Off the boil?

As part of our series on the future of heating in the UK we sat down with Phil Jones, Chair of the CIBSE CHP/District Heating Group, to discuss his thoughts on the future of the commerical boiler sector in the UK. Will it lose ground to renewables, or could there be a joint solution?

What are the biggest challenges facing the commercial boiler sector and how can they be overcome?

Firstly, competition from other low carbon heat generators is slowly eating into the commercial boiler sector’s share of the market. The Government has recognized low-carbon heating solutions in its 5th Carbon Budget as a key way of tackling the UK’s carbon footprint, and within the industry initiatives like CIBSE’s Codes of Practice on Heat Networks are making them an attractive alternative financially.

They’re also suffering from lower heat demands in buildings. Firstly, new buildings are subject to tighter energy regulations, meaning that they have to be built to be more efficient and use smaller boilers. But that problem also extends to existing buildings, which are increasingly being retrofitted with energy efficiency measures such as more sophisticated control systems and better insulation, which reduce the demands on the boiler. Secondly, we have seen a move to lower temperature heating systems which are more efficient. This firstly means that less heat is needed, and therefore a lower boiler output, but it also plays straight into the hands of low carbon alternatives that work better at lower temperatures.

Older buildings retrofitted with better insulation are driving down boiler size
Climate change has a part to play in this too – we’re simply having more warm weather and we’re using our heating systems less. Combined with buildings which have lower heat demands, we are using fewer, smaller boilers – a trend which looks to continue.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the commercial boiler sector in the UK and why?

I’m reasonably optimistic in the short term, because the changes we’re seeing are by no means across the whole industry, nor will they happen overnight. Investors and clients are still slightly nervous about low carbon technology because it doesn’t have a very long pedigree in the UK, and the economic issues of the last ten years mean that up-front cost is still a very important factor alongside whole-life cost.

However, as more low-carbon solutions are installed and the market gets stronger I think we’re going to see technology like heat pumps and solar panels grow their market share relative to boilers. Particularly if the Government is to meet its target of a 57% carbon emissions reduction relative to 1990 levels, and continues to incentivise low-carbon alternatives.

What will be the ‘next big thing’ in industrial / commercial heating in terms of technology and or ‘trends’?

Surface Water Source Heat Pumps make use of Britain's often
untapped network of urban waterways
I think heat pumps, particularly Surface Water Source Heat Pumps, are the next big thing in heating because they’re so versatile. They can both heat and cool, at the same time, and they’re created with the kind of whole-life costing approach that is seen as best practice when designing new buildings, they require fewer pieces of additional equipment to run like flues and chimneys and they’re very economical with regards to running cost and maintenance.

They also take advantage of water, a natural resource Britain has in great amounts, from rivers and canals to lakes and the sea. Water naturally sits at a higher temperature than the air or the ground, and in Britain there is a lot of it even in urban areas where demand is greatest.

CIBSE has just released its second Code of Practice, on Surface Water Source Heat Pumps (SWSHPs), which is intended to maximise the amount of information available to engineers on the technology and to increase the standard of installation, making it more attractive to clients.

How do you see the future shaping up for commercial boilers and how will this affect contractors and manufacturers?

The low-carbon revolution is a reality and it isn’t going to go away, so designers and contractors will have to get more understanding and training around how to install low-carbon technology and integrate it into existing buildings and their systems. Facilities Managers are going to be at the forefront of this, because they will be overseeing the transition in the longer term.

One of the primary benefits of low-carbon technology is that it delivers sustainability and savings across the whole life of the building, but this can only be achieved if it is properly specified and installed in the first place, and then properly managed as part of a wider energy strategy. FMs will have to adjust their strategies accordingly and ensure that they have the knowledge to maintain these systems too.

Is there a knowledge gap in the marketplace when it comes to the integration and operation of low and zero technologies with commercial boilers? If so, how can it be addressed?

One of the biggest factors holding low-carbon technology back in the past has been a lack of information and a lack of training. It’s a vicious cycle, where a lack of real-world examples means there is less demand, which leads to less training and knowledge, which means fewer low-carbon solutions installed.

District Heating requires more working examples in use to provide useful data
The industry has been addressing this by creating standards backed by training to show how a proper low-carbon system should be installed and run, and what results a client can expect from a successful example. This works to dispel the concern caused by lack of information, and Codes of Practice such as CIBSE’s own on Heat Networks and SWSHPs work alongside training to increase the standard of work across the industry.

Another point that needs to be addressed ties into the ‘whole life’ element again, which includes the specification stage. A workable energy strategy depends on a heating system that is fit for purpose and designed to fit the needs of the building and the environment. By training specifiers to take this into account, we can greatly increase the technology’s effectiveness.

Is there any future in hybrid systems comprising renewable (say, solar or biomass) linked to conventional condensing boiler technology?

The future may lie in hybrid systems designed as a
backup to renewable technology
Boiler based systems are likely to be the way forward for some time, as low-carbon solutions remain a relatively small part of the market and aren’t necessarily on everybody’s radar. But increasingly, we will see mixed/hybrid systems as building operators are likely to want to install boilers as a back-up to a low-carbon technology, and also to supplement it to ensure that their needs are fully covered. As confidence in these systems increases and they increase their market share, we will probably see an increase in the number of buildings that solely use renewable technology instead of conventional boilers.

Where do you see the commercial boiler sector in five years from now?

In five years’ time I can see the commercial boiler sector being smaller, but not dramatically so. It may well have lost some ground to renewables, but it will still be the first choice for clients and building owners.

However, in 20 years’ time I think that we will see a dramatic difference: use of commercial boilers will be down considerably, replaced in the market by low-carbon alternatives.


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