tiny minority of households have taken advantage of the £450m grant pot, and a shortage of engineers qualified to work with the technology has only made matters worse.
Nonetheless, heat pump evangelists such as Octopus Energy, an energy provider, are desperate for take up to increase, kicking off a price war with rival British Gas with a £2,500 model that rivals the price of a gas boiler.
On the other side of the fence, trade bodies representing rural households argue that the installation target is unfair on off-grid homes.
Such households would arguably be better off using oil boilers, argues Mike Foster, of the Energy Utilities Alliance.
These homes, strangely, have been hit with an even harsher deadline to go green. Oil-reliant homes will be banned from replacing boilers like-for-like from 2026, as opposed to 2035 for gas-reliant households.
Those who have taken the plunge and invested in a heat pump have seen mixed results. Roger Wood, a retired accountant, says switching from a biomass boiler to an air source heat pump would have cost him around £20,000, according to three separate quotes.
Mr Wood, 75, says he and his wife “could not face” the cost, much less the upheaval of having carpets and tiles lifted. “Since the radiators would have been working at 40C, it would have been necessary to use electricity to heat water for baths, for instance. The operating costs were still expected to exceed £2,000 a year,” he adds.
The units can also be expensive to repair when they break down, and routine services are also more expensive on average for heat pump owners.
The average boiler service costs £75, according to Checkatrade, a comparison site. But consumer publication The Eco Experts estimates a standard heat pump service costs twice this amount, as they take twice as long – ultimately coming in at around £150.
Heat pumps tend to work best when paired with other forms of technology such as solar panels or batteries, meaning so-called “Net Zero houses” have saved thousands.
Jacqueline Davies, from Kent, lives in an all-electric house and has had no complaints with her 13-year-old heat pump. “The other advantage is that we have no ugly radiators, as we have efficient under-floor heating,” she says.
Households eyeing up a heat pump may also benefit from waiting until prices come down and models become more efficient. A recently published report by the state Department for Energy Security and Net Zero found heat pumps’ average performance had improved by 30-40pc since 2017 alone.
Meanwhile, low-cost models touted by British Gas and Octopus in recent months suggest cheaper units may yet appear as the market picks up.
Despite this, a report from The Renewable Heat Premium Payment grant scheme, published last week, concluded a large-scale rollout of heat pumps would require “improving the quality and consistency of heat pump designs and installations” further, suggesting heat pump nirvana may be some way off.