Current vocational education and training is inadequate, and ill-prepared to deliver the UK Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation to install heat-pump technology in place of gas boilers, new research has suggested.

This lack of skills and installer capacity could jeopardise the adoption of heat pumps in buildings, and jeopardise the chances of meeting the nation’s energy targets, the author of the research, Dr Colin Gleeson of the University of Westminster, said.

The research, published on 11 September in Building Research & Information journal and titled 'Residential heat pump installations: the role of vocational education and training', examined the skills and knowledge required for installing and maintaining heat pumps.

Dr Gleeson identified the lack of broader educational content and deficiencies in engineering knowledge. He predicted this will have detrimental consequences on both the actual performance and market acceptance of heat pumps.

The UK aims to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2020 as part of its climate and energy goals, and 2.5 million to 4 million heat pumps by 2030 if it is to fulfil its climate commitment, as set out in the Committee’s Fourth Carbon Budget Review in 2013.

However, Dr Gleeson’s research highlighted the relatively low performance of UK heat pumps when compared to that of continental Europe.

A microgeneration scheme supported by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has produced technical guidance and initial training workshops to kick-start the training process. However, the UK domestic heating industry has yet to embrace this and implement requirements for installers, the document said.

“Field trial results indicate a failure in the design and installation of heat pump systems; this is linked to the lack of appropriate knowledge, skills and competence for creating optimum performance," Dr Gleeson said.

“Few UK installers have formal heat pump qualifications at NVQ [National Vocational Qualifications] level 3. Heat pump vocational education and training is generally offered through short-courses with no strict adherence to a common syllabus or a detailed training centre specification."

Professor Tadj Oreszczyn, of University College London, said: "Heat pumps can play an important role in the UK reducing its carbon emissions. However, this paper demonstrates that this is only likely to happen in practice if the UK improves its skills and training of heat pump installers.

“Historically, domestic heating installers have required less skills due to the robust nature of combi boiler performance. Heat pumps will need to reverse this trend."

Peter Hansford, Government Chief Construction Advisor, said: “Heat pumps are an important means of reducing carbon emissions from heating in buildings and in helping to meet the UK’s energy efficiency targets. This is why urgent action is needed to overcome the skills deficiency that is holding back the installation of heat pumps.

“I urge the industry to address ways in which these skills can be developed," he added.

The Zero Carbon Hub, in its 2014 Closing the Gap Between Design and As-built Performance: end of term report, said more emphasis is needed to support the acquisition of knowledge, training and skills.

A comprehensive revision of vocational education and training has implications for all construction occupations and the wider debate on the energy performance gap, it said.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock/ auremar.