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The value of ground source heat pumps

With ground source heat pumps becoming an increasingly attractive option across commercial applications, Phil Hurley looks at the factors currently driving market growth - and which will have the biggest impact in the years to come.
With carbon reduction targets weighing heavily on the non-domestic sector, technologies that can cut a business's emissions in line with sustainability criteria, while making financial and operational sense, have come to the forefront of the renewable heating market.

A perfect solution for larger, heat consuming buildings, it is no surprise that ground source heat pumps (GSHP) have become a particularly attractive option across the board.

However, for GSHPs to fulfil their true potential in the commercial market, it's important to understand all the factors currently influencing uptake - and which of these is set to prove most significant in the long term.

Changing the heating landscape
It goes without saying that to effectively meet future demand for low-carbon heating, we need well-engineered, high-performance, reliable and accessible products to do the job.

In recent years, manufacturers in the GSHP industry have invested heavily in research and development, to the end that the standard of technology now available in the UK is unrivalled.

For example, NIBE's latest F1345 ground source heat pump model boasts a COP of 4.5, and can be docked alongside other units to provide up to 540kW which are suitable for large, commercial buildings.

As well as providing efficient space and water heating, it can also be used for passive and active cooling; a welcome solution for buildings with both a high heat demand and simultaneous residual cooling needs.

On top of this high performance, it also offers total flexibility - operating on its own, in a cascade with other heat pumps, with solar thermal or in a bivalent system with an oil, gas or biomass boiler - and straightforward intelligent controls.

Enhancements to GSHP technology have also helped introduce a more intuitive, convenient and seamless transition from conventional heating to renewables than ever before.

This is a key concern for manufacturers, as we strive to make programming, operation and maintenance as easy as possible for those switching over. It was this consideration that led us to develop NIBE Uplink, a unique tool that lets users and engineers monitor and manage their heat pumps remotely through their own online portal.

This was first included as a feature of our F1345 ground source model - and has proved so successful that we have now rolled it out across our air source and exhaust air heat pump ranges - allowing us to provide the exact level of control and convenience that heat pumps need to compete with more familiar systems on a national scale.

Making the numbers add up
As well as being fit for purpose and easy to work with, to play their necessary part in reducing commercial reliance on fossil fuels, ground source heat pumps ultimately need to make financial sense for businesses.

This is where incentives such as the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme come in, which allows companies to write off investment in efficiency measures against their taxable profits.

These help organisations meet up-front costs - and it is these that are often the deciding factor for those looking to invest - while other drivers like the RHI are aimed at providing longer-term tariff support.

In fact, thanks to these financial schemes, the economic case for businesses to invest in GSHPs has never been stronger. For example, the 2013 Early Review of the non-domestic RHI tariffs has proposed an increase in current payments for both small and large GSHPs, taking these up to a suggested 7.2-8.2p/kWh, which is around twice the current rates.

While these increases are still in consultation stage, the proposals reflect important recognition of the potential of GSHPs in helping the UK achieve its commercial carbon reduction targets, and would provide a welcome boost for widespread uptake.

Future growth
Now that we have the technology and financial drivers in place to make GSHPs an attractive and viable long-term option for businesses, the most important next step is to ensure that we can depend on the highest levels of skill and expertise to meet demand.

For this, it's up to the industry to work together to uphold the right product, installation and training standards across the board.

As part of this, merchants, specifiers and installers alike should make the most of the GSHP training courses offered by manufacturers to ensure they are up-to-speed with the different models and ranges available.

However, overarching this specific training, it is the continued implementation of quality standards, such as the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) that will play the central role in determining quality levels across the industry as a whole.

The MCS gives both heat pumps and their installers the necessary stamp of approval to ensure optimum performance and best results for end-users. It provides tradespeople working with ground source and other heat pumps with a recognised standard of quality assurance, knowledge and training.

This not only helps stamp out problems spanning from poor specification, installation and maintenance, it gives both business and domestic users ultimate peace of mind when it comes to the quality of their system. Ensuring tradespeople and products are equipped to meet MCS standards will help build confidence in GSHPs and stimulate those all-important word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers, which are increasingly significant in a burgeoning and competitive marketplace.

At the moment, to qualify for non-domestic RHI payments, both GSHPs and those fitting them must be MCS accredited - but at NIBE we want to see this to go one step further.

We are calling for MCS to be introduced as a legal requirement for all heat pumps and heat pump installations (similar to the way the Gas Safe register works to regulate the boiler industry).

With the technology and incentives behind them, it's these high standards that will help maintain the level of quality needed to ensure GSHPs can perform to the full extent of their capability in the UK - and that will have the greatest impact in building future growth in the market.

// The author is UK managing director of NIBE //
15 August 2013

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