“It heats up the house so quickly – the cold spots have completely gone.”

elemental contributor Peter Apps visited Clwyd Alyn housing association to find out the innovative way it is tackling energy efficiency in some of its homes.

A small estate of squat terrace houses just off the A55 on the outskirts of Conwy, north Wales, seem an unlikely destination for futuristic technology.

But that is what they have become: Clwyd Alyn, the housing association which owns the social rented units in the development, has used Welsh Government cash to try and improve the heating performance of these homes.

Previously heated by electric space heaters, they were punishingly expensive for residents to heat and not very efficient.

Clwyd Alyn has offered a series of upgrades – a fairly normal combination of loft insulation, retrofit work and solar panels with battery storage. But it is also trying something new: rather than heat pumps or gas boilers it has gone for the unusual heating solution of infrared wallpaper.

Tom Boome, head of technical, innovation and climate at the 6,000-home housing association, says he began thinking about infrared heating when he was a young man working in a factory. “They had these big infrared heaters to keep you warm on the factory floor,” he says. “So I’ve always known infrared heating can work, and we wanted to see whether it could work in people’s homes.”

Infrared heat has been around as a fringe part of the decarbonisation debate for some time. Commonly found in pub beer gardens, the technology heats objects without heating up the air in between. Like heat pumps, it is powered by electricity, so will be zero carbon if it is using renewable electricity.

In an indoor housing setting, the heat needs to be considerably lower than a pub beer garden and it doesn’t light up like the red bars which smokers cluster around. You can currently buy panels for home heating – which were used on the Zed Home project developed by house builder Barratt in Salford.

Nanotechnology

The technology Clwyd Alyn have used is different. Provided by the relatively new company NexGen, which says its aim is “to disrupt the one dimensional strategies of governments in the UK, Europe and globally to deploy heat pumps, which in some cases are proving ineffective”, it is literally roll of wallpaper fitted with nanotechnology heating strips.

The wallpaper is applied to the ceiling, which takes away a previous major disadvantage of infrared: if blocked by furniture they are ineffective.

Clwyd Alyn ran a trial at a local pub, and residents who were impressed enough to agree to the trial had the technology installed towards the end of February.

We visit the home of Mike Evans and Trish McCarthy. The couple moved to the home just under two years ago to be closer to their grandchildren, but the heating was an immediate problem.

“I hated it,” says Trish. “It was like heating the house by burning five pound notes. And there were cold spots everywhere. We had started going to bed early because the living room was too cold.”

The couple have had the infrared wallpaper installed on their ceiling.

The contractors who fitted it (renewable energy specialists Wall Lag) had to come up with a solution to the textured Artex ceiling which would have been difficult to fit wallpaper too.

The solution was to fit it to foam boards, and then bolt these foam boards to the ceiling directly. When elemental visits it looks a bit industrial – with hanging wires, gaps between the panels and one already slipping from its place where the screw has come loose. But it is unfinished: the work is going to be tidied up, skimmed with plaster and have all the wires boxed in. Once finished, it will be invisible.

“I think it’s a game changer,” adds Mike. “Initially it was a bit weird – it made my trousers warm but the air was still cold. But now we’ve got used to it, it’s brilliant. It heats up the house so quickly, and it’s so warm – the cold spots have completely gone.”

Fitting it took the contractors between five and seven days – but this is a time period that would shrink with wider adoption. Wall Lag had no specialists and had to work with a makeshift team of electricians and solar panel fitters to work it out. The all-in cost, including the technology, was less than £10,000 for the property, but this too will fall.

Reduced bills

In terms of the cost to the residents, the impact has been startling. With solar panels fitted on the roof and battery storage, Mike estimates the heating is currently costing them about 50p a day.

The property has had energy efficiency upgrades which will contribute to this. The home is evidently holding heat well: they last had the wallpaper on at 9.30am, and by 2.30pm (when we visit), the thermostat reads a comfortable 21 degrees, despite a brisk wind blowing in off the bay outside.

Insulation helps with infrared, Tom Boome explains. “The infrared heats up the walls, and then the absorbed heat dissipates from the wall both internally and externally,” he says. “Obviously if you insulate the external wall, then more of that heat is kept inside.”

But for properties where deep retrofit is difficult or too expensive, the wallpaper offers high enough temperatures to be a viable option. Like gas heating it provides instantaneous heat, the lack of which has been a consumer complaint within the heat pump market.

One sticking point currently is that this technology is not recognised in the gradings that deliver the all important EPC score’ It is considered ‘electrical – other’ in that scoring system, which would actually produce a lower score than a gas boiler.

But the Building Research Establishment (BRE) is monitoring this project and another in Scotland and may include it in an updated SAP system (the methodology used to calculate EPCs).

Could Clwyd Alyn start to move to wallpaper instead of heat pumps in its projects if this trial goes well? “It’s absolutely an option,” says Boome. “Heat pumps are great for some properties, but we don’t think they work well everywhere. It’s about having as many options as possible.”

Efficiency concerns

There are some fears about the technology, which has not yet had anything like a wide enough roll out to make sweeping conclusions about.

It is less efficient in energy terms than a heat pump, and while it has provided comfort to the couple we meet in Conwy we will need a wider evidence base to know how well it works for everyone.

“It is resistive heating so it’s taking one unit of electricity to get one unit of heat, whereas a heat pump will get three,” says Dr Richard Lowes, an independent heating expert and a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project. “The benefit of it is that its directive, you can point it at things and warm them up quite quickly.

“But the issue with that is that you’re missing some bits so – to be crude – you could end up with a warm head and a cold bottom. There are also some concerns that if you’re heating people up but not heating the air up, there might be some issues around condensation and so on.”

In Wales though, the early evidence looks promising. And with millions of homes to decarbonise over the next two and a half decades, any technology that can help should be explored.

Find out more about innovative solutions for heating at InstallerSHOW 25-27 June.