The greeting as I step inside the kitchen is open and friendly, but not particularly warm. This has nothing to do with the hospitality extended by homeowners Lee and Jane Roche and all to do with the room’s rather chilly temperature.
Welcome to the world of heat pumps, the technology that the Government is banking on to help it meet new and bold carbon emission targets. Fine in theory, underwhelming in practice. The Roches now question their decision to have the heating system installed in their detached four-bedroom home, situated in the village of North Luffenham in Rutland.
Just a couple of inches below my feet lies a labyrinth of tubing filled with tepid water – pushed around by a giant £30,000 ground source heat pump that hums away in its own room next door.
Cold comfort: Jane and Lee Roche with Nicholas, 12, and Imogen, ten, in their grade II listed home
The Government has just announced it will offer grants of up to £6,000 to install such eco-friendly technology from next April. Yet what it is less keen to promote is that this ‘bribe’ is far less generous than a previous deal that is quietly being dropped in March – and one which the Roches took advantage of.
They were able to claim £70,000 in grants to install their heat pump under the ‘renewable heat incentive scheme’. Yet, even with such a huge bribe, Jane is not convinced the heat pump saves them any money – or was even worth installing for free.
The kitchen’s temperature is such that ten-year-old daughter Imogen keeps her coat on to stay warm. Jane admits she would prefer it to be perhaps a couple of degrees Celsius warmer.
To raise the room temperature you do not simply turn up a thermostat as you might with a traditional gas boiler. Instead, you adjust heating control in the pump house. As these units are designed to push out relatively modest heat levels, the extra energy required to reach a higher temperature means it is often not cost effective – ramping energy bills even higher.
The kitchen’s warmth depends in part on £10,000 of triple-glazed patio windows that must be closed immediately once you step inside. I fail to observe this rule – and apologise profusely.
Mother Jane, 46, whose other child is Nicholas, 12, says: ‘This kitchen is a barn conversion, so we were able to dig up the flooring to install the pipes when it was built. But this wasn’t practical for the rest of the house as we live in a 400-year-old Grade II listed building.
‘Instead, it meant installing massive radiators, powered by the same ground source heat pump. They look unsightly and are rarely used because to get them to work effectively they burn a lot of electricity.’
Stepping into the main house, there is indeed a chill in the air. The radiators are 6ft long, 4ft high and stick out from the walls by six inches. The ugly metal behemoths look out of place in this tastefully decorated period property. Instead, the Roches use wood burners to occasionally heat the rooms, with the logs sourced from local trees that had to be cut down. Although despised by eco-warriors, it is hard to argue with the appeal of a roaring fire.
Despite radiator prudence, the family calculate the energy bill for their large stone-built farmhouse is still a costly £350 a month.
This is despite spending £40,000 on secondary and triple glazing throughout the home. Part of the problem is that although the heat pump system is efficient, the temperatures pumped out can be 20 degrees Celsius lower than a traditional boiler.
More electricity is used, too, as it takes longer to heat rooms and an energy boost is also required to get sufficient piping hot water for a bath or shower. In installing the ground source heat pump, the Roches faced practical challenges that most other households would not be able to overcome. The pump room looks like a Wallace and Gromit invention. The size of a double bedroom, it houses two giant heating tanks, each the size of telephone kiosks, plus the burly 4ft cubed pump. This emits a low hum – like that from an electricity pylon – which could keep light sleepers awake for longer than they wish. Then there is the acre of lawn outside the Roches’ back door where a maze-like mile of piping was laid 5ft underground.
Jane says: ‘When they were being laid, neighbours joked the land was being cleared to build a housing estate or Olympic-sized swimming pool. Most homes don’t have the land available to have such pipes installed.’
Cool: Imogen, in the pump room at her home in Rutland
The Roches’ heat pump relies on the underground pipes being warmed by the soil, where temperatures are typically between six and 12 degrees Celsius. The pump then uses compression technology to further boost the heat. The other heat pump alternative – that will benefit from a £5,000 grant – is air sourced. It costs less money – typically £15,000 compared to around £20,000 for a ground source pump. But you might still need to spend a further £10,000 on double glazing and cavity insulation if you do not have a modern airtight home.
The air pump extracts warm air from a box outside – the size of a small washing machine. This air is then blown into the home – or used to heat up water or big radiators. But it may struggle to heat a house when the outside temperature is close to or below zero degrees Celsius.
Roger Bisby is a plumber for website Skill Builder and not a fan of heat pumps. He says: ‘Make no bones about it, for most people the energy bills from an air or ground source heat pump will be pretty much the same as with a gas boiler.
‘Although you may be tempted by the grants available from April, you may end up out of pocket with an unwanted heating system unless you have a well-insulated modern house.’
A heat pump might typically provide 40 degrees Celsius of warmth compared to a traditional gas boiler offering at least 60 degrees.
A poorly insulated home using a pump might also use 40 per cent more energy to keep it properly heated. The good news is a new pump might produce 30 per cent less greenhouse gases.
Bisby adds: ‘Heat pumps are not the answer. They rarely save you money and they’re noisy. Unlike a traditional combination boiler, these pumps are usually on 24 hours a day.
Pipe dream: An acre of land at the back of the Roches’ house had to be dug up to accommodate a network of pipes
‘Air source heat pumps are the noisiest as they have boxes fitted on the outside of the house that whirl around like an air conditioning unit. The noise is constant and if windows are open they can keep you and even the neighbours awake.’
Heating and insulation grant specialist Warma UK is also concerned many people will be lured in by the new grant without realising there are pitfalls. Emma Garner, a director, says: ‘There will be a lot of sharks out there, talking about all the upsides but none of the drawbacks.
‘The tasty grant on offer could end up being consumed by extras sold to you at a massive profit – such as double-glazing – or the installer simply bumping up their charges.’
The grants are being made available from a £450million pot and will cover up to 90,000 pump installations over three years. Those who opt for an air source pump are being offered a £5,000 incentive, while for ground source pumps it is £6,000 as these are more costly to install.
Warma UK believes 19million heat pumps must be installed countrywide by 2050 to achieve a net zero target.
So far, only about 300,000 have been put in and as the Roches have discovered, they’re not quite what they are cracked up to be.
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