Heat Pumps: The Missing Piece of Britain’s Energy Puzzle

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eco experts

Anyone looking to buy a new home will come across the harsh truth that from 2025, no new house can have a gas or oil-powered boiler installed. From 2035, you won’t be able to install any boiler that uses fossil fuels.

More than 85% of UK households use a gas boiler, so the question now is what’s going to replace them?

The answer is heat pumps, an eco-friendly alternative to boilers that use the warmth from either the air outside, or underground, to heat your home and provide hot water.

Let’s dive into everything you need to know about heat pumps, and why they’ll replace traditional boilers with ease.

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What are heat pumps?

Heat pumps are machines that either extract heat from the air outside — these are called air source heat pumps — or the ambient warmth in the soil in your garden, or further down in a borehole — these are ground source heat pumps.

It uses this heat to run your home’s heating and hot water systems, freeing you from the polluting effects of gas and oil.

Air source heat pumps are the opposite of air conditioners, which take hot air from inside your home, cools some of it, and directs the rest outside.

They instead work by absorbing warmth outside, converting it into a fluid, then using a compressor and directing the heated water to your radiators and hot water networks.

The unit sits outside, extracting heat from the air, even if the temperature drops to -15°C. A heat pump can operate in temperatures as low as -25°C, but it won’t be as effective.

They’re powered by electricity and are extremely efficient, capable of producing more in heat energy than it consumes in electricity. Heat pumps are 300% more efficient, which makes them just over three times more efficient than A-rated boilers on average. Some models can even reach up to 500% efficiency.

That makes them more efficient than most heating systems, though the type of property you have will affect this, as will how much insulation your home has.

If you can combine your heat pump with a green energy source such as solar panels, your heating can be completely renewable.

how a air source heat pump works

How much do heat pumps cost?

An air source heat pump costs £10,000 on average — a big upfront cost for sure, but think of it as a long-term investment. If you’re also one of the lucky 90,000 homes applying for the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, you could get £5,000 off the cost of an air source heat pump.

Ground source heat pumps are much more expensive, typically costing £24,000 for a horizontal ground source heat pump — where pipework is installed under your garden’s soil — and £49,000 for a vertical ground source heat pump, which requires a borehole.

Unfortunately, you won’t break even on a ground source heat pump, even with the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

Will a heat pump save you money?

Replacing your boiler with an air source heat pump can save you £6,700 over its lifetime. So if you qualify for the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, you’ll actually make a profit on your heat pump!

With the scheme, you’ll break even on your air source heat pump within 14.9 years. That’s pretty good considering the typical lifespan of an air source heat pump is 20 years.

The major downside is that the government has set aside far too little money — just £450 million has been allocated to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which is only enough to cover 0.3% of UK households.

You won’t save money on a ground source heat pump, because the upfront cost will always outweigh any savings you make on your energy costs. This is true regardless of whether you power your ground source heat pump with something like solar panels.

Is a heat pump suitable for your home?

Most homes will be suitable for an air source heat pump, as long as you have room outside the property to install the unit.

Ground source heat pumps require much more space, especially for horizontal systems that require a large area to dig the trenches and install the pipework.

Even vertical installations need ample room, particularly if you have to drill more than one borehole to meet heating demands.

Here’s a list of the other important things to consider when determining if your property is suitable for a heat pump:

Is your home well insulated?

Heat pumps work best when a property is insulated well, because it won’t have to work as hard to extract heat from either the air or the ground.

If your home isn’t well insulated, we highly recommend getting at least one form of insulation before you get a heat pump.

You don’t need to break the bank to see big returns either — cavity wall insulation costs about £1,200 for a three-bedroom semi-detached home, but will save you £285 per year. That means breaking even in just over four years.

What type of heating do you have?

Central heating will work best with a high temperature heat pump, because ordinary heat pumps struggle to reach the 60–80°C required to warm homes as quickly as a typical gas-powered boiler.

Normal heat pumps typically reach 40°C, which is still fine for central heating but you’ll likely need to get bigger radiators to speed up the time it takes to warm your home.

If you heat your home with underfloor heating, then you’re in luck — all types of heat pumps work brilliantly with it.

Underfloor heating covers a much wider area than radiators, which means it needs less heat to effectively keep your home warm.

How much spare space do you have indoors?

Most types of heat pumps require space indoors to house the hot water tank, so if you don’t have one already you’ll need to plan for that.

The good news is that some existing boiler and hot water tank setups can be easily converted to work with a heat pump. Definitely check though, because equally some setups are not compatible and that means getting a new hot water tank.

There’s the control unit to think about too, which will usually sit in the airing cupboard or some other similar space.

If you don’t have much room for the hot water tank, you’ll have to find a different way to heat your water. And if you can’t house the control unit, your best option will be to choose a heat pump with a control unit attached to the fan outside.

The downside is that these heat pumps are bigger than the models that have internal control units, so you will need to make sure you have room outside.

Advantages and disadvantages of heat pumps

Highly efficientThey run on electricity, which is currently 34p per kilowatt hour (as of October 2022)
Heat pumps pair excellently with underfloor heatingYou’ll need to replace your radiators if they’re not big enough, or get a high-temperature heat pump
You can break even on an air source heat pump with the Boiler Upgrade SchemeThe Boiler Upgrade Scheme is limited to only 90,000 UK households
Can have zero emissions if powered by renewable energyEffectiveness drops once the temperature goes below -15°C
Safer than boilers — no threat of a gas or carbon monoxide leak 
Doubles as an air conditioner in warmer months 

How many people in the UK have a heat pump?

There are 239,000 heat pumps installed across the UK as of 2019, a number that’s surely increased by 2022.

Knowledge of heat pumps is still low however, with a survey from The Eco Experts showing only 54% of the UK is aware of the technology.

Heat pumps are the best alternative we have to gas and oil-powered boilers when they’re phased out, so the government needs to do more to make the public aware.

Air source heat pumps are the most popular type, making up 87% of all heat pumps in the country. Ground source heat pumps only make up 9%, and this is down to the costs and difficulty of installing them.

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photo of Millie Archer

Millie is a perfectionist with a passion for property and writing articles. You’ll find her researching the latest housing trends and the newest up and coming areas worth investing in. Read more about Millie here.

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About Millie Archer 142 Articles
Millie is a perfectionist with a passion for property and writing articles. You'll find her researching the latest housing trends and the newest up and coming areas worth investing in. Read more about Millie here.

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