Spotlight on: Clade Engineering

For the latest in his series of profiles, Andrew Gaved visits Clade Engineering, which as a manufacturer of large heat pumps is gearing up for a key role in the decarbonisation of non-domestic buildings.

As someone who has rowed the Atlantic, Dean Frost, managing director of manufacturer Clade Engineering is arguably well used to being right in the middle of a storm, but this one is a storm born of all the right reasons.

There is a current frenzy of activity around low-carbon non-domestic heating and cooling and the ongoing focus on regulating oil and natural gas out of new buildings has meant that the large-scale heat pumps that the 100-strong company builds are very much in demand. And as one of a relatively small number of manufacturers of technology of the right scale – and one of a very small number of manufacturers using natural refrigerant – which we will come to, Clade is getting enquiries from across the client spectrum, from local authorities to developers to retail giants.

Add to that another distinction of being one of only two companies building the large heat pumps here in the UK – it builds units from 50 kW up to 1.2 MW in its Leeds facility – and it is clear why there is a lot of interest about the Clade business at present.

Whether for heating (and cooling buildings) or as part of a heat network, the large heat pump is now the key weapon in the quest to reduce carbon in non-domestic settings.

In a non-domestic building of any scale, whether it is a student block, a commercial office or a library, the low-carbon options increasingly are based on heat pump technology somewhere – either in VRF-style or air-to-water installations; or using the large-scale heat pump/chiller; or in the plant room of a heat network.

And yes, we know that other routes to compliance are available, from CHP to non-gas boiler/chiller combinations, but the current evidence of the Clade enquiry book suggests that many clients are pursuing the large heat pump as their preferred option, since it provides heating at significantly lower operational expense than any other technology. This is also one of the reasons why the government is pursuing heat pumps, Dean notes – ‘It really is the only available, scalable and proven technology to reach net zero cost effectively.”

And in the world of non-domestic buildings there is a further spur to demand, with changes of use and tenancy bringing demand for refurbishment – not to mention upgrades to buildings that are being considered by owners who want to reduce carbon now, both to future-proof their operations and to deliver on their corporate ESG targets. Clade notes that its focus on natural refrigerants gives a further boost to carbon reporting, by cutting out fugitive emissions from refrigerant loss.

All this has resulted in that perfect storm of interest for large heat pumps – with those involved with design and manufacture finding themselves in a maelstrom of design specs, tenders and site visits – to such an extent that there are whispers of issues with availability of technology and long lead times for some manufacturers.

Availability and lead times are not going to present such an issue if your manufacturing base is in Leeds, Dean is quick to note. “You can have an Acer heat pump pretty much off the shelf.”

But Clade has another important point of distinction, its use of ‘natural’ refrigerants such as propane and CO2, rather than synthetic coolants such as HFOs differs from many manufacturers of large heat pumps. This brings significant performance benefits, the company emphasises, including high temperatures and high efficiencies, as well as a reduced environmental impact. “Naturals really are a no-regret decision – apart from the profits of the chemical industry,” the company says pointedly.

Clade and heat pumps

Clade’s move into the heat pump arena is a natural development from its long background in the refrigeration industry – both contracting and manufacture. The scale of the demand currently is such that this year, after four years of heat pump manufacture for heating, its heating production will outpace that for refrigeration for the first time.

But the company’s pursuit of natural refrigerant approach particularly is driven as much by personal conviction as by response to the market, as anyone who has read articles by Dean or Chief Markets Officer Tim Rook will be in no doubt.

For Dean, it is a simple truth: “As a company, we genuinely care about the environment,” he says, and indeed, the company has won awards for its environmental approach. But he adds, there is a business benefit for the customer too: “By using natural refrigerants, we are not exposing the customer’s equipment to increasingly restrictive legislation.”

The company is wearing its environmental credentials on its sleeve, with the Clade name itself drawn from biology and all the heat pump units being named after trees, from the Acer to the Beech.

The Clade heat pump philosophy is built on the fact that to have the equipment performing to its optimum, you need to have the appropriate skilled engineers in house. All the discussions we have heard in the domestic heating arena about the importance of getting installations properly designed and commissioned are amplified for commercial heat pumps, where the size and complexity of the systems are inevitably of a different scale. In short, the company is not prepared to design complex engineering systems only to hand them over for other people to install them.

“To deliver heat pumps, it is essential to understand the requirements of the individual application,” Dean says, “So we have built applications teams with the skills to suit and we have our own commissioning team inhouse to ensure confidence in the technology in the marketplace. There are too many wrongly-commissioned systems out there. We view it as turnkey work – not unlike refrigeration, and that is what we have built our reputation on.”

Scope for the large heat pump market

But despite the clamour for the proven energy efficiency benefits of the technology, there is plenty of scope to make the large heat pump more attractive to customers, he believes. The commercial sector particularly needs to be persuaded to make the leap to electric systems, especially given that, since the demise of the Renewable Heat Incentive, the technology no longer benefits from any direct government subsidy. “I think as awareness improves of heat pump technology in commercial settings, we will see increased uptake,” Dean says.”

The increasing use of heat pumps as part of the flexible power grid is also generating significant opportunities for heat pump owners, exactly the same in principle as the domestic schemes where you’re rewarded for turning off electrical devices at certain times. Clade has partnered with Drax to deliver grid flexibility which can be worth up to 25% reduction in electricity costs.

