Earlier this year, Vaillant hosted a roundtable looking at how the UK can make the transition to low carbon while still delivering comfort in our homes. Mark Wilkins, Head of Training and External Affairs at Vaillant Group, takes a look at the issues discussed.

There’s no question that we must act swiftly to tackle climate change, but what are the challenges faced by the HVAC industry and installers in replacing traditional forms of heating with low carbon technologies? What should industry, government, and financial institutions do to speed up efforts to decarbonise our homes?

These were just some of the issues discussed when a group of industry stakeholders convened earlier this year to debate what needs to happen in order to make it feasible to reach the government’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Participants agreed that improving the fabric of our buildings to reduce their heat demand is vital. While new properties are more energy efficient, the biggest challenge lies in retrofitting existing homes.

The market is currently seeing a move towards a more holistic approach to upgrade the energy efficiency of our homes, as Howard Porter, Chief Executive of BEAMA, explained: “There are some measures that need to be done in conjunction with other measures – the classic case is putting lots of external wall insulation [in] and forgetting about ventilation. 

“Training has a role to play by broadening the skill set of the installers, allowing them to consider all aspects of energy usage in the building and understanding the holistic view.” 

Bearing in mind that many installers operate as self-employed sole traders, a move towards ‘whole house’ specification could bring many opportunities for those who want to grow their businesses. 

In the public housing sector, many providers are currently considering low carbon solutions. However, these projects often take much longer to come to fruition. The absence of long-term government policy and strategy, combined with cuts to funding, led Les Finucane, Business Development Director at BSW Heating, to say he felt that gas boilers tend to be their first choice for many where there is a limited pot of money available. 

Some households can afford the upfront cost to retrofit low carbon solutions, but for those who can’t, government funding – whether in the form of scrappage schemes, subsidised financing options, or tax incentives – can make the difference between choosing another gas boiler or alternative low carbon solution that will futureproof their energy source. 

A key part of the puzzle is ensuring that there are enough designers and installers with the knowledge, skills, and experience to install low carbon technologies. Unless there is a clear direction from the government to drive demand for these solutions, there is very little incentive for busy installers to undertake additional training. 

Les explained: “There’s got to be a market first. At the moment, there is little point training up large numbers of engineers if they don’t have the work to do and the opportunity to keep their skills current.”  

Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive at the Sustainable Energy Association, recognised that training and upskilling is a chance for installers to get ahead of the game. She said: “We need to be viewing this as an opportunity for installers and they need to be encouraged to learn new skills and transition to low carbon solutions. The industry needs to recognise that and think how we can work together.” 

Although different parties had differing views on the best route to decarbonising heat in our homes, everyone agreed that we need to act now. 

The government needs to put in place the drivers and policy landscape that will increase demand. These would provide clear direction and stability to stimulate the financial backing and encourage investment in training up designers and installers to deliver the low carbon solutions needed to meet our ambitious decarbonisation targets. Bearing in mind the diversity in our country’s housing stock, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. 

Considering the social housing sector, Peter Sumby, Director of Operations at National Energy Action, pointed out that there is a wide variety of housing stock managed by a large number of providers catering for diverse needs. 

“Different markets need different approaches and policies,” agreed Lesley. “Regulation is important but we also need incentives – ‘stick and carrot’, if you like. But we need to get on and do it.”