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The future of electric heating

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The future of electric heating

The Future of Electric Heating. Masterclass at HomeBuilding and Renovating Show. NEC 2016

Today we’re going to look at the future of electric heating, its applications and look at the types of heating that makes up what is an ever increasing category and how we see in the mid to long term we see this growing and changing.

To start off we’re going to look at where it came from and how it evolved. Lets start, very briefly with a whistle stop tour of the history of electric heating.

The history of electric heating

Ever since we started to cohabit, we’ve had a need to warm our dwellings. Electric heating is relatively new. It took until 1880 for the first electric heater to be invented and made. It actually predated the electrification act and the national grid, so it really was a very modern way of heating. At the time it was seen as quite quirky. In 1882 we saw the electrification of the UK and one of the first models of electric heaters was made by a company called Benwell who also made electric lightbulbs up in the North East of England. They used these two huge resisting light bulbs which they described as “generating resisting heat and a comforting orange glow”. I pretty sure they would looking at the size of them.

It didn’t really catch on, partly because of the lack of infrastructure in the country, but as the grid started to grow and power stations developed and we moved away from private homes generating to a national grid, it really started to grow in popularity. So, effectively the power generators in the UK started to exploit methods such as storage heaters to level out the demand for electricity. You can’t quickly turn down a power station at night, so while people and industry are busy and need the electricity in the grid its great, but when every one goes home they can’t back the power station down very quickly. So storage heaters were pushed by the utility companies and actually became very popular in the post war era.

As we move to the 1970’s they were still really popular in the UK. BUT, two things happened in the 1970’s. There was quite a lot of unrest. Some of you will remember the Suez crisis. Electric prices were quite cheap but that really jacked up the price of electric in the UK. And the second thing was that it became really unstable. We had the three day week. Power outages were very common and if you had electric heating it wasn’t a great time to try to keep warm. Certainly not for 4 days a week at least.

Electric heating today

So it’s quite amazing that electric heating managed to survive this, but it did. So that brings us to modern-day electric heating. And it’s a good time to ask the question “Who uses electric heating now?”. Why is it still around seeing as it had such a difficult birth. It’s possible not who you think. Certainly when I think of electric heating, I work with it everyday so I’ve probably got a different perspective than most people. So if I go down to the pub and ask the question people say storage heaters, panel heaters in bedsits. That’s what people think, but it’s not always the case.

In the UK we predominantly look to mains gas as the primary method of heating. I think that’s accepted and the norm in the UK. Often, people don’t have a choice.

In the UK, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in their 2007 report, half a million postcodes, that’s postcodes not properties, in the UK weren’t on the gas grid. And you might be surprised to learn that of those properties almost half of them were in urban areas, not in urban areas as most people may think. 90% of urban off grid areas will have to rely on electricity for a number of different factors. You can’t bring in things like heating oil into a densely populated area because of rules and regulations around where you can site oil tanks. And not just that, but the infrastructure of how you would bring those goods in and deliver them inhibits them. Then there are issues of how you could heat large properties like converted mills and apartments. Legislation prevents any development or buildings over 5 stories using gas.

When we talk about electric heating now there are actually quite a few different options. We’ve got some here that you will recognise.

Storage heaters. These were really popular post war. They were used to encourage people to level out the over night demand for for utilities. They would take a draw of electricity through the night and normally you’d be given a cheaper energy rate for doing so. Most people who have lived with storage heaters tend to complain that they are very difficult to control. You have to preempt the weather and charge them in advance. They emit their heat through the day, so if you’re out at work you’re heating an empty home and then they get cold in the evening. However, with the modern breed of electric storage heaters they are becoming more controllable and more programmable than ever before.

Infrared heating panel are quite new in a domestic setting in the UK. It’s a radiant heater, which is to say that it doesn’t heat the air space but the objects that come into contact with it. An example of radiant heat is if you’re stood near a bonfire. You can feel the heat of the bonfire, even if you’re stood quite a way away, but it’s not heating the airspace, just you.

They have some fantastic applications. If you’re looking to heat a large open space area these are really good. You might have seen these if you go to a smoking shelter where they are common place. Also in places like large open space cafes in shopping centres, it would be inhibitively expensive to heat the air space so these are becoming popular.

Then we have electric radiators in the middle. They feel more like what we are used to in terms of conventional, wet radiators. They are more controllable as most of them now have individual built in thermostats. You can programme them and you can start to zone your heating. As each one is a stand alone heating solution you can programme the one in your living room quite differently to the one in your bedroom. That reduces the waste heating in a property improving the overall comfort but reducing the running costs.

