“Schools need the right tools to use their heating systems more efficiently”

Robert Smelt, Director of BREng Hull, discusses how schools can best improve their energy efficiency, often in unexpectedly simple ways.

How did the story of BREng Hull start?

My wife and I started BREng Hull four years ago. I’ve always had in the back of my mind the desire to start my own business, and I now serve as Director for the company. My average day-to-day can be chaotic, but I love being busy. I have a variety of clients, both those I knew before setting up BREng, and those I’ve acquired along the way, and currently much of what I do is fire-fighting. Whether I realistically have the time or not, if an existing customer asks for my assistance on a job, I will always stretch myself to do it. Originally, I set up to be somewhat of an independent contractor, picking up projects when people needed me, however it’s evolved to be much bigger than that, and I took on apprentice last year both to build his knowledge, but also to take the strain off of just me.

What exactly does BREng Hull do?

Essentially, I utilise all my industry experience to offer consultancy advice to a broad range of clients. I’ve previously worked in consultancy, as well as for manufacturers in applications of air source pumps, VRF (variable refrigerant flow) and air handling units, so it all comes together perfectly for what I do now.

One day I’ll look at a blank drawing and create a HVAC scheme for anything from a leisure centre, a cinema, a school, or an office block. On another, I’ll make a site visit to the same types of buildings, and the client will ask me how to best renew an existing system. Recently, with these types of jobs, I’ve often found that the most efficient replacement is to bring in new fan coil units, and connecting them to existing boilers, especially with schools, who often only receive partial funding.

We refer to this as a staged decarbonisation, where we put in the infrastructure that will work at a lower temperature in the future but can also be connected to the existing boilers.

What do you envisage as being the key aims for the coming years for BREng Hull?

Next year, my main objective is to train my apprentice up to a level where I can send him to a project by himself. Nothing too complex, as he will have only been in the business for about three years, however, I want to set him up so that by the time he finishes his apprenticeship, he will feel confident enough to carry out independent projects. My apprentice is actually my son, so it’s been lovely to teach him everything I know. I ultimately want to pass the business down to him, and to provide him the tools to give BREng Hull proper longevity in the market.

Regarding any other goals, I simply want to continue offering the best service possible to all my clients.

On several occasions we’ve been to sites months after the job is completed, because in practice, systems haven’t been working properly, due to various issues with manufacturers or suppliers. For one such case, we returned to the site and fitted sensors alongside the suppliers, because I always feel it’s the obligation of BREng Hull to provide the right solution, no matter how long that might take. This is how we ensure that clients are returning to us year in and year out.

Are there any particular success case studies you’ve had recently or innovations that you’re proud of particularly?

The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, mentioned us in a recent publication regarding the work we did last year for Abbey MAT Schools, this is an academy trust in Leeds. In total the project cost about £4.5 million, and on first glance, it seemed simply a case of installing some air source heat pumps, but the more we got into the details, the more complex the project became. To have that project praised by such a reputable organisation was a great acknowledgment for all the effort we put in.

We also worked very closely with the FM Manager for the trust on the piece and built a great working dynamic with him, too, where we both learnt a lot. Even now, we’re discussing how to keep improving even more, and how we could adapt out work dependent on the size of the school. Being able to understand the systems as they are working live, through close professional relations with clients, is something BREng Hull has always done successfully.

Another key success was a staged decarbonisation we oversaw in the Northeast. The project we designed installed a new heating system onto the existing boilers, in a way so they could all run at a lower temperature. We’ve reduced the flow temperature on the boilers dramatically, and we’re expected to save 1.8 tonnes of carbon a year. The school has fed back to us that the level of control and comfort is far superior to what it was before, and we’re just awaiting information from them on how much it costs to run. Receiving that feedback is always rewarding, and especially so in the case of schools, where we know that children are in a better studying environment because of our contribution.

With such a diverse portfolio of clients, how important is it to offer tailored solutions for each building project?

The ability to offer proper, tailored solutions for your clients comes down to your individual knowledge of each different product, and knowing how you can apply them. Even when I worked for a manufacturer, whenever a new product came out, I would always analyse its features and benefits, and consider how I could use it to do something new and different, rather than just following what it said on the box. I think I gained that inquisitive thinking while coming through contracting, where a Technical Director taught me the fundamentals of controls, and I established that core interest in knowing how things work. With every job I do, I assess it like I do products – what can I do differently here, and how can I best tailor my solution?

Some schools, for example, will better suit brand new VRF systems, while others, due to the age of the building, realistically require something like an air to water heat pump. Each job needs to have a proper examination to determine the most appropriate outcome.

