Consumers need more support in order to embrace sustainable heating systems, Which? warns

Concerns over cost and a desire to keep the status quo suggest the government will need to do more to support consumers switching to more sustainable home heating systems, according to new Which? research.

UK homes produce around 20 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from natural gas used for heating and hot water.

The government has set out plans to decarbonise homes, including a ban on gas and oil boilers in new build homes from 2025, and also intends to phase out the installation of new gas boilers. This could require around 85 per cent of UK homes – 23 million customers – to transition to low-carbon heating systems such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers.

Which? supports this much-needed direction of travel, however a new survey of more than 3,000 people suggests that while consumers are eager to tackle climate change, more needs to be done to raise awareness of government plans and prepare UK households for the major changes they will need to make to their homes in the future.

Two-fifths of consumers (43%) said they were unaware of the need to move to low-carbon heating and plans to ban new gas boilers by the mid-2030s (40%).

The consumer champion also found two-fifths (39%) are currently not comfortable transitioning to low-carbon heating systems.

While the majority (94%) of consumers are regularly taking steps to reduce their home heating consumption, fewer than one in 10 (6%) have installed low-carbon heating systems so far.

Consumers are not expected to ditch functioning boilers anytime soon, however those with older boilers should be considering zero-carbon alternatives.

More than eight in 10 people (86%) identified at least one reason that is putting them off installing a low-carbon heating system in their homes, with cost being the most prevalent. More than half (56%) said they were put off changing their home heating system due to costs involved, while a third (32%) cited concerns it could lead to increased running costs.

Consumers aged 55 and above were most concerned about cost, with around seven in 10 aged between 55 and 64 (67%) and 65 and above (70%) citing it as a reason they are put off changing their home heating system.

Around three in 10 (31%) told Which? they were reluctant to change their heating system as their current one works well enough.

The heating market is also extraordinarily confusing and difficult to navigate, a possible reason for a quarter saying they were put off changing their heating system as they would not know where to begin (28%) or did not know what options were available to them (25%).

Decarbonising millions of homes is one of the most complex aspects of the government’s strategy to achieve net-zero by 2050, and it is clear there are a number of significant barriers preventing consumers from embracing these changes.

To help consumers make their homes more energy-efficient and reduce carbon emissions, more than eight in 10 (84%) told Which? that financial support in the form of grants and subsidies would be helpful.

A similar proportion of consumers also said they would support lower or zero tax on energy-efficient appliances (79%) and refurbishment/renovations (76%).

Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy, said:

“Decarbonising millions of homes within the next few decades is a mammoth task, and while the government has outlined ambitious plans to achieve this, many consumers are still in the dark about the potential cost of this transition and lack the right information to make decisions.

“Consumers will need a significant amount of support to transition to sustainable heating systems, and it is vital that the government’s net-zero policy includes provisions to help people navigate the complex and confusing heating market, through access to the right information, robust consumer protections and if needed, appropriate financial support.”

Notes to editor:

Which? surveyed 3,619 UK adults between 30th April and 2nd May 2021. Fieldwork was carried out online by Yonder and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).

Which?’s research will form part of a major report, due to be published in the next few weeks ahead of the government’s net-zero strategy, on how consumers must be supported in the transition to net-zero.

In episode five of the “Which? Investigates” podcast, host Greg Foot explores whether low carbon heating systems such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers are viable options for your home or whether their green credentials are being exaggerated. Listen here:

While consumers do not need to replace a working boiler yet, they should be aware of their short and long-term options:

  • Don’t rip out your boiler if it’s efficient – there are no plans to make anyone replace their boiler yet. Gas boilers will be replaced by low-carbon alternatives as part of the natural replacement cycle, so wait until your boiler needs replacing before deciding on the best system for your home.
  • Insulation keeps you warmer in winter and cooler in summer, but make sure that your home also has adequate ventilation. There are some DIY or low-cost upgrades that you can try first e.g. adding loft insulation, insulating your hot water tank (lagging), draught proofing around your doors and windows.
  • A good place to start is by narrowing down your options: If your home is off the gas grid in a rural area, a heat network or hydrogen grid is less likely to reach you. Running costs for a heat pump are likely to be similar to or less than oil or LPG heating.
  • If your home has outside space, room for a hot water cylinder, and an EPC rating C and above, consider a heat pump. They operate most efficiently and cost-effectively in well-insulated homes.
  • Heat-network zones and hydrogen trials will soon be underway, so take advantage if there’s one near you. Ask your local council about plans.
    Check whether the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) works for you. It’s due to be replaced in April 2022 by the Clean Heat Grant in England, Scotland and Wales, which proposes to offer up to £4,000 to install low-carbon heating, but the RHI may be a better option for some. Act now if you want to apply.

For decades, Which? has played a role in sustainability. We’re committed to championing sustainability for consumers and to being a credible source of expertise and advice on sustainable consumerism. More information is available here:

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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