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Decarbonising Social Housing: A New Era of Low-carbon Heating for UK Tower Blocks

When it comes to installing low-carbon heating in the UK’s tower blocks, heat pumps may not be the best solution. Oliver Baker, CEO of Ambion Heating, takes a closer look at an alternative that provides a cost-effective and sustainable solution to decarbonising social housing.

Ambion Heating

The majority of Britain’s tower blocks were originally designed to provide affordable and safe housing to many, replacing damaged or unsanitary pre-war dwellings. However, despite the designer’s original intentions, tower blocks are now notorious for high energy bills.

Most high-rise, multi-occupancy buildings use electric storage heaters that are expensive to run and don’t provide adequate temperature control. This type of heating system presents a serious challenge in the case of social housing, where residents are particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty.

Local authorities are starting to redevelop sites to provide high-density, modern, energy-efficient social housing. As a result, local authorities, housing associations and installers are considering new ways to help residents to reduce bills, while decarbonising social housing to meet the Government’s net-zero targets.
A key part of the answer is installing low-carbon heating within new builds and retrofit projects.

Heat pumps aren’t the only solution

At the heart of the challenge is how to replace often decades-old systems with affordable, energy-efficient technologies that keep residents out of fuel poverty. Convection electric heating systems, such as heat pumps, don’t address the high cost of energy and often have large upfront costs and a lengthy, complicated and often disruptive installation process.

In addition, a large heat pump system requires space that is often not available in multi-storey properties, requiring pipework, radiators and external condenser units. They also need regular service and maintenance, adding additional expense for providers looking for ways to reduce heating costs.

At the same time, heat pumps are not as effective in combating mould and damp issues. Combined with the age and design flaws of many tower blocks, convectional heating systems – including heat pumps – can lead to issues with damp, mould and condensation, and can cause or aggravate respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies.
With proper renovation and the right heating system, tower blocks can provide good-quality housing for millions of people, while also helping the UK cut carbon emissionscaused by inefficient home heating.

However, traditional systems are failing to ensure the whole home is adequately and efficiently heated, and options like heat pumps are considered unsuitable or impractical for smaller social housing properties.

This means that many housing providers are turning to alternatives, such as low-carbon heat panels, as a solution.

A low-carbon and low-cost solution

Low-carbon infrared heating panels are ideal for tower blocks, as they overcome all the challenges of traditional convection systems, as well as the environmental concerns of gas heating. Moreover, their sleek, space-saving design makes them perfect for smaller living spaces, where there is no room for a central boiler or heat pump unit.

Low-carbon heat panels can be installed in a new home or building, or retrofitted to replace an existing gas or electric heating system using the electrical mains wiring.
Infrared heat works like the sun, without the ultraviolet. It is absorbed and stored as heat by the fabric of the building and the materials within a room, which makes it easier to maintain an ambient temperature for longer.

The technology has a unique control system, which uses constant dynamic pulsing – rather than a ‘zoning’ on/off approach used by other systems – to dramatically reduce energy usage and maintain a room’s temperature within 0.1°C of its target, 24 hours a day.

Discreet infrared heat panels are then used because building materials absorb and store infrared, releasing it between pulses, making it the perfect partner for the pulsing approach.

The results of using dynamic pulsing plus the infrared panels are significant – users can expect to use 63% less electricity when compared to conventional systems – which also equates to a 63% reduction in carbon emissions.

The system also reduces the unit cost of electricity because it works best across 24 hours. This flat demand profile – there are no morning or evening energy spikes in usage – means that if a homeowner is on a flexi tariff, the system can achieve around a 25% saving in the unit cost of their energy.

In addition, installation is quick, easy and hassle free to minimise disruption to residents, as no pipework or radiators are needed. They can be installed by any qualified electrician, and the cost of installation is half that of a heat pump. Additionally, the panels have 33 years’ average active lifespan, as opposed to 10 years for traditional convection systems.

Many housing providers are already reaping the rewards of choosing low-carbon heat panels. In an eight-storey social housing block from 1956, which contains 47 dwellings, the switch to Ambion’s solution saw energy usage drop by 80%, energy costs fall by 74% and carbon emissions cut by 80%.

Low-carbon heat panels can also provide a zero-emission solution for social housing when combined with solar PV and battery storage, until the UK can move to 100% renewable electricity in the future.

Meeting the 2050 net-zero challenge

According to the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, it is estimated that around 17% of all UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from buildings, mainly due to burning fossil fuels for heating. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the challenge of fitting the UK’s homes with greener heating systems has been, and continues to be, a key focus of recent Government policies.

To meet the UK’s legally-binding target of achieving net zero by 2050, whatever heating solution is chosen needs to be built for the future to radically reduce carbon emissions and the associated impact on the environment.

Living in a warm and safe environment is critical to our health and wellbeing. Britain’s tower blocks often get bad press, but there’s an incredible opportunity to intelligently renovate this housing stock and extend the life of these buildings as warm, comfortable and net-zero homes.

Tower blocks may pose unique heating challenges, but with forward-looking technology, new builds and refurbished tower blocks can be futureproofed and provide the affordable, sustainable and safe housing they originally were designed for.

Contact Ambion Heating

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