What the domestic heating sector can learn from Tesla

In the latest of our columns from industry association BEAMA, Johan du Plessis of member company tepeo calls for alternatives to the heat pump.

The slow uptake of heat pumps may superficially be associated with cost and installation time. However, I believe that the public resistance to them points to something deeper. People tend to resist the unfamiliar.

Before Tesla, electric cars looked like they were built from the crayon-drawn blueprints of a preschooler. Clunky and UFO-shaped, they felt like fundamentally different pieces of technology to traditional cars.

Part of the reason that Tesla was able to drive mass-market adoption was that their range of cars looked and behaved like traditional cars, even though they followed totally different rules below the bonnet.

When it comes to domestic heating, consumers are faced with familiar (gas boilers), and the unfamiliar (heat pumps). In order to drive the level of mass adoption we desperately need, the government should throw its support behind those technologies that look, feel and behave like gas boilers, just without the gas.

Heat pumps are a fantastic technology. However, given that every household is also eligible for a £7,500 subsidy for a heat pump from the government, we might ask why we don’t see heat pumps in every home?

Boris Johnson planned on installing 600,000 heat pumps per year, by 2028. Despite this, only 72,000  heat pumps were installed in 2022 – with only about 12,000 as retrofits replacing gas or oil boilers in existing homes. So why the slow progress?

After all, the UK population have shown that they care about the environment; studies reveal that UK consumers are largely in favour of green policies, while the 2021 Census revealed that three-quarters of adults in Great Britain worry about climate change.

Similarly, Brits seem to care about air quality. Despite vocal opposition, the majority of Londoners supported Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion, on the grounds of its impact on air quality.

Cost is one issue. Even on top of the generous government subsidy, an air source heat pump could still set your customer back between £2,000 to £10,000, with ground source costing considerably more. A traditional gas boiler, although cheaper, still sits at approximately £4,500 including installation. Yet we have to wonder – the EV surge would suggest that customers are willing to pay more for future technologies. Why hasn’t this translated to domestic heating?

Installation time could be another reason. Compared with the simple ‘direct replacement’ of a traditional boiler, installing a heat pump could take anywhere between one to two weeks, which makes it near impossible to be a distressed purchasing decision when a boiler breaks down on a winter’s day. While at a different scale, EVs still require far more time charging than traditional cars do at the pump. Regardless of this, EV sales would seem to suggest that people are happy to adapt to new technologies.

While cost and installation times are the assumed drivers of slow take up in the UK, this assumption misses the human element: Most people are familiar with their central heating system, and how it operates.

The general level of awareness about heat pump technology remains low. In a recent survey of 1,000 people by Ipsos for Mitsubishi Electric, 42% expressed interest in how heat pump technology worked, yet 71% reportedly knew little to nothing about how heat pump technology works.

Of course, many early adopters are happy to break habits in order to accommodate new technologies. However, the government has put all its eggs in the heat pump basket. While heat pumps are suitable for most homes, the reality is that the government is relying on mass behaviour and habit change amongst the population.

That’s too much to ask. tepeo’s Zero Emission Boiler (ZEB) looks similar to a traditional boiler, and would sit in the same cupboard. It relies on the same pipes, is installed in 1-2 days, and doesn’t require planning permission or an outdoor space. For installers this remains a Godsend, as you don’t need anywhere near the same level of training or expert knowledge to install a ZEB.

The ZEB remains remarkably lonely in the ‘green’ domestic heating marketplace. I’m happy to publicly say that we need more competition. We need far more products that look, feel and operate in a similar way to gas boilers, if we are to see the level of uptake that we need.

Ultimately, consumers need choice. For many, the heat pump is the ideal green heating solution from both the running cost, heating and performance perspective and will play a huge part in the UK reaching its Net Zero commitments.

However for those who can’t install a heat pump, the choice appears binary; gas boiler or freeze. We need far more emission-free domestic products that behave like traditional boilers. And crucially, we need the government to throw their support behind them.

Only then can we really start to wean ourselves off gas, and race towards a cheaper, more secure, more sustainable future.

Johan du Plessis is founder and chief executive of tepeo.

See the company and show partner BEAMA at the InstallerSHOW at the NEC on 25-27 June