‘I’d have been better off without a heat pump’: how to improve your home’s energy efficiency

energy efficient homes heat pump solar panels - French + Tye
energy efficient homes heat pump solar panels - French + Tye

Well before the current cost-of-living crisis hit, Philippe Hinchcliffe was convinced that the era of cheap fuel couldn’t last forever. His Victorian terrace was in need of updating and he decided to future-proof it against rising prices and climate change at the same time.

This meant upgrading its insulation, fitting solar panels, and ditching his energy guzzling old gas boiler in favour of the Government’s preferred alternative, an air source heat pump.

But having spent more than £40,000 on energy efficiency improvements, Mr Hinchcliffe is underwhelmed by the performance of most of the high tech pieces of kit he now owns. His message to others considering investing energy efficiency? Keep things simple.

“I think I would have been better off if I had stuck just to the basics,” he said.

Mr Hinchliffe, 55, a retired patent attorney, bought his house in Hackney, north-east London, in 2012. “It was a typical English house, and it was bloody freezing,” he said.

By 2017 he was ready to renovate and hired architects Outpost to design a kitchen extension and update the rest of the house.

During the nine-month build, double glazed windows were installed, at a cost of around £4,000 per window, and insulation was added in the loft and behind the walls for £2,000.

The trickiest part of the work was its eco centrepiece. “Getting a heat pump into an old English house is not easy, and it is not cheap,” he said. “I can’t see any government giving support for many people to do what I have done, and the results have really been only barely acceptable given the cost.”

The problem is that heat pumps do not work in isolation. In Mr Hinchcliffe’s house it required underfloor heating to be installed, bumping the cost up to £35,000. He then, on the advice of his plumber, spent around £5,000 on ceiling cooling panels, to guard against summer overheating, the same again on solar panels to provide hot water, and another £900 in a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system to circulate fresh air into the house.

This brought his total spending energy efficiency bill to around £47,000 – less government grants of around £7,000.
Cost aside, the key problem Mr Hinchliffe encountered was finding installers capable of fitting and setting up his systems.

When he bought his house its Energy Performance Certificate rating was E (estate agency Savills found that around 46pc of homes built before 1900 have a rating of E to G).

The costly work he had done pushed it up to an unspectacular C – which is particularly worrying for landlords since, from 2025, all rental properties must have at least a C rating. EPC ratings are based on average energy bills, taking into account the various features that have been installed.

At the start of this year, the energy bills for the house cost roughly £100 per month. By the end of the year he suspects they will be around £200 – low compared to many other people but still considerable, considering the amount invested.

He found that sometimes the small fixes make the biggest difference. “Frankly, I think triple glazing and then roof insulation and fitted carpets would be the most pragmatic solution in old houses,” said Mr Hinchcliffe.

‘What works in one house might not work in another’

That was the case for Liz and Dale Braithwait, too. When they and their two teenage daughters moved to their art deco house on the Kent Downs in 2009, the previous owners had already started to go down the energy efficiency route. They had installed a ground source heat pump beneath the lawn, providing heating and hot water, and a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system to disperse fresh air through the house year round.

They decided to make their house as efficient as possible and commissioned a £400 thermal imaging report to identify areas where heat was leaking out. “We found all these nooks and crannies which we could then stuff with insulation. We are not DIY-ers but we did most of it ourselves,” said Mrs Braithwait, who estimated the insulation cost another £200.

In those early years the couple found themselves on a learning curve. “Things like finding someone to service the heat pump was difficult,” she said. “We had to do a lot of the research ourselves, because what works in one house may not work in others, and you have to be able to understand enough to have a conversation with installers and companies.”

Liz Braithwait, photographed at her art deco home near Hythe in Kent - Clara Molden for The Telegraph
Liz Braithwait, photographed at her art deco home near Hythe in Kent - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Over the next few years the couple built an extension, clad in a Weberend MT weatherproof render, which added another protective layer and stays noticeably warmer than the original house. Their most expensive investment was an £8,500 array of solar panels on the roof which provide power during the daytime. Any excess is fed back into the grid.

The couple also paid attention to detail, switching to low energy lights. This cost around £5 per light, or £600 in total. They also chose internal doors with draught seals which drop down when they are closed – these added around £60 to the cost of each door.

In total the couple spent around £10,000 on energy efficiency upgrades. As a result, its EPC rating of E was raised to a C.

Despite this rise in efficiency, the couple are still expecting monthly fuel bills of around £300 by the end of the year.
This is “marginally” more than they used to pay, but since they have enlarged the size of their house considerably they are pretty pleased with the result. “We think we are paying roughly 40pc less than we would be if we hadn’t done the recent upgrades, and probably 60pc less than it would be if it was not updated at all,” said Mr Braithwait.

Liz and Dale Braithwait’s home is on sale with Strutt & Parker with a guide price of £1.6m - Strutt & Parker
Liz and Dale Braithwait’s home is on sale with Strutt & Parker with a guide price of £1.6m - Strutt & Parker

Having spent 11 years creating their cosy, efficient, and rather stylish family home they should be sitting pretty. But they have decided to move on, and their three ponies are to blame. The family wants to move somewhere with land for the equines and so their house is on sale with Strutt & Parker with a guide price of £1.6m.

‘We were pumping heat in, and leaking it straight out’

As autumn moves into winter Eleanor van Heyningen and her husband Benet Coulber are waiting to find out how their home’s recently completed energy efficiency upgrade will hold up to the weather this winter. The couple bought their five-bedroom Victorian terrace in West Norwood, south London, 15 years ago, and share it with their two daughters.

“It was cold in the winter, energy guzzling and draughty,” said Ms van Heyningen. “We were pumping heat in, and it was leaking straight out.”

The couple wanted to enlarge their kitchen, and generally update the house, and hired architect Harry Paticas, of the non-profit Retrofit Action for Tomorrow, to assist.

“He really encouraged us to think about how we could insulate the house and move away from gas central heating and make it a more sustainable place to live,” said Ms van Heyningen. This involved replacing single glazed windows with triple glazed aluminium and wood windows which cost around £1,700 each.

Eleanor van Heyningen pictured at her house, West Norwood - Rii Schroer
Eleanor van Heyningen pictured at her house, West Norwood - Rii Schroer

Inside, the walls were stripped back to brick and lined with wood fibre insulation before being replastered at a cost of circa £26,000, including new lime render and paintwork. Extra insulation was added in the floor and loft, which cost around £7,000. And a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system was installed to pump fresh air around the property, which added another £9,000.

Then the couple opted for a £15,000 air source heat pump to provide heating and hot water (part subsidised by the Government’s now obsolete Green Homes Grant).

This also meant replacing their old radiators with larger ones and installing underfloor heating installed in the kitchen, bringing the total eco cost of the year-long project, which was completed in spring, to more than £60,000.

So far things are looking good. Hot water is plentiful, and their heating works well. But it won’t be until their current energy tariff expires that they will know how much their fuel bills will come to.

“I am not expecting tiny bills, because we still use plenty of electricity, but I do expect them to be lower than they would have been, and we are mitigating our environmental impact which is also important to us,” she said.