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Opportunity knocks as heat pumps gain ground

As the heat pump market picks up momentum, it is critical that industry standards are not overlooked, warns Adam Pearson

As part of the Government's legally binding EU carbon reduction targets, the UK has pledged to source 12 per cent of its heat from renewable sources by 2020, so there's never been a more urgent need for sustainable heating alternatives across homes, businesses and industry alike. The government's commitment has filtered down into legislative support and the introduction of financial incentives, such as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). These measures, matched with the increasing popularity of other energy efficiency standards and schemes, such as the performance benchmark BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method), are all fuelling today's growing demand for renewable heat.

This has created an unprecedented opportunity for the heat pump industry. However, whilst heat pumps rightly become an increasingly attractive and necessary prospect for specifiers nationwide, it's now up to us, as an industry, to work together to effectively meet this increased demand to the highest possible standards. This way, we can ensure the technology performs to its true potential, playing its important part in helping meet government targets over the next eight years.

Specifiers not only need to rely on high performance heat pump technology but also on a skilled workforce to deliver a successful project. For manufacturers, this could mean investment into pioneering technological developments or offering a greater spread of product training options. For installers, up-skilling is a priority - ensuring they are fully equipped to respond competently to the commercial opportunity at hand.

Against today's economic backdrop, cost is all too often a driving influence behind day-to-day decision making for everyone - and specifiers are no different. Whilst expertise and qualifications are obviously of utmost importance to specifiers looking at their installer options, the bottom line often ends up as the deciding factor.

This would not be an issue in a regulated industry, where a consistent and reliable skill level across the installer workforce is guaranteed. There is no doubt that MIS 3005, the official standard for those working with heat pump technology under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), certainly provides a clear framework. However, whilst MCS accreditation is necessary to qualify for payments under the RHI, it ultimately remains an option, rather than a legal requirement. This makes its impact on the sector limited.

Specifiers currently opting for MCS-accredited installers are able to rely on the service they are provided and the skills needed to deliver it. Yet, whilst cost remains a key driver, there will always be scope to opt for the cheapest alternative - even if this means sacrificing the MCS stamp of approval. This can mean system performance and customer satisfaction are sacrificed in the long run.

Enforce the standards

Enforcing mandatory quality assurance standards would allow specifiers to make cost-based decisions without compromise. If MCS accreditation became a legal requirement for those working with heat pumps, similar to the Gas Safe Register for gas engineers, this would ensure a consistent and dependable skill level across the board.

Not only would it push heat pump training further up the industry agenda and stimulate much-needed investment in this area, it would also promote the higher standards of expertise, reliability, performance and safety needed to build confidence in heat pumps and their capabilities.

If all heat pump installations were carried out to the necessary MCS requirements - including correct heat loss calculations and accurate sizing of both units and distribution systems - we would witness the consistent high performance levels that this technology is capable of on a national scale. Also, by limiting the number of systems that fail to perform to their full potential due to poor installation, it would also help level the playing field between heat pumps and traditional heating systems.

As well as the Government, manufacturers also have a part to play in promoting necessary industry standards. While MCS accreditation remains an option instead of a legal requirement, manufacturers should ensure that installers fitting their products are working to the highest standards where possible.

It is only by working together that government, manufacturers, installers and specifiers can help deliver the change in the heating landscape that's needed to achieve stringent 2020 targets. There is no one group that foots the entire responsibility, and whilst there is a challenge ahead, there is no doubt that with intra-industry collaboration it is possible to grow the heat pump market on the necessary scale.

We should have confidence in the central role this technology can play in the future of renewable heating in the UK, and ensure we are all working to promote the high industry standards needed to see this realised.

// The author is technical services manager of NIBE Energy Systems //
7 October 2012


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