We all want to live in a cosy home but, during the cold winter months, keeping our houses warm can be a challenge. This proves even harder in the cost of living crisis, with many of us hit by higher-than-normal heating bills. Simultaneously, lots of us are thinking more about how our homes and lifestyle are affecting the ever-warming climate.

Heat pumps are a clever piece of innovation that can help with both problems – warming our homes while saving money and being better for the environment. An alternative to a traditional boiler, heat pumps keep houses at a comfortable temperature via a process that doesn’t require gas or oil, only electricity, which can be provided by renewable sources. In fact, recent research from the University of Oxford and the Regulatory Assistance Project, an independent, NGO advancing energy policy innovation, found that even at temperatures as cold as -30C, heat pumps outperformed oil and gas heating systems.

What are heat pumps and how do they work?
Heat pumps are often described as a fridge in reverse. If you’ve ever felt the heat at the back of the fridge, this is the condenser extracting heat from the interior of the appliance and expelling it out the back. In contrast, the household heat pump does not generate the desired heat itself but extracts it from external air.

It seems odd that you could warm your home with air from outside on a freezing cold day, but the processes performed within the heat pump make this possible. It has a circuit of pipes that contain a cold liquid – the refrigerant. When the refrigerant extracts the heat from the air outside, it turns into a gas. The pump then compresses the gas to increase its temperature, so it can be used to heat the water in a central heating system.

Heat pumps are also much more efficient than their traditional boiler counterparts. A gas boiler can only make as much heat as the energy contained in the fuel, while efficient heat pumps can deliver three to five units of heat for every unit of electricity used to power it.

Will a heat pump work for my home?
It’s a widely spread myth that heat pumps don’t cut it in cold climates – the opposite is true. In Nordic countries, one of the chilliest parts of the world, heat pumps are more popular than traditional boilers, with up to two-thirds of Norwegian homes heated by them. The style of homes in northern Europe, with their modern design and effective insulation do lend themselves well to heat pumps, but the units also work in older homes.

According to a report from Energy Systems Catapult, heat pumps can be installed in a wide range of UK homes. From recent research, 84% of homeowners who swapped their gas boiler for a heat pump were satisfied (pdf). Interestingly, further research shows that satisfaction levels were almost identical for those who had them installed in new-build homes as those in older properties.

Before getting a heat pump, it’s important to consult with an installer about the suitability of your home and to ensure it is energy efficient. For older buildings, this might mean investing in insulation such as cavity wall, roof and loft insulation, or solar panels to help reduce electricity costs. While heat pumps are a great eco and money-saving solution, they are part of a bigger picture, working best when these measures are addressed. For example, insulation can save you significant money on bills as well as making your heat pump run more effectively.

How much will it cost?
Energy Systems Catapult states the average total cost per property was £14,800 (which works out at £7,300 with the latest grant*), including the heat pump unit, additional measures and installation. Naturally, the main thing that puts people off installing a heat pump is the initial installation cost. While heat pumps can often save money on bills in comparison with traditional boilers, the upfront cost is greater – although there are some low-cost schemes, where owners can have one fitted for free or as little as £500.

One major example of these schemes is the government boiler upgrade scheme. The grant, available to those living in England and Wales, has been increased from £5,000 to £7,500* and aims to take the cost of installing an air source heat pump below that of the average gas boiler. To be eligible for the grant, homeowners must have taken some steps to improve the efficiency of their home, which can be demonstrated via a valid energy performance certificate with no outstanding recommendations for loft or cavity wall insulation. Other similar grants are available in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

From heat pumps to insulation, solar panels and more, explore ways the government can support you at gov.uk/energy-efficient-home.

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