What advice would you give to schools to go about minimising their kind of heat emissions and reducing the heat loss at their emitting?

I think the biggest single factor in reducing energy loss is understanding how to use the heating system. We have seen it in school after school, where we are providing the heating solutions to the schools, but they are not equipped with the knowledge of how to interact with it moving forwards.

People often think that if a room is cold, and they turn it up to say, 28°C, it will get warmer quicker since it’s a high temperature, whereas in reality, the system will heat at the exact same pace, and the end result is just that the room overheats! This seems to be recurring cause of energy waste in schools, and its really an issue of education and giving teachers the right tools to use their heating systems more efficiently.

What was the main takeaways from your experience of teaching building services at Leeds College of Building?

I loved doing some teaching, and always hope to pass on the information I was taught when I was younger. I started in the trade at sixteen and was fortunate enough to be mentored by my Managing Director over a two to three-year period.

I worked in a small medium contractor that did their own designs as well, so I was exposed to a lot of different schemes. I also started to design projects and price them, so through repetitive learning, I really solidified all the wisdom that was passed down to me. In college, I found that that method of repetitive learning was mostly absent, and I think that’s a gap I tried to fill with my lessons.

You’ll find a similar problem in larger companies, too, which have such stretched resources that personal mentoring and teaching seems to have disappeared. That’s why with my son, I have instilled in him that he needs to stay creative and innovative in his thinking, and not to be afraid to try new things and experiment. You need to have faith in your own knowledge, but also not be afraid to get some things wrong along the way. That’s why all work is checked by us before it goes to the clients, so if it is wrong its and internal learning process.

More generally, what future trends or policies do you think will have the biggest effect on the energy market?

Commercially, The Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, or PSDS, which provides grants for public sector bodies to fund heat decarbonisation and energy efficiency measures, has been working really positively for us, given that we work so closely with schools. In terms of the strategy around the PSDS, and the 2050 targets, I don’t think the plan has been fully determined. We don’t have the level of infrastructure in place to support all the transitions that the government would like to see, from replacing boilers with heat pumps, swapping traditional cars for electric vehicles, and even moving to hydrogen.

The infrastructure is not capable of supporting that level of change, and so we need to see someone within politics step up and focus on upskilling and training professionals, who can then prepare that wider infrastructure.

How do you feel about the UK’s ability to reach net zero by 2050?

I think there’s enough intelligence within the UK, and across the rest of the world, to achieve all our targets, and we know that the technological capability is there too. My main concern is that currently, it still feels like the discussion revolves around financial gain. The major companies who will really be responsible for us getting to net zero are still focussed on whether or not they can generate money through doing so, and those are the exact organisations who will be funding the next generations of sustainable technologies and driving us towards our goals.

I truly believe as a country, we want to have a clean and safe environment and economy, and there’s an imbalance at the moment between the public and the corporations in objectives. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for me, where my hope is that there is enough intellect and ambition amongst industry leaders to achieve net zero, whilst I still worry they will prioritise shares over the greater good for all of us.

I look at the process like the work I do with BREng Hull on staged decarbonisation. I have to assess the best way of reducing energy for my clients’ buildings, but I have to do so in the most strategic way so that it’s affordable. A school, for example, may be better off changing certain fabrics used in their insulation before jumping straight into installing an air source heat pump. We need to adjust for individual cases and help support people in their transitions in the best way for them. While the major corporations may handle more large-scale changes, I hope that making small changes can make a real difference on the ground.

Finally, what advice would you like to pass on to clients once you have completed your work with them and installed any heating changes?

I think I would come back to the issue of education about heating systems, looking at schools in particular, and the ongoing decarbonisation of them. The purpose of schools is obviously to educate students, so we don’t expect teachers to be experts in buildings; however, in order to have the most energy efficient environment possible, there does need to be someone within the institution who understands how the heating system operates, and a lot more knowledge needs to be imparted so that each school can run effectively, without people like myself having to continuously step in.

We also need to give these individuals the confidence and faith to play with the systems. Something as simple as experimenting with flow temperatures, by say 5°C, will reduce your energy consumption, whilst not really impacting on people’s comfort levels. I don’t think we should expect education professionals to understand all the complexities of heating and energy efficiency, but more should be done by the government to pass on simple learnings and the basic understanding of how they can most efficiently utilise the technologies once they have been implemented.

Rob Smelt gave an elemental webinar on meeting the heat demand in schools, you can watch it here: crowdcast.io/c/heat-demand-schools