Counting the cost of heating: A hot topic in care homes
For many care homes, heating is a significant annual cost and an ongoing worry caused by breakdowns and maintenance. However, Guy Ransom, commercial director of Finn Geotherm, explains why heating needn’t be such a challenge and the benefits of renewable heating.
Care homes require heating and hot water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Any breakdowns or disruptions in service may leave some of our most vulnerable at risk so it is vital to ensure a reliable system. At the same time, facilities managers are required to juggle ever-increasing costs for fossil fuel heating with environmental obligations and pressure on finances.
The heating demand put on conventional oil, gas and LPG boiler systems to maintain a constant temperature in some properties can be crippling, particularly with the fierce winters the UK has experienced in recent years. Some boilers are overworked and simply cannot keep up so it is a constant battle to ensure every room is warm enough and, in the case of properties which are off the gas grid, there is enough fuel ordered. But there is a renewable energy alternative which is ideally suited to care homes and their operations – heat pumps.
It’s a common misconception that heat pumps are new technology. The first large scale heat pump was installed in Norwich in 1945. Shortly afterwards, The Spectator magazine wrote: “It seems incredible that a device such as the heat pump should have escaped the attention it deserves. Now we know that it will work, and the time has come when everything must be done to make the most of the knowledge we have gained. There can be no doubt that in the heat pump we have a machine that is to play an outstanding part in the industrial future of our country.” More than 70 years on however, we are still not even close to reaping the potential of this superb technology.
A heat pump is basically a fridge in reverse. It takes latent background heat, from the earth or the air and, using a combination of refrigeration circuits, pumps and compressors, multiplies that heat to a level usable within domestic or commercial heating circuits. There are two kinds of heat pump – ground source which uses a collector loop installed under the ground in an area such as a car park or lawn, and air source which uses a fan unit and is best suited to properties with less outside space.
Depending upon the flow temperature set, the system can be expected to deliver 3 – 4 kW of heat for each kW of electricity input. This allows a heat pump to use less energy, be cheaper to run and to create far less CO2 than a conventional heating system. On average, a heat pump will use around 70% less energy than conventional heating systems – as 2/3 to 3/4 is simply harvested from the external environment.
As heat pumps run in long energy efficient cycles, they are perfect for environments that need to be kept constantly warm. A well designed heat pump system can more than adequately heat any building of any age or size – it is simply a question of matching the energy loss of a property with sufficient heat energy going in. A building with low energy performance or EPC rating is not a barrier to installing a heat pump and it is not necessary to add in more insulation in order for a heat pump to work effectively. In fact, the fabric of period properties is very well suited to the way in which a heat pump operates – the constant steady state heating warms up the entire building, creating a thermal mass which helps to retain the heat.
Switching to a renewable energy system such as a heat pump completely removes any reliance on fossil fuels. By future-proofing the heating system, any rises in fuel prices or volatility in the market will have no impact on heating costs or supply.
Heat pumps are non-combustion-based systems. As they do not burn any fuel in order to produce heat, there are many advantages from both safety and operational points of view. Heat pumps mitigate any fire risk created by a heating system. This non-combustion method of producing heat also delivers a significant benefit on the lifespan of the heat pump system itself – while a conventional boiler might only last around 10 years, a ground source heat pump will typically last more than 30 years. Plus, for each day it is in operation, the heat pump will save customers money by providing cheaper, more energy efficient heating. A heat pump is much easier to service and maintain too.
With safety of paramount importance in a care setting, heating and hot water are often a great concern. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), if hot water used for showering or bathing is above 44°C, there is increased risk of serious injury or fatality and where large areas of the body are exposed to high temperatures, scalds can be very serious and have led to fatalities. Hot water generated by a heat pump is at a lower temperature than conventional boilers, meaning you will not scald yourself by running your hand under the hot tap.
Similarly, the HSE highlights the risk of coming into contact with surfaces above 43°C which can also lead to serious injury. This often occurs when residents fall and cannot move due to their condition or mobility or are trapped by furniture. Incidents often occur in areas where there are low levels of supervision – for example, in bedrooms, bathrooms and some communal areas. Heat pumps operate at a lower temperature than conventional boilers and by producing steady, gentle heat rather than short sharp blasts, all radiators within the building are warm to the touch instead of scolding hot.
The gentle constant heat provided by a heat pump makes for a welcoming, comfortable environment. Other benefits delivered from this type of heating include a positive effect on the property itself – removing damp problems, improving air quality and helping to maintain the fabric of building as well as its contents.
