As a snapshot of bourgeois Britain, Park House Gardens would be hard to beat. A quiet cul-de-sac of 1930s art deco semis in the south-west London borough of Twickenham leads down to the River Thames. The street’s residents include architects and artists, local authority safeguarding administrators and NHS chief operating officers.
On paper, it should be the simplest of tasks for Colin Thomas, head of service delivery at Octopus energy, to sell the idea of switching from gas boilers to air source heat pumps here. The people who live in Park House Gardens know all about climate change and want to do their bit in the battle to achieve carbon net zero. And with homes changing hands for about £1.5m, they generally do not have to count every penny.
Much faster progress will be needed if Britain is to reach the government’s target of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. Last year, Thomas says the total was 72,000. These homes in well-heeled Twickenham represent the low-hanging fruit, so if their owners take some persuading it is hard to see how the UK can rapidly raise its heat pump penetration rate from the current 2% to match the 80% uptake in parts of Scandinavia. Yet with interest rates at 5.25% and the economy shaky, it is by no means plain sailing.
Thomas, who has a heat pump in his Cheshire home, comes armed with news of a beefed-up financial inducement from the government to make the switch – the increase in the grant for installing an air source heat pump in England and Wales from £5,000 to match the £7,500 already on offer in Scotland, which came into force last month.
“We were driving down the cost of making the switch already but the increase in the grant will make a difference,” Thomas says.
Depending on how well the property is insulated, he adds, it is possible for the cost of transition – including the pump itself, installation and new plumbing – to be as low as £8,000. With a government grant of £7,500 that brings the bill to the householder down to just £500, considerably less than the £1,500-£2,500 cost of a new boiler. He expects demand to pick up and wonders whether the UK will have enough engineers to meet it.
Even so, Thomas finds he has work to do in order to persuade Park House Gardens that the economics stack up. Concerns are raised about all the add-on costs, such as insulating walls, installing double-glazing and redecoration, the bills for which can easily add £20,000 to the total cost.
Lucy MacArthur, a safeguarding officer, fears that what might start off being £7,500 for a heat pump could spiral to more like £35,000 or £40,000. She says: “My heart is there but my head isn’t. I would really like to do it but I don’t want to spend £30,000 on insulation. That’s not part of my budget.”
She asks Thomas whether he has been through a winter with a home heated by a heat pump. “Yes,” he says, because they are designed to work even in sub-zero winter temperatures. “The question is not whether heat pumps work but whether the house is ready for it.”
Artist Lesley Bower says: “For me it’s a problem. I have carefully tended my gas boiler, which is 17 years old but it still works OK. I’m dreading when it breaks down.
“People need to know they have to do a lot of preparatory work in these old houses. I’m not sure that’s the message coming through.
“I could do it but wouldn’t spend £20,000 on it. Grants for insulation are critical, I think. If the money was available the first thing I would do is replace the window with double glazing and then I would do the insulation. It is not just the pump, it’s the other stuff you have to do.”
Thomas and two Octopus energy colleagues spend three hours surveying Amanda Carey-McDermott’s house for a heat pump and she says she will go ahead and get one. “My boiler is not that old but we already have an electric car. It seems like the logical next step.”
Carey-McDermott, an NHS chief operating officer, says her only reservations are about the disruption rather than the cost. “We are not that price sensitive. It is more about the changes to the house. There is a lot of enthusiasm in the street for making the switch.”
The environmental campaigner Colin Hines says his motivation for getting a heat pump is to “get off gas” but he realises that financing the switch is an issue, not just for his neighbours but for millions of others across the country. Hines wants the government to kickstart heat pump installation by paying both for 100,000 air source heat pumps and 50,000 ground source heat pumps – and the full costs of installing them across the country.
For MacArthur, a bit of extra financial support would be welcome. “My gas boiler has a leak and I am living in hope that it won’t break down.”
“I always wanted to do it from the word go but it feels like a leap into the unknown,” she says. But her immediate need is to find the cash to replace windows that are cracked and window frames that are rotting, for which she has been given an estimate of £20,000. “The will is there, the money isn’t.”