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A cautionary tale of a heat pump gone wrong

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 13 April 2012 at 9:06 am

"Our Peak district farm offers self-catering accommodation in eco-renovated barns," write Paul & Elspeth Walker. "When we recently developed an adjoining building as a venue for courses and public events it was an opportunity to enhance the alternative energy potential of the site.

"So in 2009 we engaged a specialist company to evaluate the most appropriate system. They carried out what we assumed to be, at the time, a comprehensive survey and recommended a ground-source heat pump.

"What they failed to include were calculations relating to the electricity supply, which is relayed via underground cable some 440 metres from the meter. Over such a distance, this results in a voltage reduction.

"From enquiries made subsequently to several other suppliers, we’ve learned that they all evaluate the adequacy of the electricity supply as an integral part of initial surveys. This wasn’t done for us. At the time we hadn’t realised the importance of this: had we done so an alternative to this heating system would have been chosen. The installers refuse to accept any responsibility for omitting this essential element from their preliminary survey.

"As a result, far from the automatic system we expected, we have to monitor the heat pump daily. Tripping-out is frequent, sometimes requiring re-programming of the machine twice a day.

Anyone considering installing a mains operated heat pump on remote sites should therefore beware, lest they find themselves in a similarly expensive white elephant situation with little chance of remediation."

Appropriately installed, heat pumps can work well, but as the Energy Saving Trust found in its field trials, not all installations come up to scratch. Click the link to read our 12 tips for people thinking of installing a heat pump.


If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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6 comments - read them below or add one


banjaxComment left on: 18 April 2012 at 11:19 pm

I am curious as to whether a wind turbine could be utilised to increase the efficiency of h-ps in remote areas ?

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Bob Irving

Bob IrvingComment left on: 14 April 2012 at 11:06 am

It's unlikely that PV would be able to balance the load of a heat pump. After all, PV is at its best when the sun is shining, which is not a good match for a heating system. Most heat pumps are at least a 4 kw load, so you would need a substantial turbine to balance that as well. Unfortunately, even if you could balance the load on site, you would also have to allow for periods when the turbine was not working, so the incoming mains supply would have to be substantial enough to carry the h-p load. 

All this assumes that you have a conventional, inefficient UK-style, rather than a passivhaus... 

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banjaxComment left on: 13 April 2012 at 4:56 pm

Could PV or a wind turbine solve the issue of houses where the mains electricity supply is least able to cope with the extra load of an h-ps ?

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Bob Irving

Bob IrvingComment left on: 13 April 2012 at 11:23 am

Sorry, meant to say that it is all very well encouraging people with off-gas grid homes to install h-ps, but these are also the houses where the mains electricity supply is least able to cope with the extra load. 

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Bob Irving

Bob IrvingComment left on: 13 April 2012 at 11:21 am

Highly relevant to this is the experience of Community Energy Solutions at North Blyth, when they found that a) the mains supply to the village had to be up-rated to take the heat pump load; b) the configuration of the spurs to houses meant that h-ps could only be installed in alternate houses. Quality of of h-p installers also left much to be desired.

Lacey, David Presentation to Ecobuild 2010  

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Green Directions

Green DirectionsComment left on: 13 April 2012 at 9:59 am

This is a very frustrating experience and one that we are familiar with. We do not have the specific problem highlighted but, in installing a number of renewable technologies, we have encountered similar problems.  

The problems are not confined to suppliers not appreciating all the factors involved in installing products. Manufacturers bring products to new markets without necessarily planning for the peculiarities of the energy infrastructure that they are hooking up to.

Our heat pumps have mostly worked fine but the installing company did not have a good service model in 2005 when we bought from them and so we had to solve a lot of problems ourselves. They have since been taken over and the new company has 'cleverly' worked out that servicing installations is not as profitable as selling new systems. They have therefore withdrawn from this market and only service within guarantee terms. This leaves customers who took the plunge with the technology struggling to find reliable servicing. I would argue that this is irresponsible corporate behaviour and one that is damaging to the credibility of the industry.

We are currently experiencing difficulties with our new turbine installation. Cut outs are occuring, probably because of voltage incompatibilities with the grid. The power company, the manufacturer and the installer have so far made some changes which have improved the situation but the matter is not resolved. Again it surprises me that this interface issue is not something programmed in for consideration at the start of the installation process.

Another by-product of the new turbine installation is that 'heat dumps' have been installed into our cellar. Despite their name the manufacturer says that they should not get hot. They do! When it is windy the part of the cellar they are in rises to over 90*F! I have had to move my hanging hams and chorizo elsewhere!!!!!

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