Where the government has given a boost to the use of large heat pumps is in the public sector, by way of the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has pumped significant funding into low carbon heating projects. Whilst there are more bureaucratic hoops to jump through with a PSDS project, he notes, it is clearly unlocking low carbon technology on a much wider scale.

“The decoupling of the electricity and gas rates will have a further positive effect on the market for heat pumps,” he says, “But we are seeing a number of enquiries for hybrid systems in those applications that aren’t covered by the PSDS, with the boilers provided as a backup.”

Groupe Atlantic Investment

That commercial/industrial application is set to get even busier for Clade, thanks to recent investment from commercial heating giant Groupe Atlantic. This deal will effectively allow GA to add Clade-built large heat pumps to its commercial portfolio, dramatically widening the scope for the technology.

“We went looking for manufacturer partners who could help us not just now but in the future,” Dean says, “GA offers tremendous scope via both its Ideal Commercial and Hamworthy brands, allowing us inroads to consultants particularly and to offer large heat pump solutions. It allows us to build a market presence that it would have taken a long time to achieve on our own, along with supply chain benefits – GA has huge ambition for the technology.”

The ’significant’ equity investment sees three Groupe Atlantic members joining the Clade board. “It will bring their manufacturing expertise into the business and we will be able to share our refrigerant expertise. The larger scale heat pumps, from 50 kW up to Megawatts in size, are not something they had in their portfolio. And it is a flexible partnership, so that when the time is right, we will have the space to expand.”

Agility is a strong point for Clade, Dean notes. “We devised and built our Spruce AHU CO2 heat pump concept in just three months. That is the benefit of using our company. He also notes that the nature of CO2 as a refrigerant means that the Clade systems can make good use of rejected heat for increased efficiency in applications such as food retail.

“The public sector is leading the charge thanks to the PSDS – and any public building is of interest to us. That could be anything from a school to a library to a hospital…”

Having given the pitch for non-domestic buildings, Dean adds that Clade has just also signed a deal along with consultant Cenergist which will see 12 air-source heat pumps delivered to six multi-residential housing sites in Leeds.

Technology developments

For Clade, the air-source heat pump is the core technology: “We believe air-source is often the best option with the optimal ‘capex versus ease of installation,’” he says, “And we have designed special low-noise units for residential purposes. These Acer units are not just conventional units with retrospective sound attenuation, they have been designed to be low-noise from scratch.”

There is another key development here too, he adds, calmly mentioning an element that is the subject of heated debate in residential heat pump circles: “We have designed these to work full flush against a wall too.”

Other promising applications include sports centres, using a propane heat pump in cascade, and collaborating with Siemens on control systems that enable users to tap into the benefit of Grid flexibility incentives. “Heating and cooling customers can have a reduced-price heat pump and then take the benefit from the flexibility incentive from our partner Drax.”

He is well aware that the current landscape offers unprecedented scope for large heat pump technology, but setting out to achieve a formidable target is a driving force in the Dean Frost psyche. As noted, he has already rowed the Atlantic – as part of a four-man team for charity. Next year, the team plans to take on a chunk of the Pacific. That combination of determination, ambition and a healthy dose of idealism looks set to position the Clade heat pump business well. His conclusion is confident enough: “For every application, I believe we have got something to offer. I think we are in a fantastic position to help the UK decarbonise.”

The Clade Heat Pump Portfolio:

Acer Air-Source

The Acer, available in 50 kW, 75 kW and 100 kW models, and in low-noise and ultra-low-noise versions, is a CO2 air source heat pump, and described as ‘as close to plug and play as a commercial unit can get.’ It can be specified as part of a plant room at up to 1200 kW.

Spruce AHU and Heat Pump

The Spruce is a range of combined heat pump and air handling units from 50 kW to 150 kW with reciprocating compressors, using inverter technology, and a direct expansion CO2 heat transfer coil. Clade notes that the whole range is characterised by compactness and low refrigerant charge.

Oak CO2

The mid-range CO2 Oak from 50-500 kW, is suitable for continuous operation and at higher heating capacities for large buildings or processes from swimming pools to factories and district heating. It can produce flow temperatures of up to 90 deg C and return temperatures in the range of 30 deg C to 35 deg C, the company says.

Beech CO2

The Beech is bespoke designed and manufactured for each project at 600 kW to 1.2 MW in a single unit and encompassing ground, air, water source as well as heat reclaim. It is installed as separate evaporators and compressor stations with either glycol or refrigerant connections.

Aspen R290

The Aspen is a propane heat pump for smaller applications from 100 kW to 200 kW or with multiple units for larger heat demands. Clade describes it as ‘a more affordable low carbon solution for flow temperatures around 60 deg C, but still delivering superb low-carbon heat service and a low-GWP refrigerant.’

Larch Cascade

The Larch cascade heat pumps are a combination of R290 (propane) air source heat pump with a R600a water source heat pump to lift the temperature to provide a close matching of flow and return temperatures to those of traditional boiler system of 82 deg C/71 deg C. They are available in 150 kW, 250 kW and 350 kW models.

Willow Water and Ground-Source

Clade also builds bespoke heat pumps, using R600a or CO2 depending on application, and optimising the size of the heat exchangers for the flow and temperatures at both the evaporators and condensers. The Willow is available up to 400 kW in a single unit for R600a, or larger for CO2 and they can be multiplexed together for higher duties, Clade says.