February 26, 2024

Is the boiler ban bad for installers?

boiler covered in yellow polic tape and a banned sign

In 2019 the then-UK chancellor Philip Hammond announced that from 2025 no new boilers would be installed in new-build homes. Instead, green alternatives such as Heat Pumps have been put forward as the heating source of the future.

On the one hand, this might sound like a good idea - our planet is in an increasing state of climate emergency and taking action to reduce our emissions seems like a responsible step to take.

The problem is these decisions don’t occur in a vacuum.

The domestic heating market is just one contributor to our national carbon footprint. In fact, according to a report from 2021, our boilers account for just 14% of the UK’s total emissions and that figure is only likely to have fallen in 2024.

The reality is that while banning boilers in new homes will help to cut carbon emissions, it will be just a drop in the ocean compared to global emission production. China alone produces over 25% of all global emissions while the US contributes 15%.

When you compare that to our measly 1% (0.14% of which is produced by boilers) you start to get a better picture of what we’re looking at.

large dark factory releasing smoke

Now of course we should acknowledge that despite our low direct emission production, we indirectly contribute to a far higher level through our general product consumption and emission outsourcing to other nations like China.

There is also a case to be made that as a developed country that has the financial means and considering our global reputation, we should be setting an example to other nations.

But even if you take all that into account, it still leaves questions about the terms of the UK boiler ban.

So what is the issue?

Although our global emission levels are low, that doesn’t mean we should just call it quits and pat ourselves on the back. We should still be striving to be greener and more sustainable, not least because we will incur fines if we fail to hit our Paris Climate Agreement targets.

However, there are still questions about the implications of banning boilers in new houses.

The predominant issue is about timing.

At some point, we need to move away from gas boilers, but whether we are ready to do so now, or by 2025, remains a point of contention.

The leading alternative, and the technology the government has decided to back, is heat pumps.

Heat pump boiler cylinder in a insulated room

While this is a promising technology, there are still significant hurdles that need to be overcome. Due to the way heat pumps work, they require a house to be well-insulated and they are also often large and noisy objects. Although improvements have been made these issues can still be a problem.

Of course, the advantage of fitting heat pumps in newly built homes is that you don’t need to retrofit the pump to a poorly insulated or unsuitable building. However, even when creating a purpose-built house, there can still be limitations that make a heat pump a poor fit.

This issue is made worse by the fact that industry knowledge is still playing catch up, with some heat pump installers still not fitting pumps to the necessary standards to ensure adequate efficiency.

Furthermore, due to the fact that heat pumps work at optimum efficiency in mild weather, this means that, at times, an alternative heat source is needed to support the pump. This means either electric heating or, you guessed it, gas boilers.

On top of all this, with an increasing reliance on electrical energy from the grid, demand will sharply rise in line with the increased number of heat pumps installed (not to mention the UK’s switch to electric cars). This will mean, at least initially, higher electricity prices and therefore bigger bills for customers.

What's more, the cost of repairing a heat pump is far higher than a boiler and a heat pump is certainly much more expensive to replace.

Considering that we are now officially in a recession and wrestling with a cost of living crisis, asking the general public to fork out on expensive heating (even with government grants and incentives) doesn’t feel acceptable.

Given all this, it seems a little foolhardy to force all new homes to install this technology so soon when it’s not always appropriate and still not widely adopted in the general market.

This attitude of rushing out new technology sooner than it’s ready could lead to substantial issues down the line. And who will pay for it? Homeowners and the taxpayer.

But what does this mean for installers?

Having covered the general implications, we still need to discuss the impact on installers and heating engineers, because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones having to fit this technology.

Currently, there are approximately 130,000 gas-safe registered heating engineers working in the UK (this doesn’t include engineers working on oil, electric or renewable sources).

To meet the UK’s target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year we’re going to need to significantly increase the number of heating engineers working on heat pumps.

Given that the heating industry is already suffering from a skills shortage, a problem that is set to only get worse, then there’s going to be a serious challenge delivering what the government are after.

It’s all well and good having ambitious targets, but when 77% of the workforce is already over 50 and likely to retire in the next 10 years, it makes these targets look a little fanciful.

Match this with the fact that many engineers are rightly sceptical about the demand for heat pumps, with 43% of surveyed engineers stating they’d need to see an increase in demand to start offering this technology, it starts to make this whole boiler ban look a bit ridiculous.

The reality is that in 2024 heat pumps are not an appealing industry for installers to get into.

Whereas a boiler install typically takes one to two days, a full heat pump installation can take up to two or three weeks. So for every heat pump install you could be fitting multiple boilers.

boiler connected to pipes in a storage shed

As a heating engineer, you’re presented with the following situation. Currently, you have a good business model, customers want and need boilers, and your business installs and maintains those boilers.

If you start to throw heat pumps into the mix this starts to complicate things.

A business would now need to hire and train engineers who can install both types of heating systems so as to future-proof their business. However, there would be no guarantee that there would be enough work to support these training costs and additional staff.

Furthermore, you are relying on the government to stay consistent with their green policies. If at any point it is decided heat pumps are not the future, then you're going to be the one left short.

And when you consider the government's history of making U-turns on decisions and the prospect of a general election around the corner, banking on heat pumps seems like a bad idea.

So in short, while the ban on adding boilers to new homes is not as bad as a flat ban on any new gas boilers it is still well short of a positive development for installers.

In an ideal world, a policy like this would not be needed. Instead, heat pumps need a chance to establish themselves as a genuine alternative, rather than them getting artificially inflated. If heat pumps are such a good solution homes owners would be choosing them without the need for incentives.

Heat pumps will get there, as might other heating technologies such as electric boilers, but rushing things through when the technology is still in its infancy is not in the best interests of heating engineers or the general public.

It will be interesting to see the short and long-term impacts of the boiler ban when it comes around next year.

Despite what’s been said let's hope that any scepticism is misplaced. After all, if clean, cheap and efficient heating is genuinely a viable option then that is something to embrace.