Collaboration is key to unlocking energy efficient heating

Electric heating in place

Scott Conor, Technical Director at Trust Electric Heating, looks at sustainable, efficient heating solutions for commercial retrofit applications.

A recent study by Climate Watch estimates that the operation of commercial buildings is responsible for 6.6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. And, according to the UK Green Building Council report, Delivering Net Zero: Key Considerations for Commercial Retrofits, 70% of the UK’s non-residential building stock was constructed before the year 2000. Meeting energy and carbon targets and achieving the UK’s 2050 net zero ambition means that the majority of the UK’s commercial buildings will have to undergo some form of retrofit over the next 25 years. 

Is it worth retrofitting an old building

Older buildings are often seen as inefficient because they are less likely to be well insulated or equipped with the latest technology. However, when you take into account the carbon generation associated with new development the pendulum swings the other way, and the most sustainable buildings are generally the ones that already exist.

A new build project is only carbon neutral when the carbon generated in manufacturing, transporting and installing building materials has been accounted for. Many commercial newbuilds may never reach this point before the building is in need of redevelopment.

The silver bullet has lost its shine

The Government continues to champion heat pumps as the saviour of energy efficient heating, but according to a new National Infrastructure Commission report the installation of domestic heat pumps is falling well short of government targets. Around 55,000 heat pumps were installed in 2021. This is against a target of at least 600,000 per year by 2028. The fact that there are no targets for the commercial sector – at least as far as I am aware – tells a story in itself about the suitability of heat pumps for non-domestic buildings.

In the right setting, there is no question that heat pumps offer a low energy consumption alternative to standard gas boiler systems. But not every setting is the right setting, and when a leading heat pump manufacturer is advising against their installation in older properties, it’s clear this isn’t a one size fits all approach.

What are the challenges

When it comes to performance and the practicalities of installation, the effectiveness of a heat pump can be compromised by several factors. Aside from a shortage of qualified installers, there are the challenges of maintaining heat when a building is not well insulated, reduced performance at low temperatures, and the size of radiator required to heat the space.

This is the challenge I see most often. To generate sufficient warmth to heat a space using a heat pump, a radiator may need to be double, either in depth or length, of the size it would be if installed with a traditional boiler. A newbuild property can be designed to accommodate this, to a point. In a retrofit project, it is far more challenging.

The availability of outside space is another consideration. Because heat pumps sit outside the property, space can be an issue for installing systems in urban areas, such as city centre retail premises. 

Taking the lead

So, what’s the solution for commercial retrofit projects? The heating industry is under pressure to meet government targets, and the solution that is being widely championed is not ideal for many commercial buildings.

Enter the modern electric storage heater. This product has come a long way in recent years, and yet many people remain scarred by memories of stifling heat at 3am and a room that is stone cold by breakfast time. The best modern electric storage heaters are fully digitally controllable, they heat up quickly, use convection (as opposed to radiant heat) to heat the space, and have a core that delivers continual latent heat emission, reducing energy consumption and saving money.

My role leans heavily into R&D and innovation, and I am continually looking to find and incorporate new ways of creating and conserving energy into our electric radiators. I am also mindful of the key considerations for retrofit projects: balancing cost with ease of installation, heating effectiveness, and the ability to control energy usage. 

As an example; under test conditions, our storage heater performance was measured against a direct acting heater and oil filled radiator. The results showed that the direct acting heater and oil filled radiator both required 24 hours’ worth of electricity to maintain a consistent room temperature (22 degrees) over a 24-hour period. In contrast, the storage heater produced consistent heat throughout the 24-hour period but only consumed electricity for 59% of that time. Performance statistics such as these, strengthened by our Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Huddersfield, are starting to attract interest from commercial sector specifiers and bust the storage heater myths of old.

Joined up thinking

Heaters are just one part of the picture. I believe that collaboration is key to tackling this challenge, along with a “fabric first” approach; reducing the amount of heat needed in a space by prioritising effective insulation.

There are many innovative new and emerging technologies, all operating in isolation, and no single solution. Most technology and product providers are working in silos, when achieving the end goal of creating a zero-emission heating system needs them to think outside the box and work together. Equally, energy efficiency should be considered as a priority at the start of any refurbishment project

and should ideally drive the design and development process, as far as is practicable within the limits of the building envelope.

As an industry we need to think bigger. And we all need to look beyond our own industries. I see real value in combining technologies to create truly futureproofed heating systems.

Using a smart hot water tank in conjunction with solar PV technology can create a solar powered hot water battery. Link this with a modern convection storage radiator, which is designed to deliver controllable, consistent heat while controlling energy usage, and you have a sustainable, energy- and cost-effective heating system that even has the potential to sell back to the grid.

Bringing technologies together has the capacity to create efficient heating systems that will help commercial building owners and tenants save on heating bills. We are already seeing this within our own sector, where replacing a traditional wet system with our electric storage heater in a medical practice is making significant savings on energy bills. And, a leading red brick university is seeing the benefits of a zone-controlled heating system in student accommodation where rooms are only heated when in use. Imagine how those savings could be multiplied if we added solar PV, a smart water tank and battery storage in to the mix.

It's time for us all to look beyond the boundaries of our respective industry sectors and seek opportunities to create something bigger. 

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