Martyn Bridges, Director of Technical Communication and Product Management at Worcester, Bosch Group, gives his take on 10 things the past 12 months have taught us.
- The industry’s going digital…
We are now fully immersed in a world where there is a growing interest in all sorts of connected technologies. But not only has the digital age influenced the type of products we buy, but it is also affecting how we buy them – with more and more consumers keen to purchase their goods and services online.
- Customer service expectations are rising
The proliferation of online retailers – and the almost impossibly quick service we receive from them – has had other effects, too. Consumer expectation is rising, and no doubt all installers will have encountered times when a customer has had a boiler break down in the morning and demanded for it be fixed by the afternoon. This has been a recurring theme in our conversations with heating engineers throughout the year, and is something that has begun to affect everybody in the supply chain, from global manufacturers to independent installers.
- Online advertising has levelled the playing field
Another way in which we’ve seen the industry affected is that the internet and social media have changed the way we advertise, and opened up new possibilities for enterprising heating engineers. Online tools such as Pay Per Click are not only significantly cheaper than a blanket spread of national TV advertising, but they are also much more targeted. This means it is no longer only manufacturers and energy companies who can afford to get their services in front of a wide range of potential customers.
- Lack of energy policy makes investment difficult
Since the treasury began to influence policies based on how much the cost is to implement them, we’ve seen a number of energy-related policies fall by the wayside – including the Government’s longstanding commitment to building Zero Carbon homes. The issue is that this has left manufacturers unsure as to the type of products they should be developing. What we would all like to see is a bit of direction on the future of the energy market and what that will mean for the heating industry, which allow us to commit to the design of technologies which will fit into these long-term plans.
- Renewables still aren’t working
Renewable technologies have been floundering for some time, but 2017 could well be the year that they reach a low point in sales. The general tinkering with the Renewable Heat Incentive and Feed-in Tariffs that we’ve seen over the past 12 months has shown the renewables market to be an unstable one driven by decision-makers, rather than demand from actual homeowners. It is high time that we turned to a more consistent and sensible approach.
- “Electrification of heat” not really viable
One option that does not appear to fit the bill is changing the country’s heating systems to run on electricity. The latest estimates put the total cost around £450bn – around three times more expensive than other potential solutions, such as hydrogen (of which more below). However, it is not only the expense that appears problematic. Swapping over to electricity would require the construction of 30 nuclear power stations the size of Hinckley Point, not to mention a complete change in lifestyle for the millions of Britons who rely on gas to heat their homes and cook their meals.
- You still can’t beat a combi
In fact, a report published in July by the Department for Communities and Local Government demonstrated the UK’s reliance on these traditional technologies very well. This year’s English Housing Survey found that over 45% of homes – roughly 16 million nationwide – are now equipped with a condensing combi boiler. The fact that around 1.2 million combis are being sold each year tells us that the convenience of instantaneous hot water remains hugely desirable for UK homeowners – and perhaps shows that old habits die hard, as far as our heating systems are concerned.
- Oil’s well that ends well
In a similar fashion, oil boilers – another tried and tested technology – have arguably been 2017’s biggest success story. The fuel now costs around 30% less than it did five years ago, making it the cheapest fuel for heating a home, but its price now looks increasingly stable. For the 1-2 million homes who have one of these trusty appliances installed, this means the simplest and most cost-effective solution if it fails is to simply replace it with another oil boiler.
- Changes to gas quality looking likely
Somewhat more realistic options for the future are those based around ‘greening’ the grid. This involves adapting the mains gas supply to make it cleaner. There are various forms this could take – from injecting supplies with biogas at different blends, to using imported gas of a different Wobbe number, through to the altogether more futuristic concept of heating our homes using hydrogen. All three options have looked increasingly likely over the past 12 months, but it is perhaps telling that £25m of the £35m set aside for ‘heat innovation projects’ in July was allocated specifically to investigations involving hydrogen.
- Annual servicing on the horizon?
Any change to the type of gas we use would require us to keep a closer eye on the effects this might have on the appliance itself. This means giving yearly maintenance a more prominent place in consumers’ awareness, and to a certain extent this process has already begun: ever increasing boiler warranties have led manufacturers to include annual servicing as a mandatory requirement within their terms and conditions, whilst awareness initiatives, such as Gas Safety Week, are gaining recognition among homeowners. However, as new and exciting technologies begin to make their way into our homes, regular checks of a heating system look set only to grow in significance as we move into 2018 and beyond.