19 June 2023
We will have to create a new ‘profession’ of low carbon heating engineers with the skills to transform whole buildings to meet the government’s heat pump target, says BESA’s Director of Training and Skills Helen Yeulet.
When the government set a target of 600,000 heat pump installations every year by 2028 it was calling for the market to grow by a factor of 20 in just eight years. An extraordinary challenge.
There are currently around 130,000 Gas Safe registered engineers fitting boilers and doing other gas work. If we are going to rely on the existing workforce to deliver the heat pump challenge, we would need almost all of them to upskill because few will switch over completely as the replacement boiler market has still got plenty of life left.
Boilers are only being banned in new properties from 2025 and more than 1.6 million are still being fitted in UK homes every year. Gas boilers will still be with us well into the 2030s.
Also, at the moment there are just 1,500 MCS accredited businesses able to design and install heat pumps which explains why the government’s boiler upgrade scheme (BUS) has been such a slow starter. Finding local, reputable firms able to take up the heat pump offer is a real challenge for homeowners.
A recent survey by the heating manufacturer Vaillant found that 82% of the 1,300 installers registered on its loyalty programme were not currently working with heat pumps. Most said they were keen to upskill, but many are hesitating because they remain cautious about government ‘green’ initiatives. Consumer understanding and awareness remains low and would benefit from a concerted information campaign.
However, politicians are lining up to back heat pumps. Alan Whitehead, Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, reiterated Labour’s support for making them “the norm” for UK homes when he spoke at a House of Lords event hosted by Vaillant. But he stressed that heat pumps would only succeed as part of “a whole home retrofit programme” including the necessary insulation improvements and other measures to ensure overall energy efficiency.
This is something BESA has been calling for as this can’t be about heat pumps in isolation. They need to be part of a bigger picture where whole buildings are retrofitted to improve energy efficiency and ensure we get the maximum energy and carbon savings possible. It calls for a holistic approach that also includes the potential to support heat networks to stretch the benefits across whole communities.
To make the 600,000 target meaningful, it needs to be the catalyst for a retrofit programme delivered by a ‘new profession’ of low carbon installers capable of making multiple changes to buildings – and this is very much the focus of BESA’s new heat pump training. It’s not so much the number of heat pumps we manage to fit but what that means for wider energy and carbon goals
BESA’s new ‘hybrid’ training model looks at the overall performance of the installation with students given the skills to correctly specify and install low temperature heating systems, accurately size components, commission, and handover systems properly, as well as carrying out lifecycle maintenance.
This is the next phase of a programme the Association runs in partnership with MCS and heating equipment manufacturer Worcester Bosch with important support from colleges and other training providers. The first phase of online training was completed by 1,000 installers and this new course blends practical training and online learning. The first 400 places are being offered free of charge.
BESA is able to do this because we were one of the organisations to benefit from the £9.2m of funding provided by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (formerly part of BEIS) to support heat pump and energy efficiency training across England.
This next phase is being delivered through the Association’s online training Academy and will run until the end of July. It includes a two-day practical element as well as five hours of online theory which can be completed in ‘bite size chunks’ at the convenience of the student. The two days practical and the final assessment will take place at one of BESA’s approved local colleges or training centres.
The Electrification of Heat Demonstration Project, which was also funded by the department then known as BEIS, proved that most houses can be retrofitted to accept heat pumps, but it did illustrate the need for more innovation to overcome some of the barriers to a widespread roll out of the technology.
Cost remains a problem because a whole retrofit is considerably more expensive than simply replacing a boiler and many householders are also concerned about disruption. However, the pilot project demonstrated the huge potential for heat pumps, if we can scale up the training to expand the skilled workforce – and overcome some of the current industry’s reluctance.
We are facing a race against time to keep the decarbonisation of UK heating on track, which is why we have adapted BESA’s approach. For example, ‘training the trainers’ was a key element of BESA’s successful application for additional funding as we can help to extend the network of Further Education colleges and independent training centres able to deliver heat pump courses.
So far this includes Hartlepool College of Further Education, Leicester College, Choice Training in Dagenham, and EAS Mechanical Ltd of Northampton, but the additional funding will allow us to extend the network and support more skilled trainers to deliver meaningful, practical training so heat pump technology performs to its full potential.
The hands-on practicality of the course and the final assessment process we have developed with Worcester Bosch was another element appreciated by the government.
Upskilling to become a heat pump installer is a great way to future-proof your business while helping homeowners and businesses reduce their energy bills and contribute to our long-term battle against climate change. As MCS certification is now more widely recognised as the industry standard, it is important that installers are also helped to navigate their way through the system as part of their training so they can quickly start applying their skills in the marketplace.
Training should also help installers explain the various options to homeowners and commercial building customers which is a good way to gain a reputation as a knowledgeable and trustworthy business while also plugging part of that knowledge gap that is holding back consumer confidence.
A heat pump combines elements of air conditioning, refrigeration, and heating and requires the engineer to have wider expertise in improving the building fabric so is ideally suited to sit at the heart of a wider decarbonisation strategy.
Heat pump technology can, therefore, be the launchpad for a new generation of low carbon ‘retrofit engineers’ trained to take a holistic approach to building services and the decarbonisation of complete buildings.
To register your interest in BESA’s heat pump training visit: www.thebesa.com/besa-academy