Heat Networks: It’s Time For A Reality Check

A ceiling covered in HVAC piping The potential of heat networks to reduce carbon emissions is strong, but heating systems are only ever as good as they are built, operated and maintained to be. Too many are run sub-optimally, resulting in higher-than-necessary Bills and emissions or discomfort for building users, argues Andrew Leatherland, Installations Director at Insite Energy.

Given the quantity of systems, services and contractors that facilities managers are tasked with overseeing at any one time, they could be forgiven for not making their heat network their top priority. However, an inefficient heating system can have serious consequences for cost, comfort and carbon emissions. For example, a network operating at 50% efficiency with an incoming fuel tariff of 3p/kWh can easily end up costing up to 9p/kWh to run.

As well as causing headaches for facilities managers, this erodes confidence in heat networks. That’s problematic when you consider that, if the UK is to meet its 2050 net-zero carbon deadline, around 18% of our heat supply must come from communal heating – up from 2% in 2018. Facilities managers have a key role to play in ensuring the aims of heat network are realised, for the benefits of their users and the environment.

That means measuring and monitoring performance and fixing problems swiftly. But, without knowing the source of an issue, resolving it becomes a major feat, potentially causing a lot of expense and disruption. Measures such as check meters can partition a network into different identifiable areas, helping to pinpoint problems far more quickly and easily. Check meters are a valuable source of information and their correct use saves time and money.

Both the Heat Network (Metering & Billing) Regulations of 2014 and the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Code of Practice for the UK (CP1 2020) direct that multi-occupancy buildings should be metered at the heat exchanger or point of entry into each building. Yet, too often, this guidance isn’t followed. In our experience, only around 20% of heat networks have at least one check meter connected. This is a false economy, given a check meter costs only a few hundred pounds to procure and install.

Even where they are fitted, check meters often aren’t reliable enough to be used in place of industry-standard efficiency ratings. Frustratingly, this is often due to something as simple as incorrect labelling; it’s not clear what the data refers to. Or the meter is inaccessible or wrongly wired. By the time a building is fully occupied, and the facility manager needs to access the data, the developer has long gone.

Start by getting a qualified engineer to conduct a site survey, to ascertain what metering is already in place and in use, before ensuring any new or existing solution is usable and reliable. Your metering supplier should do this for you as part of their service. Meters should then be regularly serviced, recalibrated for accuracy and replaced at the end of their life (ten to 12 years for older models, up to 16 years for newer ones).

The people you hire will have a material impact on the quality of service and operational cost of your system, so don’t look for the cheapest deal. Seek out companies that have priced for the time and expertise needed to use plant-meter, end-meter and check-meter data to monitor performance and resolve issues. A provider that only performs basic maintenance will not offer best value in the long run.

So far, the government – keen to avoid any barriers that might impede the take-up of heat networks – has stopped short of mandating check meters. However, there’s a fine line between incentive and disincentive, particularly when a lack of enforcement undermines credibility and confidence. So, don’t be surprised if this changes soon.

Heat Networks: It’s Time For A Reality Check