What is a heat pump, and is it worth getting one for your home?

a heat pump unit outside of a homeHeat pumps have become a big talking point over the past couple of months as a great option for heating your home.

In fact, as reported in the Evening Standard, the government has even announced a target to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028.

The trouble is that technologies like this can sound exciting before turning out to be highly disappointing.

That’s why, when one comes along promising something that sounds impossible, it’s good to read up and work out whether it’s right for you first.

So, here’s what you need to know about heat pumps to help you make an informed decision.

A refrigerator in reverse

A great way to think about a heat pump is as a refrigerator in reverse. Rather than taking air and cooling it, heat pumps extract heat from the air and use it to provide heating and hot water.

The process to do this is obviously incredibly precise and complex, but it essentially involves three stages:

  1. A fan blows air from the outside over coils that contain a liquid refrigerant. This refrigerant warms up and evaporates into gas.
  2. The gas is compressed so that its temperature rises.
  3. This heated gas passes over a heat-exchange surface where it is extracted and then fed throughout your home to radiators, underfloor heating, and even to produce hot water.

The box, which sits outside of your home and looks rather like an air-conditioning unit, supposedly works in temperatures even as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius – a tangible reality if you’re living in Braemar, where the Met Office recorded a temperature of minus 23 degrees Celsius in February this year, the lowest UK temperature since 1995.

The main reason that heat pumps have become newsworthy is that they emit no carbon dioxide, and are even carbon-free if they’re powered by electricity from renewable sources.

They also tend to need little in the way of maintenance and can even last up to 20 years before you need to replace them. In that time, there are few ways in which the pump could go wrong and, even if it did, parts are fairly replaceable.

Heat pumps don’t burn any fuel at source either, meaning they’re thought to be safer than gas boilers, too.

As a result, heat pumps are seemingly a cost-efficient, safe, and green way to heat your home.

Prices starting from £7,000

According to the Energy Saving Trust, heat pumps can cost between £7,000 and £30,000 depending on the size of the pump and the complexity of the technology contained within the system.

Fortunately, despite these high prices, you may be able to get a loan or grant to help with the cost. For example, Home Energy Scotland offers up to £17,500 in interest-free loans, and has previously offered cashback grants of up to £7,500, too.

This could help you to afford the high upfront costs of a heat pump.

Downsides to a heat pump

Of course, as with any technology, there are a couple of downsides to heat pumps.

British homes are notoriously energy-inefficient

The biggest downside to heat pumps is that British homes can be incredibly inefficient with heat.

You’d likely need total insulation, including in your loft, and double-glazed UPVC windows to ensure that any generated heat stays in your home.

Some experts suggest that you’d need a home with a minimum “B” rating for energy efficiency to make a heat pump worthwhile.

Many consumers have also found that, while the pump is capable of producing hot water, the temperature simply isn’t high enough to heat a home via radiators.

There can also be an issue with the size of water pipes, as the size of pipework needed to use gas central heating is far smaller in diameter than that needed for a heat pump.

This may make underfloor heating a necessity, an expensive addition to any home.

Listed buildings may not be able to have one

Listed buildings have all kinds of rules attached to the changes you can make, particularly in relation to pipework and insulation. This includes the kind of work you would likely need to do to have a heat pump.

So, if you live in a Grade A-, B-, or C-listed building, you may find that you’re unable to install a heat pump due to the protected status of your home.

Could take six months to install

Heat pumps require specialist engineers to fit and, with so much interest in heat pumps, installers are regularly fully booked. That means it could take upwards of six months after buying to have your pump installed.

Should you get a heat pump?

The answer to whether you should take the plunge on a heat pump is tricky.

On the one hand, a pump could be a green alternative that provides your home with heating and hot water.

But equally, you may end up paying for technology that simply isn’t appropriate for your home or doesn’t provide nearly enough heat for your needs.

If you do decide that you want to give one a go, make sure your home is properly insulated and has the appropriate infrastructure before you buy.


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