Sean works as a gas boiler engineer and plumber in the South West of England. In 2012, encouraged by the Government’s commitment to reducing household emissions through schemes such as the Green Deal, he paid £5,000 to become an accredited air source heat pump installer. He hoped that the course would expand his customer base and help him enter the growing low carbon heating market. But with little demand for heat pumps from his customers, Sean has never installed one. His accreditation has now lapsed and he doesn’t feel confident installing a heat pump.
Heating engineers like Sean are often a household’s first point of contact about their home heating needs. Consumers generally know little about different heating options, and rely heavily on recommendations from their installer. So the UK’s 130,000 Gas Safe registered engineers have an essential role to play if the UK is to transition to low carbon heating.
How do they feel about this? In summer 2020, we spoke to heating engineers to explore their views and experiences of low-carbon home heating. We identified participants through the online directories TrustMark and Trust a Trader. We contacted 85 heating engineers and managed to recruit 12 participants working in England and Scotland. All were qualified gas boiler engineers, and some had experience in renewable heating technologies.
The engineers in our sample recognised the influence they have on customers’ choices and took their responsibility seriously: “Customers say their preferences (e.g. if they want low-cost or top of the range), then I research what's right for the property.” As well as budget, engineers took into account the size of the property (with several noting that other engineers often recommended boilers that were “too big”) as well as building layout.
They knew, and cared about, the energy efficiency of the boilers they install: “All the boilers I install are A-rated, 92% efficient.” However, they didn’t tend to think of themselves as having a role in promoting energy efficiency more widely: “We see safety and efficiency as part of our job, but we wouldn't look at the EPC rating.”
Most of those we spoke to had limited (or no) experience of installing or repairing low carbon heating systems, although there were some exceptions - for example, one said that he had worked on air source heat pumps in rural new builds, while another had experience repairing solar thermal heating systems.
Several of those we spoke to were sceptical about green heating technologies, often because of concerns about cost and/or performance. On heat pumps, for example, we heard from different interviewees that they are “much more expensive”, “they don’t work that well”, “there isn’t space [for a heat pump] in a lot of properties” and “they last about a third of the time a gas boiler does”. One engineer said he knows “people that… have so much trouble [with heat pumps] that they don’t bother using them at all”.
In most cases, those who were sceptical had little direct experience of heat pumps, but one interviewee (who voiced the strongest criticism) said several of his company’s customers had air source heat pumps. He was completely unconvinced: “If government phases out gas boilers it would be a disaster, in my opinion. Houses wouldn't be warm enough, there's not enough space to put heat pumps on people's buildings, people's radiators aren't big enough. All old buildings in the UK would be in trouble”. Meanwhile, while he didn’t have direct experience with ground source heat pumps, he’d read about them in Gas Safe Magazine: “I hear that they’re killing people’s gardens, all their plants dying because the ground is too hot.”
Others, however, were more open to low carbon heating technologies, seeing them as something likely to become more popular in future. As one explained, “We have a young apprentice and we’re conscious his career will be driven by renewable energy”. Half of those we spoke to were actively interested in getting (further) training in low carbon heating technologies.
However, they also spoke about several things getting in the way. Some just didn’t know where to start. Others spoke of the difficulties that sole traders, who make up 77% of the industry, face in getting training: “sole traders don’t have access to training because of the amount of paperwork - there’s no way you could do it on your own.”
In fact, we heard that there were problems not just with access to training, but with quality. We were told that qualifications are often pitched as low-level and easy to acquire, while the quality of training can be poor, focusing on theory over practice. Meanwhile, after people receive their qualification, one interviewee commented that there is no industry emphasis on continuous learning during their career to improve their skills.
Some of our interviewees had strong views about Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accreditation, the industry-led quality assurance scheme for renewable heating installations. One argued that it was too expensive and too much of an administrative burden for sole traders. Meanwhile, some felt that even though it takes considerable effort to become accredited, installers were not guaranteed to be competent as a result. This was partly because, they argued, the training courses that installers need to take in order to apply for accreditation are too basic, and partly because it’s possible to become accredited but then “not touch the technology [again] for years”.
Getting to net zero by 2050 is likely to require many UK homes to replace their heating systems with low carbon technologies. Since we carried out these interviews, the government announced a new target to increase heat pump installations from around 25,000 per year in 2019 to 600,000 per year by 2028.
It’s clear that the green heating workforce will need to grow rapidly to hit this target. Green Homes Grants were introduced shortly after we carried out these interviews, but the voucher scheme for homeowners has now been discontinued. One widely-reported problem with the scheme was that people applying for vouchers couldn’t find installers to quote for work - once grants were available, demand outstripped supply.
Our interviews reinforced the idea that short-term funding commitments don’t help much in growing supply and can even be counterproductive - sole traders find it hard to upskill quickly, and stop-start funding makes them even more hesitant to commit the time and money to retrain.
Nevertheless, it’s perhaps encouraging that around half of those we spoke to were considering retraining in renewables. Our interviews suggested that accessibility and quality of training both need to be improved. Again, these are not new issues, and there are already strong advocates for change in the sector, like Nathan Gambling who runs the BetaTalk podcast.
But the interviews also suggested that many engineers are likely to need more convincing that low-carbon systems are really the way forward. Some of their concerns can be overcome (for example, if heat pumps were correctly specified and installed, and customers used them effectively). Others are, at least at the moment, real limitations (like the higher cost of heat pumps). And a few seemed to be misconceptions or hearsay. But the main point is that if engineers don’t trust the technology, they’ll pass these views onto consumers. So efforts to improve the technology will need to go alongside efforts to communicate with engineers and address their concerns.
As research often does, these interviews raised lots more questions that we think would be worth exploring. For example:
We’re keen to explore these questions with others working in the sector, so do get in touch with us at [email protected] if you’d be interested in discussing any of these areas.