Heat pumps can be cost-effective to run (cheaper than oil or gas). But sadly, due to less-than-optimal installation, they often work out more expensive to run. This article outlines why most heat pumps systems aren’t as efficient as they could be. But first, let’s see the impact that a suboptimal design has on running costs, assuming an electricity unit price of €0.33:
|Annual Heat Demand
|Real System Efficiency
|Annual Electricity Consumption
|Annual Electricity Cost
As you can see, the difference between a well-designed heat pump system and a poorly-designed one could easily be €1000 per year.
To ensure your heat pump system hits the excellent end of this range, it’s best to have a dedicated professional design your heat pump system (not the heat pump installation company/plumber).
Now on to the most common specific reasons heat pumps don’t perform excellently:
Reason 1: Inadequate heat emitters
Heat pumps need to operate at relatively low temperatures (ideally under 45°C) to be most efficient. But 45°C is not enough to heat all houses or rooms using the existing radiators. If your radiators are not adequate, these ought to be upgraded before installing a heat pump. Failure to upgrade radiators means the heat pump will have to run hotter, thus consuming more energy.
Reason 2: Heating zones and closed valves
When valves stop or restrict the flow to several radiators, the remaining radiators have to run hotter in order to heat a home. This makes for lower efficiency. It also restricts the flow rate from the pump, which can cause the heat pump to throw and error and shut down.
The most efficient solution is to ensure that a sufficient number of heat emitters remain fully open at all times (usually those in common areas and bathrooms). These should be appropriately sized and not have any valves fitted.
However, many heat pump installers use an alternative solution, which stops the heat pump from throwing an error, but doesn’t address the reduced efficiency: Buffer tanks and low loss headers…
Reason 3: Buffer tanks and low loss headers
Buffer tanks and low loss headers should be avoided where possible, as they result in lower efficiency. There are two reasons for this:
Problem 1: Higher flow temperature on the heat pump side. Due to the mixing that occurs inside the tank or header, your heat pump will end up running hotter than the radiators. This is bad for efficiency, as shown in an experiment directly comparing various heat pump configurations.
Problem 2: Energy consumed by the extra pump. Having a low loss header or buffer tank means you’ll be using an extra pump to circulate water through the heat emitters. This may only require, say, 200 Watts, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But as it runs constantly while your heating is on, the cost seriously adds up over the years and decades.
Buffer tanks can reduce on-off cycling in the heat pump. But simply ensuring that enough radiators are open at all times also prevents short cycling, without the need for a buffer tank. Correct heat pump sizing and using an inverter-driven (variable-speed) heat pump also help to avoid short cycling.
Reason 4: Controls not correctly set
Heat pump controllers should be set up to take advantage of features like weather compensation, providing an extra boost to efficiency. However, in many cases, heat pump installers neglect to do optimise the system controls. While it may be tedious, it’s generally worthwhile reading your heat pump’s manual and personally verifying that the controls are set up optimally, as this could save you thousands over the lifetime of the heat pump.
Reason 5: Oversized heat pump
An oversized heat pump will have to throttle down more frequently than a correctly-sized one, resulting in lower efficiency. Oversizing also increases the risk of short-cycling, reducing efficiency further, and potentially reducing lifespan.
Reason 6: Poor insulation
This one is not unique to heat pumps, but still worth a mention. Poor insulation obviously means you’ll more heat. But less obvious is that it also results in your heat pump running hotter and less efficiently. That makes for a double-whammy effect on the heat pump’s efficiency. So it’s always recommended to get your insulation in order before installing a heat pump.
A Technical Advisor can determine if you need insulation upgrades before considering a heat pump.
Why heat pump problems are so common, and how to avoid them
Heat pumps are a relatively new technology. They’re also more complex than oil or gas boilers. So while they have the potential to perform great, in practice this is not always the case, as many installers don’t know how to get the best from them.
Moreover, the interests of the homeowner and the installer are not always aligned. For example, upgrading radiators costs the installers extra. But it’s the homeowner who reaps the rewards of a more efficient system that radiator upgrades can bring.
That’s why it’s generally better to have a dedicated professional design your heat pump system (not the same company that installs the system). Plus, and independent professional will not hesitate to tell you if your money would be better spent on insulation upgrades, rather than a heat pump.
Our Technical Advisor can carry out a Home Energy Assessment to design a heat pump system that doesn’t cost more to run than it should.
Ready for A Warmer Home?
A Home Energy Assessment or Technical Assessment is the first step towards your home energy upgrades. Here’s why:
- Independent advice from an SEAI-registered and qualified professional
- Qualifies you to apply for SEAI grants, including the €6,500 heat pump installation grant
- Grants up to €350 towards the assessment cost
The founder of Ecoplus Survyeors Limited, Dominic has worked with sustainable energy since 2019. He writes about energy-related topics, including heat pumps and solar PV. In his spare time, Dominic enjoys playing traditional Irish music and riding mountain bikes.