What you need to know about heat pumps: We answer ten top questions, from their cost, to replacing gas heating and getting £5,000 grants

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Gas boilers are out and heat pumps are in. That was the message delivered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week as he urged us to green our homes. 

Government grants of £5,000 will be available from April next year to encourage homeowners to install more efficient, low carbon heating systems, for example, air source heat pumps that can cut the carbon emmissions of heating Britain’s homes.

The move, however, has been criticised by experts who say the plans do not go far enough with the subsidy only enough to cover 90,000 pumps. 

To find out whether heat pumps could be an alternative for your home, and how much it would cost, This is Money, with help from industry experts, answers your top ten questions about the energy saving devices below. 

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The money comes through a new £450million three-year Boiler Upgrade Scheme aimed to reduce the UK’s dependency on fossil fuels and exposure to global price spikes.

It follows on from the Government’s target to stop installing new gas boilers by 2035 and comes just weeks before COP, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where countries will discuss how best to tackle climate issues.

Others are arguing that for the same costing, half a million households could have loft insulation fitted which would remove more carbon emissions and save households more money. 

1) What is a heat pump and how does it work?

There are two main different types of heat pump: an air source heat pump and a ground source heat pump. 

Unlike boilers, heat pumps don’t burn fuel to create heat, they transfer thermal energy from one place to another. 

An air source heat pump looks like an air conditioning unit that sits outside the home. They come with a fan unit which brings in air from outside the home. This is moves over a heat exchange surface, with the heat causing a special refrigerant liquid to evaporate and turn into a gas. This is compressed, increasing the pressure and raising the temperature and used to produce hot water.

The hot water needs to be stored in a water cylinder inside the home, where it can supply radiators, taps and showers. 

The system runs on electricity and the two units are connected by copper pipework.

Ground source heat pumps use pipes that are buried in the garden to extract heat from the ground.

This heat can then be used to heat radiators, under-floor or warm air heating systems and hot water in your home. 

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2) What is the Government’s new scheme offering?

New grants of £5,000 will be available from April next year to encourage homeowners to install more efficient heating systems such as heat pumps.

The Government says this means people choosing to install a heat pump will pay a similar amount as if they were installing a traditional gas boiler. 

However, the subsidies will only cover 90,000 heat pumps which experts argue is just a drop in the ocean compared to what needs to change to meet net zero targets. 

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3) How expensive is it to have one fitted and how long does it take to have one installed?

Air source heat pumps can cost between £8,000 and £14,000 to install, according to data from Uswitch. 

The exact price will vary depending on the brand, model and size of heat pump, the size of the property, whether your home is a new-build or an existing property, as well as whether you need to change the way you distribute heat around your property. 

To install air source pumps may take a couple of days, but they are quicker than the ground source alternatives as they do not require any land to be dug up.  

Meanwhile, ground source heat pumps are generally pricier than the alternatives, with a system costing from £15,000 to £30,000.

However, they are considered more efficient, especially when most needed on cold winter nights.

When installing, the drilling could take two days whilst other parts of the installation could take four days. 

Renewable Heat Incentive payments, which the Government hand out to those with renewable energy heaters, are also higher for ground source heat pumps than for air source heat pumps, meaning you could save more in the long term when opting for the former. 

By comparison, gas boilers generally cost between £1,800 and £3,500.  

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4) How much space will I need to install heat pumps?

The external space needed for an air space heat pump is not large with the device generally no larger than a washing machine.

For a ground source heat pump you need more with access for a drilling machine to create a borehole or two. 

5) What are the other energy saving options?

If a heat pump is not suitable for your home, or it will not heat your property by itself and you still want to reduce your carbon footprint, there are other renewable heating systems that could be a better option.

A hybrid system combines a traditional boiler with a heat pump, with the system switching between the two depending on which is most efficient.

For example, during the winter the boiler may need to work more to generate water at a higher temperature, and the heat pump would produce hot water during the summer.

Solar thermal panels are a good example of this. They can be installed on a property’s roof where they capture the sun’s energy and use it to heat water. The hot water is stored in a cylinder ready for central heating and domestic use.

They are not able to generate enough hot water for the average family all year round, but when combined with a boiler or a heat pump they can reduce heating costs and carbon emissions.

The cost to install is typically between £4,000 and £5,000 and while it is cheaper to get this than some of the other heating systems, it only heats your water and not the rest of your home and is typically less effective during the dark, colder months of the year. 

Meanwhile, a solar panel system costs upwards from £4,800 and can be pricier if you want to install more panels. 

