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Debunking heat pump myths

By Jan Rosenow

Apr 11 2023 · 5 min read

Illuminem Voices
Green Tech · illuminemX · Power & Utilities

Social media and newspapers are flooded with myths about heat pumps. Let's take them one by one in this post.

Myth 1: “Heat pumps don’t work in cold climates.”

False. Most heat pumps can be found in the coldest climates. More than half of all households in Norway have one as our research shows.

Number of heat pumps per household by country
Source: Nature

Myth 2: "Heat pumps don't perform when it's cold."

Mainly false. Even at temperatures below freezing, heat pumps still perform well as field data shows. For very cold temperatures, well below-freezing hybrid systems may be needed. Here's a great Twitter thread with lots of resources.

Myth 3: “Heat pumps don’t work in existing buildings.”

False. From long-standing research: “The research results clearly show that heat pumps as heating source function reliably also in existing buildings. As a rule, the units worked flawlessly.”

Myth 4: “Heat pumps don’t work in old buildings.”

False. Recent results from the UK indicate that there is no significant variation in performance based on house age. I also had a heat pump in my home until 2019 that was built in 1880 and performing very well.

Myth 5: “Heat pumps cost more to run & increase heating bills.”

This depends on energy prices in your country. The IEA produced a handy interactive calculation tool that allows you to explore & compare the economics of different residential heating systems.

Myth 6: “A heat pump needs to stay on all the time.”

You never switch the heat pump off manually but this does not mean the heat pump is operating all the time. The system automatically adjusts to outside and indoor temperatures and ramps down when it is warmer.

Myth 7: “Heat pumps work with underfloor heating only.”

Heat pumps work well with radiators too. In some cases, the radiators may need upgrading. But it has been common practice in recent years for heating installers to 'oversize' radiators. 

Myth 8: “Heat pumps won’t keep you warm.”

Most households that installed a heat pump report that they are as comfortable or more comfortable than before the installation. In a survey conducted by CoolProducts EU, 81% reported their level of comfort to have improved.

Coolproducts Comfort

Source: CoolProducts EU

Myth 9: “Heat pumps are noisy.”

Ground source heat pumps make very little noise. Air source heat pumps can be quiet too, as this video shows. Also, it is worth remembering that when you're out in the garden in the summer, heat pumps usually don't run as no heating is required. 

Myth 10: "Heat pumps only work in highly insulated buildings."

False. Research demonstrates that:

"Houses do not have to be extensively renovated in order to allow for an installation of a heat pump." 

But good fabric efficiency offers energy system benefits and keeps costs down.

Myth 11: "Turning gas to electricity to heat via a heat pump is less efficient than burning gas in a boiler."

False. At SCOP 3, a heat pump even if running 100% on gas electricity needs ~1/3 less gas to make the same amount of heat as a boiler. Heat pumps reduce gas even if they use electricity from 100% gas. Professor Sir David MacKay said this already in 2008:

"Heat pumps are superior in efficiency to condensing boilers, even if the heat pumps are powered by electricity from a power station burning natural gas."

Myth 12: “Heat pumps devalue properties.”

False. The evidence suggests the opposite. Heat pumps increase the value of properties.

“Residences with an air source heat pump enjoy a 4.3–7.1% (or US$10,400–17,000) price premium on average.” 

Research by Savills shows that homes with heat pumps demand a premium compared to regional averages.

Myth 13: "Heat pumps are unaffordable."

Partially true. But many countries offer subsidies for heat pumps and, with running costs included, heat pumps can offer lifetime savings over fossil fuel systems. But it depends on the country. Some examples are provided in this report by the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP).

Myth 14: "The grid cannot cope with heat pumps."

Partially true. In many places, there is capacity in the grid to supply electricity for more heat pumps. But with significant heat pump uptake electricity demand will grow and grid investment is needed

Myth 15: "Heat pumps are the only low-carbon solution for heating."

False. Better fabric efficiency and district heating are very important too and can offer large system benefits in terms of flexibility and system benefits as our research shows.

Myth 16: "Heat pumps cannot be installed in small apartments."

False. There are projects where tower blocks use ground source heat pumps, for example from Kensa Heat Pumps. And large heat pumps can fuel district heating networks connecting apartments. 

Myth 17: "Heat pumps will just run on fossil fuel electricity."

False. It is true that most power grids still include a lot of fossil generation. But every year substantial amounts of renewables are added to the grid, driving out fossil generation. 

Myth 18: "You will freeze during a power cut and be better off with a gas boiler."

It is true that during a power cut, heat pumps cannot function. But the same is the case for a gas boiler.

Myth 19: "There is no consumer demand for heat pumps."

False. 2022 saw record growth in heat pump sales in Europe as our piece in Carbon Brief shows. In the US, more than 4 million heat pumps were sold, surpassing gas furnace sales for the first time. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr Jan Rosenow is a Principal and the Director of European Programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) and an Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Jan has several board appointments including the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, and is also considered by Onalytica among the 25 top influencers in Renewables and Future of Energy.

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