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Heat pump knowledge helps electrical firms harness the potential of renewables

Plumbing firm boss reveals benefits of heat pumps for electrical businesses

Lachlan at work with a heat pump

Lachlan McInnes provided the heating engineer’s viewpoint at some of our recent Toolbox Talks, where he urged electricians to embrace air source heat pumps and associated technologies as soon as they can to avoid missing the potential of renewables as the sector quickly grows. He can understand that electricians are currently busy with conventional work, and they may be put off by the admin of planning installations, but with the Scottish Government committing to replacing gas boilers on new properties with renewable options after April 2024, he says the opportunities are enormous.

Here, cabletalk speaks to the SNIPEF member whose Inverness-based company the McInnes Group is training its own electricians to take advantage of the growing market for installing air source heat pumps and associated renewable technologies.

How did you first get interested in renewables?

When I was starting out in my business in 2010, I was finding it very tough to compete with established gas engineers in the area because they could offer much better incentives and longer warranties than I could.

That’s why I started to look into the new renewable technologies that were developing at the time, such as biomass boilers, solar PV and air source heat pumps, and which were promoted by government subsidies.

To get on top of the technology, I actually went back to college to get my BPEC qualifications in how to install the systems and, although it took a couple of years for the business to pick up, this decision has really paid off. Now I employ 36 people and the majority of my business involves installing a whole range of renewable packages for both commercial and high-end private residences. The biggest problem now is finding electricians, particularly those that have the understanding of this new technology – that’s why I employ and train my own electricians within the company.

Lachlan discussed the potential benefits of heat pump installations for electrical contractors at our recent Toolbox Talks

What was your experience of installing heat pumps at the beginning?

To be honest, the first air source heat pump I installed around 10 years ago was a bit of a nightmare as there was little support to draw on. We had to work out things ourselves and I admit we made some mistakes, from the design of the installation to ordering the wrong materials or not completing the forms properly. Any mistakes were fully rectified at our cost. It’s all about getting experience under your belt.

However, it’s not like that any more; the training offered by manufacturers is much better and there’s a lot of support available as the technologies have become more common.

Why do you believe that renewables are a great opportunity for electricians?

In the early days, we would sub-contract an electrician for the installation but we had to give them guidance on what to do, as very few of them were experienced in the technology.

But today, the installation of this technology, particularly the air source heat pumps, is heavily weighted to the electrical side. When I first started installing them, it was 50% on the mechanical installation side, but now, if you undertake a full renewable install with an air source heat pump, PV, batteries and EV chargers it’s around 80% electrical. That’s why there is a huge potential for electrical contractors to get into the market.

“For sparkies, the wider opportunity is enormous, particularly as a growing number of installations that we’re doing involve a package of renewable technologies such as EV chargers, solar panels, batteries and air source heat pumps”

What do electricians need to know about working with renewable technologies?

From a technical sense, they obviously need to understand the product they are installing; what electrical supply it needs, the type of isolators and cables to use and, in terms of air source heat pumps, they would obviously need to sub-contract a plumber for part of the installation.

It’s important to work out the amps of the house, and then decide whether to raise a notification to National Grid/Energy Networks Association to increase the load. You’ve also got to make sure the property’s got the right size breaker and that the earth is up to standard. You also need to check if there is space for sub boards if you need them, and that’s just on the air source heat pumps because it gets more complex when a customer wants multiple renewable technologies installed such as PV solar panels, batteries, etc.

So, you can see that there’s quite a lot on the installation side that electricians need to know about before they start work, and this is the vital aspect of working with renewables, but it’s all within an electrician’s experience to do this.

Why do you think more electricians are not entering this sector?

I think one of the biggest barriers to electricians getting into the market is the pre-installation planning and paperwork; it’s admin heavy and you need to do the admin up front. Most electricians, like plumbers, want to be out in the field working, not stuck in the office.

Lachlan has embraced the changing nature of his business

Why should electricians get into the sector now?

Air source heat pumps and associated renewable technologies are not a passing fad – they are inevitable now that the Scottish Government has committed itself to phasing out gas boilers after 2024. I think that most electricians are incredibly busy at the moment with current work and they have not had time to look at the potential of this sector yet.

The government has gone all-in on renewables, so if electricians avoid it for too long, they’ll come to a point where there’ll be no incentives for customers and no help for training – it will soon become a mature market and there’ll be more people in it to compete with. That’s what happened with me in the gas market in the early days – I could not compete with the established players. However, the renewables market now is better established but it’s also still evolving, so it’s a good time to get started in it, particularly as there is a great shortage of quality installers at present.

What’s your message to electricians?

Don’t get left behind! I would say for sparkies, the wider opportunity is enormous, particularly as a growing number of installations that we are doing involve a package of renewable technologies such as EV chargers, solar panels, batteries and air source heat pumps. The only mechanical aspect of the installation of an air source heat pump is the plumbing part, everything else is electrical. So, the market for air source heat pumps and integrated renewables is probably the biggest opportunity for electricians over the next 10-15 years.


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