Illegal trade


08 August 2023

Epidemic of illegal plumbing equipment will worsen with heat pump rollout – unless the Government steps in by Chris Skeen, Global Product Director at Grundfos

The illegal trade of falsely certified circulator pumps counts for at least 10 per cent of annual sales in the UK. With sales reaching around a million a year according to the BPMA, this amounts to tens of thousands of non-compliant devices being sold every year. There’s a good chance one is in your home or workplace.

This was a conservative estimate. What’s more, with heat pump heating systems there is often the need for more circulator pumps, sometimes three times that of a traditional gas combi boiler system. So, this issue could be exacerbated without the Government factoring a solution into its heat pump rollout plan.

The Government must act now to help the industry stop this epidemic which is bad for both compliant manufacturers and consumers trying to save on energy bills. It will only get worse when the nationwide rollout of heat pumps gains momentum.


The problem

A circulator pump pushes hot water around a heating system. To achieve an efficiency level that meets minimum European requirements, they must be fitted with smart technology that enables them to modulate their speed.

In contrast, pumps which do not contain this technology – and which can therefore be manufactured at a fraction of the cost – appear on the shelves of major wholesalers across the UK.

It’s important to stress that the merchants are not at fault, nor are the plumbers who purchase these pumps and install them in buildings nationwide. They are being duped by fake “CE” labels that wrongly reassure onlookers that they have met strict eco-design rules.

“CE” labels generally stand for “Conformite Europeenne” to certify that a product conforms with European health, safety, and environmental protection laws. However, the subtly different labels applied to these pumps actually stand for “China Export”, having been manufactured in the Far East and exported without mandatory testing.

This issue has only been getting worse in recent years. Microchip shortages and a spike in home renovations over lockdown widened the gulf between supply and demand. Cynical exporters have thus seized the opportunity to fill this gap in the market.


The consequences

This is a bad time for consumers to have inefficient circulator pumps installed in their homes. Spiralling energy prices meant that two thirds of Brits were worried about being able to pay their bills last winter, with a lack of awareness around energy efficiency causing many households to lose out on potential savings.

Indeed, few people have heard of the humble circulator pump despite it being the third-biggest energy-sapping device in the home. On average, heating systems account for 60 per cent of household energy consumption, so the benefits of installing a more efficient circulator are clear.

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A typical energy efficient electronic pump will cost around £100, but the falsely labelled alternatives can cost around half of this – until they are installed.

The average household will miss out on energy bill savings of up to £110 a year because the cheaper imports run at full speed all the time and are therefore far less efficient.

These losses will be compounded with the introduction of heat pumps, which can contain three times the number of circulators as a traditional gas combi boiler system. If the Government is serious about pursuing this technology as part of its strategy for achieving net zero, then it simply must act.

What’s more, with cheaper imports undercutting compliant models that contain the right technology, the Government’s failure to act on this issue inadvertently hampers British business. UK-based manufacturers are essentially being penalised for following the rules, likely leading to job losses when they can no longer afford to keep up with the corner-cutting competition.


The solution?

Government has to step in. Illegal pumps inflict negative consequences on UK consumers and businesses, and no other European country experiences this problem on anything like the same scale.

On the one hand, UK trading standards teams have taken down several websites advertising the products. On the other, there has been little attempt to act against them being sold in plumbers’ merchants.

Moreover, there is no record of any fines being handed down in the UK to any of the companies breaching eco-design rules. These facts inevitably raise questions about the Government’s commitment to improving energy efficiency.

Government must urgently come to the table with legitimate manufacturers to discuss the issue and improve public awareness. People must understand the problem’s scale and its role in holding back efforts to improve energy efficiency.

After all, what other types of falsely labelled equipment could be entering the UK and being wrongly sold? For the Government to reassure consumers and businesses that it does indeed take the energy crisis seriously, it must clamp down on this illegal activity that is both financially and environmentally damaging.