Heat pumps: improving information for householders

When people consider upgrading their homes with a heat pump, they turn to the web for more information. But people we’ve spoken to who’ve had heat pumps installed tell us such information can be really hard. What if interested householders are being dissuaded from making the switch because they can’t easily find the information they need? We investigated the challenges householders face, and suggest four evidence-based solutions that could help.

The challenge

Though householders probably don’t think in technical terms, by and large they’re pretty well-informed about what’s needed to repair or replace their gas central heating. Getting a heat pump is more complicated because it’s not a straight swap. The installation process is different, as is the way people use their heating. Consumers want to know more and actively seek out information online because it helps them make decisions and provides confidence.

Actors in the sector know this, and provide information on websites and as downloadable catalogues or packs. But the way information is provided often isn’t quite right. Our interviews with householders who’d recently installed heat pumps, as well as research with potential future adopters, showed that online information is frequently confusing.

The four key tips below will help information providers improve the information they present online. This will increase understanding on heat pumps and instill consumer confidence.

Because heat pumps are currently pretty rare, few have a reference point of what one would look like inside or outside their home. People have little sense of what the scale is like, of either the outdoor unit or the tanks and other equipment needed inside. Likewise, they don’t know what heat pumps sound like, and anecdotal reports that heat pumps are noisy is disconcerting to people.

Householders crave ways to help them picture a heat pump in their home. Research participants searched online for case studies that referenced their home type specifically, for instance ‘examples of semi detached homes with heat pumps’, or homes with heat pumps in their local area. One householder even reported knocking on the door of a home with a heat pump and solar panels to ask if he could see the technologies working.

What could help:

  • clearer information on the dimensions of indoor and outdoor units, and comparisons to recognisable household objects
  • a greater number of more detailed case studies of heat pumps installed in a more diverse spectrum of properties and in different locations around the UK
  • photographs and videos that give a better indication of scale

There is relatively wide tacit knowledge of what is required for a boiler replacement, but much less understanding of what’s needed and what will happen when a heat pump is put in. Many information resources include statements on home readiness, for instance needs around insulation levels or radiator size, that have the effect of confusing rather than informing. This is because the information given is not actionable, so householders are made aware of potential problems without a way to reference their current situation or identify what they should do.

Householders also need better information about what will happen when they engage an installer so they don’t feel as though they are entering into a complex and expensive process blind. This advanced information will be needed for as long as heat pump installation feels novel to most people.

What could help:

  • careful phrasing of statements to reduce uncertainty and allow householders to identify clear answers. For instance, a phrase like ‘Heat pumps only work in well-insulated homes’ is confusing because there is no clear definition of well-insulated. A better phrase would be, ‘More insulation will make your heat pump work more efficiently. At a minimum you should lag your loft and plug draughts in windows and doors. Modern double glazing will also reduce heat loss and you may also be able to insulate solid walls, though a heat pump will work without these adaptations.’ This is preferable because it gives householders a sense of the minimum that they can feasibly check, and also a sense of what they could do to improve the situation if they so wished.
  • clearer explanations of the steps involved in a typical installation process to householders to reduce surprises

A heat pump is an expensive purchase and consequently it is reasonable that householders seek detailed information about install cost. However, each heat pump install is different, with a range of moving parts that influence the overall price each householder will pay. For this reason, it is also fair that installers and others giving heat pump information find it challenging to give even an indicative price window and instead prefer to survey each property before talking costs.

Householders also want to know how much it will cost to run their heat pump, and use this information to inform their purchasing decisions. They also want to have clarity on what government incentives are available, how they would be paid for those incentives, and whether there are different incentives depending on their devolved nation or region in the UK.

What could help:

  • Ironing out conflicting information on cost. Some websites, for instance, have various different totals for upfront cost across just one web page. Websites should try to avoid talking about savings in running costs because, at the moment, few, if any, households will save money day to day on their bills
  • more transparency about costs, so householders can see the different elements of an install cost and be helped to ascertain which of those they are most likely to be required to pay
  • householders should be helped to identify likely running costs, and be given clearer guidance on how new kinds of energy tariff and different ways of running heat pumps can affect this
  • guidance on available government support should be clearer and be updated when new modes of support emerge

Though heat pumps may not be new, for many people they are novel. This means that householders are interested in some basic information on how they work. People appreciate analogies such as ‘a fridge in reverse’ and feel reassured by the provision of technical information. More technically minded householders are keen to understand the complexities, but for most householders they want technical information that is actionable and that answers concerns about day-to-day use (for instance, the efficacy of low-temperature heating compared to the high temperatures conventionally delivered by gas boilers, or whether a heat pump would work on a cold day).

As such, often the framing of information isn’t quite right, or offered at the right time. For instance, many websites lead with the technicalities of a heat pump, often going into considerable detail, at a key moment when the majority of householders are keen instead to hear about a heat pump’s advantages to them personally. The opportunity for an engaging, motivational message is often lost in dry technical details.

What could help:

  • telling the technical story of heat pumps by foregrounding what this means in terms of their advantages and actions householders should take as a result. For example, it may be better to frame low-flow temperatures as meaning always on gentle warmth for the price of intermittent, drying blasts of high temperature heat, rather than in relation to its advantages for heat pump efficiency as measured in terms of its coefficient of performance
  • making better use of animated or visual materials rather than text to tell a story. Identify what a minimum viable level of understanding might be for a user and aiming for that. Using plain English and avoiding technical terms and jargon unless absolutely necessary
  • Providing complex technical information to those who want it, but not making it the landing page for everyone who wants to find out more

Why this matters

Presently, less than one percent of heating installations per year are heat pumps. Of the other 99 percent, the vast majority are high-carbon systems powered by fossil fuels. Those who are having heat pumps installed in their homes now are, as we argued in our previous project update, ‘innovators’. In other words, they are people who are prepared to battle the odds and accept uncertainty to get the latest technology. In a conversation about pain points, one householder we interviewed joked that she persevered through difficulties knowing that in time ‘the pain will go away’.

But are all householders so forgiving? Certainly not. The sheer complexity of getting a heat pump right now puts off all but the most dedicated. But interest in heat pumps is growing, and coverage of both COP26 and the recent launch of the UK’s Heat and Building Strategy further pushed low carbon heat into the public’s consciousness. At Nesta, we reckon that significant business model innovation will be needed to really drive up the pace of adoption, but that in the meantime there are tweaks to be made that can help streamline the process as it is now. The suggestions presented here address the latter problem, but Nesta’s sustainable future team is working on both these fronts.

Improved presentation of information will help us move from an innovator market to early adopters. It will also help build understanding amongst the public more broadly, meaning that the switchover will feel less and less alien for those later in the adoption curve.

Author

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Mission Manager, A Sustainable Future mission

Oliver is a Mission Manager for the Sustainable Future mission team.

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