Colin Timmins, H&V Portfolio Manager at BEAMA, explains how installers will fit into the inevitable changes to heating across the UK, and why we all need to be prepared.

There have been some significant changes to the way we provide heating and hot water to our homes over the last few decades. The change to mandatory condensing boilers was a significant one, and arguably has been one of the most impactful government policies in respect to reducing household carbon emissions in existing homes. 

Far more disruptive than this was the growth in gas central heating that began in the late 1960s with the conversion of millions of properties to natural gas. This meant that the proportion of UK homes with gas central heating grew from 10% in 1970 to 40% in just 10 years, and now stands at over 80%.

An equally dramatic change over the coming decades is expected as the UK grapples with its commitment to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. 

At the end of December 2018, the government published a document entitled Clean Growth – Transforming Heating, which gives an overview of key issues, and effectively launches 18 months of work to develop a new roadmap for policy to decarbonise heating. 

It came out at about the same time as the government response to the call for evidence on A Future Framework for Heat in Buildings, which had a large focus on heating for off-gas grid properties.

Nobody should be under any illusions about the challenge that the UK faces in the decarbonisation of heating. This new document outlines the government’s approach to heat decarbonisation that will look to reduce heat demand through greater energy efficiency, encouraging growth in short-term ‘no-regrets’ low carbon technology (e.g. heat networks, renewable heating), as well as introducing a long-term policy framework that will bring about and support long-term commitments to reducing emissions.

All of this means that in the next 30 years there should be a clear drive to transform heating in our homes to low carbon options. It is currently believed that the technologies with the potential to contribute to this are a widespread use of electric heating (including heat pumps), use of hydrogen through the gas grid, and bioenergy, possibly through the production of biomethane for use in the gas grid. 

However, no-one is expected to provide the solution for everyone, and it is the balance between the different technologies that will be taxing the brains of policy makers and industry as we all try to agree a common agenda for the future.

While there is plenty of uncertainty about the practicalities of these technologies and the respective cost implications, it seems that things are going to change significantly, and heating installers will be at the forefront of this change. 

For one thing, the advent of different technologies will mean a requirement for new skills and greater training. At the moment, the vast proportion of homes have a gas boiler and radiators, so a heating installer can happily focus on these.

In the future, there may not only be a wider range of technologies used in homes, it could well be the case that there will be hybrid systems or micro-renewables present in most individual houses, requiring that anyone working on the system will need to have expertise in a number of different technologies and how to integrate and control them effectively. 

There is also the question of the transition to new technologies, particularly if we are talking about fundamental changes to the fuel supplied through the gas network.

Coordination of installations or appliance conversion could be required on a major scale, but how would individual installers fit into this?

What should definitely not be neglected is understanding how consumers will respond to such a fundamental change. Public awareness will undoubtedly need to be raised on the whole process of decarbonisation and what it means, and there could be issues with customer acceptability of newer technologies and associated changes in the operation of heating systems at home. 

Given that heating installers already have a relationship with householders, it will undoubtedly fall to them to advise customers on the need for change and what options are available to them.

The changes suggested in Clean Growth – Transforming Heating indicate that we could be heading for a level of change in heating not seen since the mass transition to gas central heating. 

Many of the installers who made this happen in the 1970s may be retired when these changes really start to impact, but the current and future generation of installers will undoubtedly step up to the challenge.