10 heat pump myths, debunked

Posted on: 27 May, 2024

Here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about heat pumps that have held back its adoption in the UK.

Heat pumps are widely considered to be one of the key interventions in the future of sustainable housing. Widely adopted in Asia for decades and a growing market in the US and Europe, these technologies show great promise for their ability to reduce carbon emissions, boost energy efficiency and help the built environment address its impact on the environment.

However, they aren’t without their critics. The adoption of heat pumps in the UK has been far from a smooth process, with just 12,000 people taking up the government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme as of August 2023, and installation rates falling far, far behind the 2028 target of 600,000 per year.

There are many criticisms levelled at heat pump technology, but some are more valid than others. Here are 10 of the most common misconceptions about heat pumps, debunked.

10 common heat pump myths

1. They only work in new builds

While heat pump installations are most often associated with new builds, this doesn’t mean they aren’t compatible with existing properties – far from it. In fact, the UK’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme is only applicable to existing homes.

While modern, well-insulated homes will get the best out of this technology thanks to their ability to retain heat, pumps have been installed in millions of existing buildings – including an 11th century Norman church in Kent – proving their potential for use in retrofitting initiatives.

The size of a heat pump can be adjusted for the condition of an existing property and its ability to retain heat – something that improved insulation can go a long way to optimising.

Learn more: A guide to retrofitting (and how it could help us reach net zero)

2. They’re noisy

Another common claim about heat pumps is that they’re noisy. A recent government review conducted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) into the noise levels of heat pumps found ‘a low number of complaints’ related to this issue. In fact, there are only 100 noise complaints for every 300,000 installations, according to one UK survey.

Heat pumps do make noise – a low hum usually no louder than 40 decibels depending on the weather – but this is no more than the average gas boiler, and about the same as a fridge freezer.

3. They’re difficult to install

Installing a heat pump is more complex than a standard boiler, but air source heat pumps are often still relatively easy to fit. Ground and water heat pumps, on the other hand, are more complicated and often require planning permission. However, if they’re best suited for a building and the installation is carried out by a trained professional, it can be a smooth process.

4. They’re complicated to use and repair

Heat pumps themselves are as straight-forward to use as a regular boiler and can be left to run automatically once temperatures are set. In terms of maintenance, they’re also more reliable than gas boilers, and often simple to repair.

5. They only work in warm climates

In 2023, Scottish businessman and green entrepreneur Willie Haughey claimed that heat pumps can’t cope with the cold climate of Scotland, but the data suggests otherwise.

In Europe, Nordic countries with the coldest climates have the highest sales of heat pumps in the continent. What’s more, they’re designed to work in various climates, and can work efficiently in temperatures as low as -15 degrees Celsius.

Learn more: Building climate resilience into the built environment

6. They don’t work in flats

Heat pumps are typically installed outside of a building or home, which can make fitting them for apartment buildings or flats difficult. However, there are solutions to this problem. There are notable case studies of blocks of flats using ground, aid and water source heat pumps. Finding space and addressing building regulations can be challenging, but it’s by no means impossible, and can be a very attractive option for apartment and multi-storey building owners.

7. They’re more expensive to run than gas boilers

There’s no denying that heat pumps have high upfront costs. An air source heat pump costs, on average, just over £12,500 to buy and install – significantly more than that of a gas or oil boiler. Other types, like ground source heat pumps, are even more expensive once installation is factored in.

However, the Boiler Upgrade Scheme (and similar incentives from countries like Poland, Italy, the US and many others) can go a long way to offsetting these upfront costs. The UK’s scheme will put £7,500 towards this cost, and while electricity is several times more expensive than gas, energy companies are launching new heat pumps tariff designed to combat this. In summary, heat pumps are likely to, over time, offer long-term financial benefits.

8. They require a backup system to keep you warm

Hybrid heat pumps are a type of pump that make use of a traditional system as a backup, like a gas boiler, but these are just one of the several different kinds of pumps on offer. In truth these systems make up a minority of the pumps in use, with one survey finding that 79% of UK homes with heat pumps installed had no backup in place.

While a backup could be beneficial in particularly cold climates where heat pumps struggle (anything lower than -20 degrees Celsius), this kind of temperature is uncommon in the UK and much of Europe.

9. They won’t work during a power cut

While this myth is true – heat pumps require electricity to operate – this is the same for most gas boilers. And with most power outages in Europe lasting for a few minutes every year, the impact of this will be minimal at best.

10. They won’t keep you warm

This is one of the more pervasive myths about heat pumps. As Ross Clark claimed in an article for The Daily Telegraph, “you can’t find an engineer prepared to install one of the devices in your home because, in all honesty, they know it wouldn’t actually keep you warm.”

The data appears to refute this claim. One survey carried out in the UK found that 81% of people were satisfied with the performance of their heat pump – a very similar figure to that of gas boiler users.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management