Oliver Baker explains why infrared technology offers a compelling alternative to heat pumps.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has called domestic heating “perhaps the greatest challenge of all the sector transitions.” This is because there are an estimated 23m gas boilers in the UK which are going to have to change to a low-carbon source of heating as we move to net-zero.
This is likely to involve a switch to electric heating. This is because electricity is becoming an increasingly low carbon form of heating, as more renewable sources like wind and solar power are connected to the electricity grid, replacing existing gas power stations. These days, virtually no electricity is produced by coal. Carbon emissions from electricity are expected to continue to drop, and electricity is set to become a very low carbon source of energy and heat.
Today there are just 2.2m homes on electric heating, mostly using storage heaters. So electric heating is about to switch from being a minority solution to the solution for most homes.
The clock is ticking. The government is looking to ban from 2025 the installation of gas boilers in the 250,000 new homes built each year; and from 2035 it intends to ban the replacement of gas boilers in 23m existing homes.
The cost of electricity is a core challenge in this transition: one kWh of electricity is typically some 3-4 times the cost of one kWh of gas. This requires new electric heating technologies which can provide a comfortable home using fewer kWh of energy, if fuel poverty is to be avoided.
As ever, human ingenuity is rising to the challenge. Heat pumps provide around three times more heat per kWh of electricity than a conventional electric heater, which, together with other measures (such as improved home insulation and solar panels) helps contain running costs to previous levels.
However, the adoption of heat pumps has been slow. The UK installed 72,000 new heat pumps in 2022, well below the Committee on Climate Change’s pathway projection for 130,000 installations in 2022, rising to 145,000 in 2023. In comparison to neighbouring countries, the UK ranked 21st out of 21 for per-capita installations of heat pumps in 2022.
One reason for the disappointing uptake is that heat pumps may not be considered suitable for all UK property types, particularly smaller homes and flats, which comprise nearly half of all UK properties. Other reasons are the upfront costs of heat pumps and the well-publicised shortage of qualified installers.
Clearly, we will need a range of technologies if we are to deliver net-zero to all homes. This is where infrared systems can help.
For those unfamiliar with the technology, here are three reasons to give it a closer look:
1) Practical for smaller property types
For smaller homes and multi-occupancy buildings. an infrared system may be an ideal low-carbon solution. With no requirement for a heat pump unit or wet delivery system and compact panels for heating, infrared is a great alternative where space is at a premium.
An infrared system is a straightforward install for any qualified electrician and they are as quick to install as conventional panel heaters. No special training is required. This makes an infrared system a practical solution which can be applied without any delay, with no installation bottlenecks.
2) Improved energy performance
An infrared system can offer exceptional levels of control, right down to each infrared heat panel, and this can be used to reduce electricity consumption in a way which is impossible for a centralised heat pump unit to achieve.
Infrared heat panels work in a very different way to convection heating systems (including heat pumps) which heat the air. By contrast, infrared heat panels emit infrared which passes through the air without heating it, instead heating the fabric of the room to create ambient warmth. Infrared heat panels use the same ambient heat we feel from the sun, and the infrared wavelength most efficiently absorbed by building materials and the body.
This difference in the way warmth is created means that thermostats are not ideal for controlling infrared heat panels. Instead, further energy savings can be achieved by using sophisticated control systems specifically designed for infrared. For example, the Ambion Heating control system is designed to recognise and harness (in a way that thermostats cannot) the capacity of the materials within the property. such as the floors, walls and ceilings, to absorb and store the infrared emitted from the system’s infrared heat panels.
The control system is designed to pulse electricity to the heat panels, controlling the rate of radiation from the panels at an appropriate chosen value, taking into account the inherent heat retention of the property. This pulsing constantly adapts to maintain a room temperature to within 0.1 deg C of the target temperature. The control system improves energy control and reduces the energy waste that is common when using infrared on thermostats. With data collected every hour, energy usage and spend can be easily monitored at all times.
3) Reduces damp and mould
Much of the UK housing stock is vulnerable to damp and mould arising from excess condensation. This has never been a more of an issue as we seek to improve the energy performance of properties and to reduce ventilation loss.
Condensation occurs when warm, damp air meets a cold surface. Convection heating works using hot air and is poor at warming the fabric of the home. This combination is very conducive to the creation of condensation and mould.
By contrast, because infrared directly warms the fabric of the building, the conditions for condensation are not present, thus reducing the risk of damp and mould.
There is little doubt that heating powered by electricity is the way forward, and that the UK needs a range of solutions to complete the job. Infrared is the relatively new kid on the block but is making great headway as the country grapples with the challenge of providing a low-carbon heating solution for all property types. The good news is that infrared systems are readily available, affordable, and easily installed by any qualified electrician.
Be assured, infrared has a massive contribution to make in bringing low-carbon heating to every home in the land.