Social housing

Property heating future-proofed

Pete Mills, commercial technical operations manager for Bosch Commercial & Industrial, discusses how housing associations and local authorities can prepare for future changes to property heating


hilst we wait for the key strategy documents from Government on the future direction of decarbonising heat, it is worth starting to think about how we can transition existing heating systems whatever the outcome. Many housing associations and local authorities will have a diverse range of building types and existing heating systems within their portfolio. This will almost certainly mean that a one size fits all solution will be difficult to find. This situation pretty much mirrors the picture across our existing building stock and is one of the most significant practical challenges that will face the decarbonisation of heat, particularly where we have central plant rooms. This means that a good deal of planning and thinking about how a transition can be made will be required. There will be space constraints, operating temperatures, noise concerns and site restrictions, to mention just a few, that will pop up as an individual building is looked at.

This means a considerable shift in approach when thinking about replacement heating plant. So many situations end up as a distress purchase, where boilers fail and a desperate race ensues to get heating back on to those who need it most. As we stand here in 2021, there is no mandatory requirement to switch away from natural gas, but the direction of travel is clear and there is every likelihood that this will change sooner rather than later, if net zero targets are to be achieved. The range of possible options are likely to be a heat pump based system, a hydrogen-ready gas boiler, a hybrid of the two or connection to a local heat network. Each have their merits and draw backs and it is these that need to be considered up front. Certainly for heat pump based systems, a good deal of planning is required if they are to be installed successfully. The existing heating system will be key to determining whether or not a heat pump based system will be a practical and crucially an affordable solution. Considerable upgrade to building fabric performance may be necessary too, but of course this could give longer-term benefits that have to be

Pete Mills, commercial technical operations manager for Bosch Commercial & Industrial

weighed up. This is not something that can be done at the drop of a hat if a boiler fails.

Heat pumps though, have the advantage that they are available today and so the only uncertainty is around whether there are likely to be any government support mechanisms in the future (most probably not), what real-life performance you are likely to get and how this affects running costs. Additionally, there may be value in being able to adjust run times (network linked operation) to assist in balancing local electricity grids.

A hydrogen-ready boiler could be a much simpler prospect, but we do not currently know the exact details of when a mandate to install hydrogen-ready appliances could come into being. The work looking into the transition of the current gas grid to hydrogen is well advanced. What is missing is the clear strategy decision from Government to proceed. The hydrogen route requires much less consideration and deviation from the “business as usual” situation we currently have. That is not to say though that building thermal performance need not be considered. It is important that whatever route to decarbonise our heat is chosen, that we reduce overall heat demand. It remains prudent to always consider options for reducing heat losses whenever reassessing how we heat buildings.

Hybrid systems offer a good mid ground solution and although this naturally means higher plant cost, it

can considerably reduce the necessity for significant changes to heating systems. They operate to pick up the bulk of the heat demand throughout the year via heat pumps. Then when conditions are cold, the hydrogen-ready boilers come in to pick up the load. This helps overall system efficiency.

These type of systems also offer future flexibility, something that could be of value to building operators as more electrification comes onto the electricity grid. Heat network connection will be more localised and rely on whether or not there is a likelihood of a system being developed in the area. Where it is available though, it could be an attractive option. Not having to worry about future heating plant replacement, most definitely has its benefits. The Government has pledged to consult on a zoning policy this year. This could mean that certain geographic areas are identified as heat network zones. The consultation will likely consider whether connection, particularly for communal buildings, would become mandatory. This would of course effectively take over the decision making process, meaning it is more important than ever that heat networks are properly regulated. There has to be guaranteed affordability built in to this policy. Whatever the options are for your buildings, it will pay to start the process of thinking about how they will decarbonise their heat use well ahead of time, if the best outcomes are to be achieved.

22 August 2021


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