While heat pumps are ideal for heating, the technology also presents an opportunity to provide cooling capabilities too, delivering year round comfort for residents by ensuring a constant temperature even in the height of summer.
When designed correctly, a heat pump can result in significant financial and logistical advantages to users.
Heat pumps qualify for the Government’s non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Payable for 20 years, this can result in quarterly payments to the heat pump owner which are twice the electrical cost of running the heat pump. With this incentive, a scheme will typically payback in around 10 years, enabling the benefits of the system to be gained with an effective capital cost of less than zero – and still leaving another decade of payments to be made to the heat pump owner. The RHI is set to be in place until April 2021 so it is advisable to ensure any new installations are locked into scheme before this date to ensure they qualify and will deliver the quarterly payments for 20 years.
Installing a heat pump is an investment. It is more costly than replacing old storage heaters and boilers for new – but it is an investment which pays many dividends. The RHI payments and payback periods are all direct financial benefits, not to mention the carbon emission reductions and improved green credentials.
Retrofits typically account for the majority of heat pump installations. Heat pumps can be retrofitted in buildings of any age, shape or size with minimal disruption. The systems can reuse many existing components from a conventional heating scheme – such as the pipework and many of the current radiators. They work perfectly with underfloor heating too.
A good heat pump installer will ensure the least possible downtime when the system is switched over by completing most of the installation work while the existing heating system is still in operation.
Heat pumps are highly beneficial from an environmental perspective. There is ongoing pressure for all businesses and organisations to reduce carbon emissions. A heat pump will not only reduce operational costs by three quarters, but it will also reduce carbon emissions by the same amount.
The Government’s latest insulation regime, which has been designed to help reduce emissions by reducing heat loss can only have a limited impact. Additional insulation and cladding can only save up to around 50% in the best possible cases. However, if we examine the system actually producing the heat and therefore the emissions instead, there is so much more potential to make a real difference. By replacing electric or gas heating with a heat pump, energy consumption can be reduced by around 75%, meaning that emissions are also reduced at the same rate. In addition, schemes to provide insulation do not deliver any additional benefit to the property owner, whereas the RHI does – and will do so for 20 years.
In May, the Committee on Climate Change released a new report on how we can end our contribution to global warming within 30 years by setting an ambitious new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. With heating accounting for a significant proportion of all energy used, there is increasing pressure for both private and public sector organisations to act, alongside domestic homes. The RHI currently provides a great additional financial incentive to install renewable heating but there is the possibility that going forward, changes may be made mandatory as part of the Government’s commitment to meet our emissions targets.
There is also an opportunity to heat more than one building at a time with a heat pump, delivering further benefits. District heating or a communal heat network refers to heating provision for a number of properties from one central heat pump system, which is normally located in a standalone plant room. Heat pumps themselves are modular so district heating schemes can be designed to heat any number of properties of all sizes, from a series of buildings on one site to flats and even detached houses. Schemes can be retrofitted to existing properties or installed in new builds. A good heat pump installer will recommend the optimum number of properties per heat pump to deliver maximum efficiency through the heating circuit to each house. This could be as few as a handful of buildings on one site or as many as 150 houses per system. Heat pump systems can also run in tandem in multiple bases and plant rooms to provide heating and hot water for an almost limitless number of properties under one district heating scheme.
As with a standard commercial heat pump installation, district heating schemes qualify for the non-domestic RHI, providing 20 years of quarterly payments to the heat pump owner.
Beyond immediate financial considerations, a district ground source heat pump system will provide significant logistical benefits. As the heat pump equipment is all located within a central plant room, servicing and maintenance is very straightforward. Leading heat pump systems can be linked to the internet so monitoring and adjustment can generally be carried out remotely, further reducing costs and the probability of system breakdown.
Heat pumps present such a great number of benefits for the care sector and yet the opportunity is still largely untapped. With the Government RHI currently in place for new systems, now is the time to act and benefit from future-proof heating.
Guy Ransom is commercial director of Norfolk-based heat pump installer Finn Geotherm. With more than 12 years’ experience in heat pumps, Finn Geotherm has completed award-winning installations in properties of all ages, shapes and sizes for both commercial and domestic customers. Guy is extremely passionate about the great opportunity presented by heat pumps to deliver better, more effective and more efficient heating for all.
This article originally appeared in The Care Home Environment, September 2019