Spotlight on: the Electric Heating Company

As the journey towards net zero creates an increased focus on electrification of heat, a business named the Electric Heating Company is clearly going to start with an advantage. But as chief executive David Barrett tells Andrew Gaved, the ambitions to be the supplier of choice for everything from heat pumps to electric boilers go well beyond name alone.

David Barrett is a man whose background in the world of plumbing and heating manufacturing is the definition of well-rounded. His career since 2010 has seen him move from being commercial director (residential boilers) at Baxi to business unit director of Kingspan’s water cylinders business to most recently chief executive at water treatment specialist Sentinel.

So the fact that David has now been hired by the Electric Heating Company, the Blantyre, Scotland-based  distributor of electric boilers, cylinders, radiators and heat pumps, as its chief executive, points to a statement of ambition by the company. At the same time, David clearly sees the potential for EHC playing a part in the growth of the sector:

“We see positive momentum from a number of perspectives around the decarbonisation of heating,” says David, “And that takes in a range of businesses, whether it be homeowners, building specifiers, building owners, local authorities, or housing associations – they are all now thinking about different alternatives to heating that are not dependent on gas or oil.”

One of the key messages from David, though, is that this doesn’t only mean heat pumps. “At EHC, we have an air-source heat pump unit, under the Iconic brand, which we’re starting to sell and we know that the government is very committed to seeing the growth of heat pumps – though obviously there are going to be significant challenges with getting to the stated 600,000 a year target by 2028. But I think what we are seeing is there’s a growing market for electric boilers.”

EHC is already a major player in the electric boiler market, with a market share of around 35%, but there are good reasons for specifying an electric boiler, he notes – and reasons that have had a tendency to be overlooked recently by government and press alike, amidst the clamour over heat pumps.

“One reason is that the person specifying or buying the product ultimately wants to have a solution in their property, which isn’t dependent on gas or oil. But also one of the major advantages of an electric boiler versus a gas boiler, not withstanding the decarbonisation argument, is that there’s no flue required. Unsurprisingly, we are behind heating solutions that are 100% electric. But along with heat pumps, we do believe that there is a market for electric boilers because not every property is appropriate for an air-source heat pump.”

And, he notes, an electric boilers will be a standard swap for a gas boiler: “It’s on a hydronic system, you’re not changing the radiators and it’s a high heat system, so there are other advantages. But we think parity pricing of energy must be part of the solution because we don’t think that the answer is just air-source heat pumps.”

Thus, David believes, in terms of practicality alone, the electric boiler presents a compelling option:

“The flueing regulations over the years for gas boilers have, quite rightly, got more stringent, and that creates a complexity issue, often requiring more complicated flue arrangements, with all the costs associated. So the ease of installation and the cost of installation is a major factor that favours electric boilers, we believe. And in the longer term, while at the moment, gas is obviously much cheaper per kilowatt hour, we would hope that as more renewables and nuclear comes on board, that will change – although admittedly there’s not particular policy evidence for that at the moment. Also, we should remember that electric boilers are 100% efficient, whereas gas boilers aren’t.”

There is another trend at play with specifiers who want to decarbonise, he notes, as the Future Homes Standard moves towards eliminating gas from newbuild properties:

“We are finding that in flats and apartments, building owners or specifiers are now simply using electric radiators along with a direct electric cylinder to provide heating and hot water.”

And, understandably, he believes that EHC should be the supplier of choice for those products: “The company has been going 19 years now, and we have a strong reputation for providing good quality products, but as importantly, the right kind of presale support and then the right post-sale support to installers and so on. We are seeing a convergence of plumbers and heating installers gas engineers beginning to see that they can fit electric boilers really easily. Electricians are also seeing that fitting an electric boiler is well within their capabilities. And then the traditional heating merchants who have been selling gas boilers are also now promoting and selling many more electric products, including obviously air-source heat pumps.”

EHC sells its products via merchants and, via its specification business, it works with contractors to get its products specified on open spec work.

“We are looking, obviously to convince people of the EHC approach,” says David and in this respect, we are proud of our Trustpilot rating of 4.8. That’s quite difficult to maintain, and we work hard at that… We recognise there are, in some cases, cheaper competitors out there. But we are focused on delivering value and the right advice and strong product quality – those are our core principles.

He gives an example of the EHC approach: “When we receive an order from a merchant – and this applies to any merchant – we contact the customer ourselves to check that the product they are buying is appropriate for their property. So for an electric boiler, for instance, we’re checking if they’ve ordered a boiler that needs a three-phase supply, that they actually do have a three-phase supply.”

As David adds, this level of support is as beneficial for the supplier as for the customer: “If the customer has ordered the wrong product, the issue will come back to us anyway. But there are other manufacturers and other retailers of these products who certainly don’t do that.”

It is perhaps understandable that EHC is keen to help educate the potential specifier as to the possibilities of electric solutions beyond heat pumps: “We are certainly seeing that in newbuild, the national groups seem to be looking at air-source heat pumps as the single solution. But we think smaller developers at a local or regional level might be open to different approaches. We see our mission to be accelerating the growth of electric heating in a responsible way – to ensure that the right products are specified and that we are giving best advice. We want to avoid products being mis-sold because over time if that happens in enough numbers, that risks giving the technology a bad name.”

But David also reminds us that government policy continues to play a crucial role in how the heating industry delivers the low carbon transition: “The government is clearly reining back on some of their commitments and timelines around decarbonising. This is a shame given the UK government was seen around the world as taking a lead in these areas. We understand that things have changed around energy security, with the war in Ukraine and so on. But that is a concern for us as an electrical products business, because that creates further inertia in the market.”

With this in mind, the mission for EHC to help to drive the uptake of electric products, and to steer customers towards good installations, he says: “The whole industry is changing – the gas boiler manufacturers have themselves now launched or are launching their own heat pumps, so the whole industry is going through a transition. For our part, we will be focusing on advising the customer about which product is right for the installation is their particular property. We’re not interested in putting the units in.”

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