As we emerge into the new normal, there’s no better time to grasp affordable, available opportunities to improve the energy performance of our heating systems and buildings, says Baxi Heating’s Specification Director Tom Murray.
As buildings reopen across the UK, estates and facilities managers will be able to return to the projects previously put on hold. In its recent report, the International Energy Agency highlights the massive potential of energy efficiency to create jobs, cut bills and address climate change. It calls for Governments and the public sector to take urgent action and lead by example.
The UK – and the public sector – has some of the oldest building stock in the developed world. Given that we will continue to use the majority of these buildings in 2050, addressing their energy performance now is critical to meet the nation’s net-zero carbon goal. And while energy consumption in unoccupied buildings may have fallen during lockdown, this is, in fact, the opportune time to prioritise energy efficiency improvements before energy demand and prices rise once more.
So where to start? The Government has identified heating as a natural target for improvement. Manufacturers are busy innovating with a combination of technologies and techniques to help reduce emissions associated with heat in older buildings. The feasibility of repurposing the existing gas grid to transport green gas is also being explored by ourselves and others to offer a longer-term low disruption solution towards decarbonising our older building stock.
However, while we actively prepare for the future, it’s important not to neglect the present opportunities for energy and efficiency savings. With that in mind, let’s consider the vital role of retrofit and the practical actions that can drive down energy demand and help meet sustainability targets.
Efficiency starts with the boilers
In buildings that still rely on dated boiler plant, retrofitting high efficiency condensing gas boilers and adding the appropriate controls is one of the most cost-effective means of optimising energy performance and comfort levels.
While boiler replacements can and should be straightforward, current safe working requirements, including physical distancing, can present challenges.
One solution is to use prefabricated heating equipment as the off-site manufacturing process enables safety requirements to be more easily met and policed so that onsite health and safety remain a top priority from start to finish.
The opportunity to install multiple boilers on off-site-fabricated, bespoke-designed rigs is a case in point.
Good manufacturers will provide design input to achieve a bespoke configuration of boilers, pumps, low loss headers or plate heat exchangers. The turnkey solution can also integrate ancillary items such as controls, a dosing pot and a pressurisation unit, all of which are tailored to the specific site constraints.
Fabricated offsite in a quality-controlled factory environment, these prefabricated heating solutions are then delivered to the plant room on a wheeled frame with insulated pipework set. As they require zero on-site fabrication, they can be installed faster, reducing the time that workers need to spend on site and the number of people, thereby meeting the goal for improved site safety more easily.
Rapid, quality solution to energy-efficient heating
Rapid prefabricated options like these also enable estates managers to carry out more projects within the same timeframe without compromising on either quality or safety. So, where there is a backlog of planned heating refurbishments, or where multiple projects are scheduled to be carried out within a fixed period – in school buildings, for example – using prefabricated heating systems could prove the perfect solution.
The ability to tailor the design not only benefits the speed of installation but makes it possible to plan for easier future maintenance. If the building is to be expanded at a later date, for example, there is the option to future-proof the rig so that another boiler can be added at a later date.
Importantly, the requirement for high efficiency is also met as the configuration increases the boilers’ turndown ratio and modulation capability. This improves overall seasonal efficiency and reduces energy consumption while providing in-built redundancy for greater reliability of service.
From a facilities manager’s perspective, future maintenance is also more straightforward as the boilers are easier to isolate, remove and replace, again making it easier to adhere to safe working by reducing on-site labour. And as the boilers are identical models, only one service kit is required for further cost savings.
Economic tool to savings
In certain buildings, retrofitting lower-carbon heating equipment could also be an option. While electric heating equipment such as heat pumps will increasingly be used in new-build projects, in older buildings, there may not be the budget to upgrade the electricity supplies to meet the requirement.
In sites with high, constant demand for electricity and heat, like hospitals, leisure centres, and schools with extended opening hours, it’s worth considering the financial benefits that a technology like Combined Heat and Power (CHP) can deliver.
CHP, or cogeneration as it is also known, produces useful heat and electricity in a single highly efficient process. When replacing old or inefficient plant in existing buildings, CHP can typically reduce a building’s total primary energy usage and bills by 30% and CO2 emissions by up to 20% compared with traditional heating plant and electricity supplied solely from the grid.
In addition to the significant efficiency savings, the ability of CHP to generate on-site electricity at lower gas prices boosts returns still further, maximising available funds. With gas prices currently at around a quarter of the cost of electricity, a trend that is predicted to continue (source: BEIS), the economic case for CHP is still more attractive, especially with payback achievable within three years. A further advantage of on-site generation is the greater energy resilience and control over energy costs it offers.
CHP can also be seen as a useful tool in encouraging the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, a move considered by many as key to achieving net-zero carbon emissions. Organisations have the option to use this lower-cost electricity to provide electric vehicle charging points for their customers. Providing access to charging points in council-owned leisure centre car parks, for example, would support the national drive to carbon neutrality while helping bolster the coffers.
Prioritising energy efficiency
Energy efficiency and retrofit are a key part of the drive for a greener future, reducing energy consumption and saving money. So, it’s important not to neglect the current opportunities to reduce energy consumption from heat in buildings.
Given the large proportion of older buildings across its estates, the public sector has an important role to play in helping the UK move towards carbon neutrality and in leading by example. With the support of good manufacturers, advising on the most appropriate, cost-effective commercial heating solutions for immediate and ongoing savings in the years ahead, there’s surely no better time to act.