The challenge to find real savings

Heating technology is adapting to match environmental aspirations and the pressing need to deliver real running cost savings as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, says Ron Barker, Group Product Manager at Ideal Commercial Heating.

This year is set to be a pivotal year for the commercial heating sector as end users react to an exciting cocktail of market drivers. They are clinging to their environmental aspirations, but are also juggling with tighter budgets and onerous legislative requirements. So, they want solutions that are quick and cost-effective as well as energy saving.

Commercial landlords have woken up to the business opportunities offered by building system refurbishments. They had been holding back as they could not see a way of passing on the cost, but now we are starting to see premium rents being charged for the most energy efficient premises. This, tied to the running cost savings, is a positive double whammy for a property firm’s bottom line.

Finding funding

The Carbon Trust says that reducing carbon emissions from offices by a third by 2020 would save UK businesses £4bn in running costs. They quote upgrading heating as one of a series of simple and low cost measures that should be quickly and widely applied.

As a result, developers and commercial property owners are now looking to raise the money needed to carry out the necessary works. The Government’s Green Deal, which kicks in next year, is one potential source of funding and works on the principle that the loan is repaid from the energy savings achieved – so delivering what we promise is critical.

At the same time, it seems likely that the Government will step up pressure on end users to comply with legislation designed to cut energy use in buildings. Communities and Local Government Minister Andrew Stunnell believes the key to delivering a low carbon built environment is: “Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement”. He has also suggested that the 2013 revisions to the Building Regulations could be brought forward by a year.

So far nobody has ever been prosecuted for non-compliance with Parts L and F of the Regulations, but that could well change in 2011 – even if local authorities simply choose one or two test cases to make an example of someone. After all, there is little point having legislation if it is not enforced.

Much of our regulation originates in Brussels and, currently, the European Commission is re-casting the European Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) with the new version due to come into use next year. It is designed to tackle the 40% of all energy use across the EU that is accounted for by buildings. European legislators believe that half of it could be saved through simple energy saving measures.

Planned changes to the EPBD include the removal of the size threshold so that energy efficiency improvements will now apply to all buildings; the requirement for all public buildings to prominently display building energy labels; the harmonisation of training programmes for installation and inspection, and the mandatory requirements for landlords to inform tenants about what improvements should be carried out. Future UK legislation will follow this trajectory.

The objective is to reduce the primary energy used in Europe by 20% by 2020. Commercial buildings account for 30% of all energy use, which is why the legislation is zeroing in on building occupants and their facilities managers.

This has obvious implications for the UK commercial boiler market. Our sector is under pressure to deliver solutions that help clients meet their obligations – but we are equally focused on helping them save money. In the year 2009-2010, the UK market for commercial condensing boilers grew by around 1% in an otherwise static market, because building users recognise that condensing boilers offer a commercial benefit. While efficiency and lower running costs are key targets met by high efficiency boilers, the new generation of condensing boilers offer additional benefits to building managers because they are smaller, often save floor space by being wall-hung, and are easier and less expensive to install.

Meeting targets

Condensing boilers are seen as one of the best and most practical ways of meeting carbon emission reduction targets and satisfying the requirements of Part L. However, practical installation issues are often equally attractive to building managers looking to reduce running costs, but in a way that does not cost them an arm and a leg and also minimises disruption to the day-to-day operation of their buildings.

The cost of energy is now high on the financial agenda. When accountants start seriously considering the rival benefits of different boiler technologies, you know something serious is afoot – and that is just what is happening now. They recognise that big, green statement solutions might make them look good, but often the less glamorous behind the scenes changes will save them more energy, more quickly and more cheaply.

However whilst the latest condensing boilers undoubtedly provide the most efficient technology, when replacing an old boiler there are likely to be other changes required to ensure the long-term efficiency potential is achieved and this must be budgeted for. Financial directors may find these more difficult to justify unless they take the trouble to understand why they are necessary.

It is often true that a new condensing boiler will work well and generate heat if simply plumbed in to replace an old boiler, but it will operate with no more efficiency than a boiler 10 years older, unless it is provided with the latest support system and electronics that allow it to operate at its optimum performance level.

A boiler will condense only when the controls and system allow it to, and, crucially, when the return temperature is maintained below 50°C. Many existing systems have not been designed to support the benefits of condensing boilers. Since more than 70% of current installations are replacements rather than new installations, the majority of installations will need alteration and appropriate new controls.

Then there is system dirt to consider. When an older boiler is taken out, especially if maintenance budgets have been restricted by recession and hard times, there may be a lot of sludge and debris in the system. Modern heat exchangers are much more compact than they used to be and system cleansing followed by treatment is required when installed on an older system. Older systems were designed for an 11°C temperature differential, whereas modern condensing boilers usually require a 20°C differential. The altered system temperatures and flow rates must be considered together with any effect on existing heat emitter performance.

These technical factors are nothing for our industry or our clients to fear. They fall into the category of simple energy saving measures identified by European law makers – certainly in comparison to some of the more exotic solutions being offered in some quarters. They are also relatively quick and easy to achieve in existing buildings where the main thrust of energy saving strategies is now aimed.

As we seek to modernise our building stock, we must start at the beginning and that means tackling more obvious sources of energy loss first. It is an exciting and challenging time for our industry, but the drivers for upgrading heating systems have never been more obvious.

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