There are broad categories even within some of these so even when we talk about electric radiators you’ll find there are lots of options available to you. To choose the best electric radiator for you, consider the following; how your property operates, the structure of the building, insulation levels. You’ll find that there are many different thermal mediums or ‘fillings’ for the radiators. Some will have no ‘filling’ at all like a convector heater with exposed elements, some will be made from solid metals others will be made with ceramic or filled with oil. They all have different thermal qualities that heat quite differently and give off heat in different ways, so you need to have a look at that and take some advice on what’s best for you to use to heat your property.

Other things that people don’t consider as electric heating can be quite interesting too. For example, an air source heat pump exchange unit is a type of electric heating. The electric powers the pump, which extracts the heat from the air and converts it into hot water typically, sometimes warm air. The water is then pumped around either under floor pipes or into radiators. Some air source heat pumps can work backwards so they can effectively cool properties as well. They are often regarded as an excellent choice as they turn 1 kilowatt of electricity into 3.5 kilowatt of usable heat. That’s what’s known as a Coefficient of performance or COP.

The COP is what it consumes turned into what it produces, so 3.5 means that 3.5 units of heat are produced for every 1 unit consumed. However, the manufacturers state COPs can be affected by the weather. So they work at different rates during the summer compared to the winter. As the pumps have to work harder during cold weather to produce the heat, so in winter you may find the COP drops from 3.5 to 2.5. Air source heat pumps typical cost of installation is around £7000.

Ground source heat pumps require a trench for the heat exchange to go in. Ground source heat pumps are similar to air source heat pumps but they extract the heat from the ground not the air. They require quite a lot of thought as you need to consider where you’re going to dig your bore holes to lay the infrastructure. The cost is quite high at the moment, up to around £15000 to install. The advantage of the ground source heat pump over air source heat pump is that the ground temperature in the UK doesn’t fluctuate much at all so you get a more consistent COP.

In terms of performance, manufacturers of ground source heat pumps claim a consistent COP of 4. So for every 1 kilowatt of electricity they consume you will get 4 kilowatts of heat out and that’s all year round.

So that’s the current breed of electric heating. It’s quite a wide and varied category. But what’s the future of electric heating?

The future? Renewable, green technology

All of these electric heating methods can be as carbon efficient or green as you want them to be depending on where you want to source your energy from. The problem that we have with traditional heating is that when we burn a fossil fuel we create carbon emissions. In order to reduce emmisions, we should consider what we use to heat.

It is a global issue, other countries are already tackling it, we’re starting to address is here. But, there’s more we can do as individuals, by looking at what we are using to heat our properties.

Self generation is going to be increasingly talked about as a method for heating our homes. As our population expands and we improve the number of homes we build and the housing stock quality in the UK we will see an increasing trend in self generation of power. We are already seeing incentives for new builders to put PV (solar) panels on the suitable roofs of new developments. In certain areas of the UK wind is more appropriate.

The cost of PV panels has dropped significantly. This is something we should all consider. Can we put PV panels on our roofs? Could we improve the viability by using something like the Tesla Power wall? Using this technology you can generate your own power and rather than feed the excess into the grid you can have a series of batteries installed, either externally to the property or within the building. These batteries store the power you have generated during the day and you can draw power from them when you need it.

As the technology becomes more widely available it will improve. Batteries will charge quicker and store more energy. There’s already some talk of increasing the wattage capacity of the cells we’re allowed to use on roofs in a domestic PV panels to be more inline with commercial ones. So the prospect full self generation from a normal house with a normal roof just through PV in the UK is tantalisingly close.

And then there’s things we can do to eradicate waste. Heat is one of those things that’s quite often wasted and that has an impact on two things; your pocket and the environment!

There’s something that people are talking about more and more and that’s the internet of things. That’s about connecting devices in an intelligent way. Using something that’s clever to control something that’s historically been quite dumb. Heating products have been historically quite dumb, they were either on or off. What we are now looking to do is harness the computing power that we all carry in our pockets. Your phone is really quite sophisticated. It runs many calculations and does things without you thinking about it. We want to see this controlling other devices particularly heating and cooling devices. It’s a massive growth sector and you can already see devices that you can couple with your central heating system.

Initially early adopters will offer simple controls to programme or boost from your phones. As they improve the sophistication you will see them harnessing things like the GPRS chipset. It will know relative to your property where you are and set back the temperature as you move away from your home and increase as you draw nearer. It will automatically eradicate waste heating from your home.

As technological improvement converge with microgeneration and a global desire to reduce carbon emissions, we see the future of electric heating as reducing the cost to you and the cost to the environment.

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