Remi Volpe, VP - Residential Temperature Control at Schneider Electric and Chairman of BEAMA Heating Controls, explains the need for a stronger focus on heating controls.

As plans are set out in 2021 to decarbonising heat in UK homes, it is expected in large part that this will require a transfer from the current predominance of natural gas boilers to either electric heat pumps or boilers that can run on hydrogen. 

Both of these will require the development or upgrading of infrastructure for production and distribution, either to produce sufficient amounts of low carbon hydrogen or to ensure that enough additional electricity can be produced and distributed. 

It is also not an insubstantial fact that both these fuels could be more expensive to consumers than the current unit price of gas, as the costs of infrastructure development will have to be accommodated somewhere.

The upshot of this is that if we can reduce the amount of fuel that is needed to heat our homes, it will provide a significant benefit by both reducing the infrastructure cost of decarbonisation for government and the end cost to consumers. This is why the forthcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy, setting out a roadmap for how the UK will decarbonise heat, must include a strong focus on improving heating system controls.

A strategy to optimise control and efficient operation of UK residential heating systems could significantly reduce the amount of energy required for heating, and therefore the infrastructure cost of providing decarbonised heat. Research and calculations carried out by the BEAMA Heating Controls group show that currently available measures to improve system efficiency have the potential to reduce the current gas consumption for heating by over 20%. 

Allied to optimised fabric energy efficiency (itself a heating measure) and a different approach for hot water, the overall reduction could be half of the energy we currently use for heating and hot water.  

In addition, we all know that the energy used by gas and oil boilers is largely dependent on the way the overall system is designed and commissioned, and the type of controls installed. This will continue to be true for hydrogen boilers and heat pumps when used as primary heat sources instead of gas and oil boilers, as these will still use water-based heating systems to distribute heat. 

Despite the importance of system efficiency, frankly it has not been seen as important enough to ensure consistent good practice. For example, while commissioning such as system balancing is required after a boiler installation under the current Building Regulations, it is known that the practice is not generally followed and enforcement is weak.

A plan to improve existing heating systems could be implemented straightaway, with our industry able to deliver the products and skills for these known technologies. 

As well as making the UK ready for decarbonisation, this would also reduce carbon emissions from gas and oil boilers in existing homes; providing immediate energy efficiency improvements, while making homes cheaper to run and more comfortable to live in. 

The path to net-zero heating needs to start now and we believe we have the capability to help with this today by leveraging the full capabilities of better controls and practices.