To really benefit from solar panels, you also need to add a storage unit, typically costing from around £2,000, which will allow you to store any surplus electricity you generate when you aren’t using it.  

For well-insulated properties with plenty of indoor space to store the wood pellets, a furnace, and a hot water cylinder, a biomass boiler could be an effective heating system. 

They significantly reduce the amount of CO2 your home will use, and the running costs are generally cheaper than standard boilers. They cost around £5,000 to install and the wood pellets start from around £245 per tonne. 

Hydrogen boilers are also a possibility. Will Owen, energy expert at Uswitch, said: ‘There is a lot of research going into hydrogen boilers at the moment, to see if they could become a suitable replacement for gas. Technology moves fast, and there could be more alternatives by 2035.’

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6) Will there be a rush of people looking to buy gas boilers in 2034?

If gas boilers really will be taken out of production by 2035, there could be an influx of people purchasing them a year or so before to make the most of having one whilst they can.   

Owen from Uswitch said: ‘A number of things need to come together to ensure the success of the heat pump rollout, including there being enough engineers to carry out the installations, prices coming down and Government incentives.

‘Whether there is a rush of people trying to buy gas boilers in 2034 will depend on how well those issues are overcome.

‘There will always be some people who are nervous about changing how they heat their home, or are worried about the expense, so it is possible there could be last-minute purchases of gas boilers so people can keep them for longer.

‘It’s worth noting, though, the Government has not banned the sale of boilers outright, which could also prevent a last-minute rush to buy gas boilers.’

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7) If I had a heat pump installed and wanted to move, could I take it with me to my new home?

Theoretically this may be possible, but many people will perceive the installation of a heat pump system in the same way as a boiler, in that it comes with the house.

Moving it from one place to another could end up being more expensive than buying a new system at your new home because of the removal and installation costs.

Equally, your heat pump system may not be suitable for your new property, depending on its size and what kind of system you have installed.

8) How much less energy does a heat pump use compared to other energy saving solutions?

Heat pumps require some electricity to run but it is a relatively small amount and is less than using gas or standard electric heaters.

A new gas boiler is approximately 88 per cent efficient in turning the energy in gas into useable heat – the rest goes out the flue.

A heat pump can transfer three or even four times as much heat into a house as the electricity it consumes.

However, electricity costs four times as much as gas per kWhr. This is partly because the Government adds a 25 per cent tax on electricity, but only a 2 per cent tax on gas.

It is worth bearing in mind that electricity costs are generally higher than gas costs and so your bill may not significantly change, however, you will be less prone to energy market price volatility and contributing significantly to the push to Net Zero, as it is easier to generate green electricity than green gas at scale.

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9) What has the reaction been from experts in the industry to the news?

Overall, whilst many are happy the Government is doing something towards achieving Net Zero, they believe it is not going nearly far enough to tackle the problem.  

A spokesperson for the Ground Source Heat Pump Association said: ‘The £5,000 offered is not enough to induce most people to switch to a heat pump. It should be at least £7,000.

‘The Government acknowledges the high tax on electricity is inhibiting heat pump installations but only proposes to re balance the taxes over a decade. It should be now. 

‘It wants to see the end of gas boilers by 2035. It should be aiming for 2030.’

Meanwhile, Mike Foster, CEO of Energy and Utilities Alliance, added: ‘The Clean Homes Grant announcement of £450million, over the next three years, hardly sets the world alight. It is well short of the support needed to get to 600,000 heat pumps installed each year by 2028.

‘The £5,000 grant only pays half the cost of a heat pump, so those in fuel poverty will see no warmth from the government’s generosity; instead, it is middle-class bung for people who were probably going to fit a heat pump anyway.

‘For the same amount of money, £150million a year, half a million homes could have loft insulation fitted, saving each household £135 a year, and removing 290,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

‘Instead, removing 30,000 gas boilers, replacing them with the subsidised heat pumps will remove only 48,000 tonnes of carbon each year. This is hardly the COP figure the Prime Minister wants to read.’ 

10) What else is the Government doing to cut down on emissions?

However, despite criticisms, the Government has been working to lower carbon emissions from the Grid with now much energy coming from wind, which is carbon-free or from gas-fired power stations which emit less carbon than coal ones.

It has also pledged to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050 which will be the point when the country is taking as much climate-changing gases out of the atmosphere as it is putting in. 

Additionally, there is the target for all of the UK’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035.

For households, there are plans to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028 with a commitment to phase out natural gas boilers in new build homes by 2025. 

The Government is also encouraging the use of electric cars which is helpful in reducing emissions and is banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. 

Whether all of these targets will be met and work towards slowing the current climate crisis remains to be seen.  

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