I am installing a gas boiler.
“What’s that?” some of you may say. After all I have certainly banged on about climate change quite a bit in the past. Some of you might assume that “Swampy Dave”, as my wife sometimes refers to me in conversation, would be installing a heat pump or solar panels or wind turbines or perhaps all three. Am I not a total hypocrite?
To which the answer is yes. I am a total hypocrite. And I must say the episode has left me chastened and a little bit reluctant to discuss it. It is, as Stephen Fry describes it very well here, one of the strongest reasons that people amongst the 1% like myself do not campaign more about the climate emergency.
But I have begun to think that this is all a massive piece of self-indulgence on my part (and of course, by making it all about me, it is). So, instead, I have decided to make it all about me, by talking you through the Gas Decision or GD for short, because it has certainly clarified for me why we are not transitioning from fossil fuels more quickly.
Our gas boiler has been on the blink for a bit, but coaxed along by our local gas engineer who, I think out of concern for minimising costs to us, was reluctant to suggest any major action if it could be delayed. Then it started to leak water, slowly at first, and then faster, before giving up the ghost altogether in early November. I had during the boiler’s demise had one or two conversations about what we might replace it with. Raising the idea of heat pumps got me puffed out cheeks and rolling of eyes and the opinion that it was very complicated.
I looked online. There is a page called “Find a heat pump installer” on the gov.uk website, with long lists which you can search by distance from your postcode. I chose a couple of nearish ones and contacted them. No response. I then tried Octopus (our supplier, OVO, were not offering heat pump installation), who said they were run off their feet trying to install heat pumps and had a 6 month waiting list. However they did have a referral system, where you could enter your details and installers on their list would contact you.
I tried this and got a couple of calls. Neither local. We chose one who sounded particularly helpful on the phone and made an appointment for their sales person to come round. They were very persuasive, and we subsequently arranged to have the energy performance survey necessary to proceed. This established that about half of our radiators would need replacing, but that our piping was fine. We had had quite a bit of discussion about where the heat pump should go, and were thinking possibly between the first floor windows so that it wouldn’t be humming (or whatever noise heat pumps make) whenever we went out in the garden. We even had the National Grid come round to check that our connection could cope with the additional electricity demand (they had assumed at first that this was for an electric vehicle charging point, as this is apparently the most common reason for calling them round).
The cost of installation, even with the £5,000 Government grant, is at least £5,000 more than a gas boiler. We had been told that we would save money on energy once it was installed, but the savings turned out not to be significant (if there were any at all) once the full calculations had been done. The reason for this is how much more you pay for each kWh of electricity compared to gas. OVO currently charge us 9.83p per kWh for gas (with a standing charge of 27.12p per day) and 32.11p per kWh for electricity (with a standing charge of 46.8p per day). So, despite the heat pump being massively more efficient than the gas boiler alternative, it would really have to be going it some to overturn these price differences.
But, at that stage, we were still prepared to go ahead with the installation (I refer you to the “Swampy” comments above), we just needed to speak to some previous customers to reassure ourselves about their overall experience, perhaps see (and hear) it in situ, etc. And then it unfortunately started to unravel. Despite describing themselves as the number one heat pump installer in the UK, the company we had engaged were unable to provide us with anyone in or near Birmingham willing to tell us about their experiences (they eventually produced one name, but we couldn’t get a reply from them). So we started looking at the reviews on Trustpilot, etc, which were decidedly mixed and talked a lot about poor after sales service, and which seemed to be very dependent on the particular engineer doing the work. And the ones for the heat pump they were planning to install were full of stories involving the installers and the manufacturer pointing the finger at each other when things went wrong. Suddenly it seemed like too big a risk to take.
Meanwhile, the unseasonably warm autumn had slid into a very seasonably freezing December and we needed to get working radiators again. And so we decided we didn’t have time to go out to the heat pump market again, with more surveys etc, and plumped for a replacement gas boiler for our existing system. I am not particularly proud of the decision, and perhaps we were just unlucky with our experience, but it does seem to me that we are not making it easy for people to choose heat pumps in the UK currently. This appears to be borne out by the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy’s UK Energy in Brief 2022 report (p13), which shows that, of the 19.4% of energy supplied from low carbon sources in 2021, only 0.7% was from heat pumps. As Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, has tweeted recently: “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is to make electricity cheaper than gas for consumers. It should be a key objective for Treasury’s tax policies and BEIS energy market reforms. It will transform the economics of low-carbon heat.” I certainly think it would have transformed our decision.
And today is the day! The weather outside is frightful (it hit minus 6 as the installation vans arrived and needed the doors thrown open to let in all the gear), but our new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure is being installed as I type. I will at least be a warm hypocrite.