Heating engineers, skills and heat decarbonisation

05 Sep 2019

“A large town’s worth of people”

A large town’s worth of people are responsible for specifying, installing, maintaining and servicing the heating systems that keep our homes and buildings warm and allow us to enjoy on-demand hot water. There are 130,000 heating engineers registered with Gas Safe (1) alone and there will be more engineers who work on oil, electric and renewable heating. This compares to the 65,000 working in civil nuclear in 2017.

Heating engineers have expertise in electrics, plumbing, pipe-work fitting, system design and selection and increasingly, internet connectivity and controls. However, if the UK is to make the transformation from fossil fuel based heating to sustainable heating, a great deal of change is required. Quite simply, in 2050 if the net-zero target is to be met, no fossil gas, oil or coal can be burnt for space and hot water heating.

This transformation will need to include energy efficiency upgrades, new heating appliances such as heat pumps and solar thermal, the growth of district heating and the potential for new heating distribution systems (i.e. new radiators and underfloor heating). The deployment of low-carbon hydrogen (if possible) would require new boilers, potentially new in-building gas pipework and local conversion programmes. Clearly the impacts on, and need for, the heat engineer workforce to support the clean heating transition are huge.

Impacts on the heat engineering workforce

Currently, two impacts on the heat engineering workforce seem likely if heat is to be decarbonised.

  1. New skills will be required. Heat pumps require careful sizing and installation. It is by no means rocket science to install a heat pump but, there are extra things to consider which for gas boilers aren’t as critical. (2)
  2. More engineers will probably be needed. Low carbon heating appliances can be heavier and take longer to install and more work will need to take place.
Challenges ahead
But despite the scale of the transformation and what seems to be significant upcoming changes for the heating engineer industry, policy makers and academic researchers (bar one or two) haven’t given much thought to this large chunk of the UK’s energy sector industry and what decarbonisation may mean for it.
 

The sector is primarily formed of micro-businesses with many engineers self-employed and as a result, the industry doesn’t have a single voice and there is no trade union as such (3). My experience also tells me that most engineers don’t trust the Government or large corporates who supply energy and also manufacture the kit which is installed. I’m too scared to ask how they feel about academics! The dispersed nature of heating engineers and their apparent distrust at elements of the energy sector means the engagement around heat decarbonisation may be difficult.  

Installers’ importance recognised in research

Research into retrofit projects has highlighted the potential importance of the trades, including heating engineers, influencing consumer preferences for low carbon technologies. Faye Wade’s PhD thesis highlighted the role of heating engineers in shaping how energy is consumed in UK buildings and called for a greater understanding of and engagement with heating engineers around decarbonisation issues. Associated articles focused on the general role of these ‘missing middlemen’ and the potential importance of engagement and on the role of the relationship between engineers, builder’s merchants and sales reps in driving decisions.

Since Faye’s work, it not clear that much has happened on this issue from a research or policy perspective. While it was good to see BEIS recognise the importance of engineers in their heat evidence review following on from work on incumbency in the UK heat sector, it’s not yet evident that much has happened on the ground. We do however know that new t-level content for building services engineer has been agreed but, it’s not clear on how the engineering industry was engaged for this and how specifically it links to heat decarbonisation (there are some mentions of ‘sustainability’).

Engaging engineers is essential

It is worth noting, that social media is becoming increasingly used by heating engineers as a way of networking with well-known installers having many thousands of Twitter or Instagram followers. The development of these social networks could be an interesting area for research and engagement.

The results of the current cross-trade association heating engineer survey may also be useful and it would be great if the resulting data could be shared.

Heating engineers are absolutely central to heating in the UK and are therefore going to be a huge part of the UK’s heat transformation (if it happens). If engineers aren’t correctly skilled for or indeed supportive of the transformation, this could have a significant impact on heat decarbonisation and the UK’s energy goals. The mixed messages given by appliance manufacturers, all promoting various interests, also mean that the debate is already deeply confusing.

In light of the size and importance of this sector and the even more stringent net-zero target for 2050 it seems sensible to re-emphasize the previous suggestion for greater research into the heat engineer sector and a much greater appreciation of and engagement with it by policy makers. While there may not be an obvious pathway for engagement, it’s clearly worth doing.

I’d also make a suggestion for any heating engineers who read this blog; there’s a lot going on in the energy world at the moment and there might be value in engaging with these policy debates. There is a risk if you don’t that, new rules and regulations will be developed and you won’t have had any say.

Conclusion: rethinking the heat puzzle

There’s a tendency to think of new green jobs as being associated with heavy engineering and big construction projects. For the heat half of the puzzle, it looks like carpenters, electricians, plumbers and heating engineers may be the most important industry and if we ignore this huge workforce, our goals for clean energy may be even more at risk.

N.B. This blog forms part of ‘The Heat Network’ project which forms part of UKERC’s ‘Whole Systems Networking Fund’.

Notes

(1) Personal communication with Gas Safe. Gas Safe is a legally required accreditation for those work on gas in buildings. 

(2) Includes things like different controls, placement of temperature sensors, requirement for external unit, more complex electrics and requirement of hot water tank.

(3) Engineers can register with the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers if they choose to but this is a not a requirement.