What are air source heat pumps ?
Air source heat pumps convert heat energy from the air to provide heat and hot water for dwellings. They run on electricity, but are incredibly efficient (in some cases 300% or more), which means that for every one unit of electricity used, they produce 3 units of useful heat.
If you compare that to a brand new boiler which is 90% efficient (1 unit of gas produces 0.9 units of useful heat), you can quickly see why these systems are so popular. In fact, if you don’t have access to mains gas, heat pumps are definitely the way to go to fulfil your heating and hot water requirements – provided you have a well insulated home, which is discussed later.
Better still, if you decide to install an air source heat pump in your home, you can also benefit from the Renewable Heat Incentive, which pays you for each unit of hot water water you produce. In some cases, the funding will cover the cost of installing the heat pump, but it gets paid over 7 years on a quarterly basis, so you will still need to find the money upfront!
How do air source heat pumps work in your house?
The air source heat pump needs to be located outside in the open air, and uses a fan to draw air into it. This air then flows over a heat exchanger, which contains a refrigerant liquid. An evaporator uses the latent heat from the air to heat the refrigerant liquid sufficiently until it boils and turns to a gas. This gas is then compressed by a compressor, which causes it to significantly increase in temperature. An additional heat exchanger removes the heat from the refrigerant (turning it back to a liquid), which can then be used as useful heat. There are two types of air source heat pump:
Air-to-water heat pumps
Air to water heat pumps are by far the most popular. These take heat from air outside the property and transfer this to water, which can be used for space heating or as hot water for washing within the house.
Air-to-air heat pumps
These remove latent heat from the air outside the property which is then simply fed into the home through fans. This type of heat pump cannot be used to produce hot water.
Air source heat pumps require electricity to run
Since they include fans and compressors, air source heat pumps require electricity to operate, and bearing in mind the price of electricity is approximately 15p / kWh and gas is just 4p / kWh, on the face of it, you would expect heat pumps to be far more costly to run than gas boilers.
This is not the case though – since for every kW of electricity used to run them, they provide approximately 2.5-3.5kW of equivalent useful energy (depending on the model and the temperature of the external air). This makes running costs comparable to a traditional gas boiler.
The efficiency of air source heat pumps is measured by the Coefficient of Performance, which is simply how many units of useful energy produced from each unit of electricity are consumed to operate the system. For example, if at any moment the heat pump was producing 3kW of useful heat from each unit of electricity, the CoP would be 3.
The CoP varies throughout the year, with lower figures achieved during the colder months (meaning they are running less efficiently), since there is less ambient heat available to remove from the air. This makes comparing the efficiency of different heat pump systems very difficult, so we use what is known as the Seasonal Performance Factor to compare like for like performance of models. This is the annualised CoP, taking into account the different performance throughout the year.
Air source heat pumps don’t produce boiling water
The air source heat pump does not produce the sort of hot water temperature you would associate with a gas, LPG or oil-powered boiler. With a boiler, you would expect the hot water to be heated to about 850c, while a heat pump produces water to about 550c. Trying to increase the water temperature from a heat pump beyond this requires the compressor to work harder, meaning more electricity – this in turn reduces its efficiency or coefficient of performance.
As a result, it is very important to minimise heat loss from the property prior to installing a heat pump. This includes insulating the walls, loft and ideally the floor too. This means that even though the radiators won’t get as hot (using heat pumps), the house is still heated effectively and you are not straining the heat pump – which is expensive.
When installing a heat pump, you may be required to increase the size of some of the radiators in certain rooms too. This is simply because the heat demand will not be met with the existing-sized radiators. If this is the case, you can expect to pay about £200 – £300 for each radiator that needs to be replaced (providing the pipework running to the existing radiator can be reused).
Air source heat pumps and the Renewable Heat Incentive
Heat pumps are part of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme recently launched by the Government. It means that, if you install a renewable heating technology, you can get paid for each unit of heat you generate. RHI payment rates depend on lots of things, but you can see detailed information here.
Occasionally, but not often, the RHI payments will be enough to cover the cost of the initial outlay of the air source heat pump. Air source heat pumps normally cost between £7,000 – £10,000.In a standard property you can expect to receive a total of about £2-5,000. RHI payments are paid quarterly over 7 years, so you will need to stump up the money up front.
Things to consider before investing in an air source heat pump
Placement of air source heat pump – An air source heat pump requires plenty of space, either to mount on an external wall or to be placed on the ground. The unit needs good air flow, and foreign objects such as boxes, containers etc need to be kept well away.
Cost of air source heat pump system vs system that is being replaced – Purchasing an air source heat pump on top of an existing heating system will prove to be an expensive option; therefore we recommend considering this when replacing an old electric or old oil-fuelled system. However an electric heater will convert 1kW of electrical energy to 1kW of heat energy and an air source heat pump will convert 1kW of electrical energy into 3.5kW (almost 4kW) of heat energy.
Insulation – The air source heat pump emits low temperatures but on a consistent basis. To maximise effectiveness, ensure that your home is suitably energy efficient by installing wall insulation (either cavity or solid wall) and draught proofing. These are low cost measures that will make a big difference to your utility bills, therefore it is worth investing in them prior to replacing your heating system with an air source heat pump.
Noise of air source heat pump – An air source heat pump does make some noise when operating, as both a fan and a compressor will be in motion. The noise is approximately 40-60 decibels (depending on the system) from a distance of one metre away. So please ensure if you invest in an air source heat pump, it is not placed directly outside your bedroom window!
We have filmed an air source heat pump in motion, (don’t say we don’t treat you) so you can see for yourself how they operate.
Efficiency of air source heat pumps – Despite air source heat pumps being able to operate at -250C, the efficiency decreases as the outside temperature drops; therefore if you live in a particularly cold place, you may well need to supplement the heat pump with an additional boiler to get the hot water you require. Try a CHP boiler if you can invest additional resources. The problem may be getting the two systems to work successfully in tandem; therefore a traditional boiler could be your only option.
Local authority regulation for air source heat pump installation
Generally there are fewer restrictions from local authorities in England and Scotland when looking to install an air source heat pump (noise being the main consideration), but please check with your council and installer before proceeding. In Wales and Northern Ireland, an air source heat pump installation requires planning permission.
- As the heat pump provides the hot water for heating, there are large savings to be made on fuel bills – typically an air source heat pump can deliver up to 3.5kW of useful energy for every 1kW of energy needed to run it.
- An air source heat pump can still take heat out of the air in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees.
- By installing an air source heat pump you can reduce your carbon emissions from your homes heating by 50%.
- Air source heat pumps are potential income sources, if households qualify for the government Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. The RHI is payable on an MCS ASHP installation, carried out by an MCS Accredited Installer and the payment is backdated to include any installation installed after 15th July 2009.
- Air source heat pumps can be fairly noisy, approximately 40 – 65 decibels at a distance of 1m away (however this varies by manufacturer). Look at our video below for some first hand experience.
- The equipment needs to sit outside the house, so may not be suitable if there is not sufficient space.
- Air source heat pumps become less efficient at extracting heat from the air when the external temperature is low, so the amount of usable useful heat they produce is less.
- An air source heat pump will cost from about £7,000 to install.