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Heat pumps

Heat pumps demystified: What UK homeowners need to know

Mikael Kristianslund

Man standing next to a heat pump
August 30, 2023

Thinking about switching to a heat pump but not sure if it's the right move? Our comprehensive guide dives into the efficiency, costs, and long-term benefits of heat pumps, helping you decide if this eco-friendly heating solution is right for your UK home.

What is a heat pump and how does it work?

A heat pump is a device that transfers heat from one place to another, typically from the outside air to the inside of your home.

It operates on the same principle as a refrigerator or an air conditioner working in reverse (who would have thought?). Using thermodynamics, it transfers heat from the outside air and pumps it into your home during colder months, and reverses the process to cool your home in the summer.

The mechanics of heat pump efficiency

Heat pumps can be up to 500% efficient, meaning for every unit of electricity used, they can produce five units of heat.

This efficiency will vary depending on the temperature outside, and you can't expect that kind of efficiency in the winter, but even in colder conditions, they tend to outperform gas and electric heaters.

Are heat pumps worth the investment?

Yes, heat pumps are generally worth the investment, but there are exceptions.

If you've recently installed a new, highly efficient gas boiler, switching to a heat pump immediately may not offer significant cost benefits. However, if your boiler is a few years old or you're considering a full home retrofit to move away from gas, a heat pump becomes a compelling option.

Heat pumps have a long lifespan, often up to 25 years, compared to the 10-15 year lifespan of most gas boilers. This longevity offers substantial long-term savings.

Add to this the increasing efficiency of newer models, gas prices on the rise and government incentives like the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, heat pumps are becoming an increasingly compelling option for long-term energy and cost savings.

The cost of a heat pump in the UK

The average cost of an air source heat pump ranges from £6,000 to £12,000, including installation.

Ground source heat pumps are generally more expensive, costing between £17,000 to £35,000.

However, various grants and schemes can offset these costs.

For instance, the Boiler Upgrade Scheme can subsidise your air source heat pump installation by £5,000 and your ground source heat pump by £6,000.

Why aren't heat pumps more popular in the UK?

Despite their efficiency and long-term cost savings, heat pumps are not as popular in the UK as one might expect.

One reason is the initial high installation cost, which can deter homeowners. Another factor is the lack of awareness and understanding of how heat pumps work and their benefits. Traditional heating systems like gas boilers are deeply ingrained in the UK's housing infrastructure, making it challenging to shift perceptions.

Compatibility with existing systems

Do heat pumps work with radiators? The answer is yes, but with some caveats. Heat pumps are most efficient when used with underfloor heating systems, but they can work with radiators if those are upgraded to larger, low-temperature models.

The downsides of heat pump systems

While heat pumps offer numerous advantages, they do have some limitations. The most notable is the decline in efficiency as outdoor temperatures drop.

In colder conditions, a heat pump may need to rely on more expensive forms of backup heating. Air source heat pumps, for instance, can operate efficiently down to about -15°C.

Beyond this point, the system may struggle to provide adequate heating, making a hybrid system or backup heating necessary.

Should I consider a hybrid heat pump then?

If you're hesitant to fully commit to a heat pump, a hybrid system could be your answer.

It combines a heat pump with a traditional boiler, offering the best of both worlds. This is especially useful in extreme cold when a heat pump's efficiency may decline.

Running costs: Heat pump vs gas

Is a heat pump cheaper to run than gas? In most cases, yes.

Heat pumps are generally more energy-efficient, converting up to 500% of the electricity into heat.

Gas boilers, on the other hand, have an efficiency rate of about 90%. With rising gas prices and various government incentives for heat pumps, the long-term running costs are usually lower for heat pumps.

Consider pairing your heat pump with solar panels and home batteries

Why? Solar panels can generate the electricity needed to power your heat pump, making the system even more cost-effective.

Home batteries can store excess solar energy, ensuring that your heat pump has a constant, renewable energy source even when the sun isn't shining.

Additionally, you can actually charge these batteries from the grid during off-peak hours when electricity is cheaper.

Can a heat pump heat a whole house?

Absolutely. Heat pumps are capable of heating entire homes, even in colder climates.

However, the efficiency and effectiveness depend on several factors, including the size of your home, the quality of insulation, and the outside temperature.

For larger homes or those with poor insulation, a ground source heat pump may be more appropriate due to its higher efficiency in colder conditions. A hybrid heat pump is also a viable option.

Financial incentives and grants

Don't let the initial costs deter you; financial help is available.

The Boiler Upgrade Scheme offers up to £5,000 for air-source heat pumps and £6,000 for ground-source heat pumps.

Plus, there's no VAT on heat pump installations until 2027, making it more affordable to make the switch.

Conclusion

Heat pumps offer a highly efficient, eco-friendly alternative to traditional heating systems. While the initial costs can be high, various financial incentives and long-term savings make them a worthwhile investment. With the UK government's push for greener energy solutions, now is an excellent time to consider making the switch.

Ready to transform your home's energy efficiency?